2021 Reading: Full-time Report

This is a second half of two halves. In the first three months, my reading patterns were as normal, two or three books on the go at any one time, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, of high, low and middle brow, of different genres. On 9 October everything changed, for ever. My husband’s sudden death left me shell-shocked, devastated. I could not concentrate enough to read anything demanding – indeed, for a week or so I read nothing at all, a completely unprecedented state. When I felt able to read again I had to pick very carefully, and I started and discarded any number of books that I would normally relish. The variation in length and depth of the reviews which follow largely depends on whether I had completed and made some notes on the book before, or after.

As always, I aim to avoid spoilers but read on at your own risk. As always, my aim is to share my enthusiasms, so I’ve missed out one or two books about which I could only have said negative things. That doesn’t mean an unqualified recommendation for everything I read this year but I think it will be clear where I have major caveats…

James Baldwin – Going to Meet the Man/Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

I read the former, a collection of short stories, a very long time ago, so they seem only faintly familiar (and some of the themes and ideas obviously are in the novels too) but the joy in reading Baldwin’s prose, and dialogue, is something I will never tire of. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is probably my favourite story – it taps into the church and musical environments which stimulated some of Baldwin’s most beautiful writing. But there is no beauty in the brilliant title story – just horror, plainly told.  Tell Me… is classic Baldwin, exploring race and sexuality with candour and courage. It is, as he so often is, deeply moving.

Laurent Binet – HHhH

This was fascinating. I can’t imagine how one could make the story of the Anthropoid mission to assassinate Heydrich boring, even if one just recounted the facts. But what Binet does is to interrogate his own processes as a writer, to tell us a story and then cast doubt on it, to question his own motives in writing about Heydrich himself (is he becoming unhealthily fascinated with this man?). I find fiction about the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities inherently problematic – why tell fictionalised stories when the real stories still need telling, and re-telling – but this confronts the problem head on, acknowledges the invention as such, but in so doing gives us a powerful and vivid account of extraordinary, tragic events.

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Not so long back I read Nella Larson’s Passing, which was my first (fictional) encounter with the phenomenon of passing for white. This powerful novel brings that to life through the portrayal of two twins, both of whom could pass, and the decisions they both make. I had absorbed from Larson’s account the constant agony of those who decided to pass, the hyperconsciousness of everything they say and do, the fear of exposure. What this account gave me, in addition, was the way in which the person passing for white is forced to identify more strongly with their white neighbours, and avoid all contact with black people for fear that they, somehow, would sense the pretence and expose them. It’s a brilliant, complex picture of racial politics at the personal level, through two generations, and it will stay with me for a long time.

Susannah Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell/Piranesi

I’d seen the TV dramatization of JS & Mr N – which was very good – but the book was even better. And then Piranesi was on a whole other level. I don’t really know how to talk about the book before going back and re-reading it again. It is beautiful, mysterious and moving, without losing the dry humour that was so much a part of its predecessor. And I’m a sucker for labyrinths, so there’s that. Nods to Narnia, echoes of Le Guin. One of my books of the year, without a doubt. Just read it, OK?

Harlan Coben – Win

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

What a delight. For anyone who enjoys Coe’s writing, for anyone fascinated by cinema, or who’s ever seen a Billy Wilder movie. I knew a bit about Wilder’s life and have seen several of his films, including Fedora, which is at the heart of the narrative, and this casts a fascinating light on him and his sidekick Iz Diamond. A warm, humorous and touching novel.

Abigail Dean – Girl A

I was afraid this was going to be a harrowing account of abusive parenting and I guess it is but it is far more the account of the aftermath, of how one learns – tries to learn – to live again, to love oneself and other people, to trust, through the account of ‘Girl A’. Reminders of Room, though it’s structured very differently, going back to the awful past, and then to the aftermath of escape, and then to the present.

Len Deighton – Berlin Game

Having nearly run out of unread Le Carrés, I thought I’d revisit Deighton, by whom I’ve read a fair few over the years, but not this series. Thoroughly enjoyable, will read more.

Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle

I do love a bit of alt. history, especially WWII related. I’m surprised therefore that I never read this, during my sci-fi phase in my late teens/early 20s, but I think I only ever read Do Androids…. This was excellent – the depiction of the alt. US is thoroughly thought through and convincing and the ending turns everything inside out. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation, but I suspect it’s very different. Might give it a watch at some point.

Eva Dolan – After You Die

The fourth in the gripping, Peterborough set Zigic & Ferreira series, set in a Hate Crimes unit.

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

A powerful, uncomfortable read. None of the characters are exactly likeable, but they are convincingly drawn and the narrative plays with, if not our sympathies, at least our willingness to be convinced by them.

Margaret Drabble – Pure Gold Baby

I hadn’t read any Drabble for about 30 years. That was a re-read of The Millstone, and I recall it vividly, sitting in our garden, and reading about the protagonist’s experience of having a sick child in hospital and being excluded from being by her side. I’d just been through that, the first part of that, but I’d been cared for by the hospital, and had been able to be with my son throughout (I also had a partner, unlike Rosamund). This new book shouts out to The Millstone – its central character is a single parent, with a child who has some learning/developmental disability, never clearly defined. At one point, she recalls the way in which she was expected to think about her child, as a ‘millstone’. She doesn’t, the child is her pure gold baby. We follow Jess and her daughter through the decades as the narrator, a close friend, shares not only what happened, but the debates and discussions that the group of friends had about mental health and women’s lives and love and parenthood. I loved it.

Helen Fields – Perfect Prey

I’ve been reading these in entirely the wrong order, but this is the second in the DI Callanach series.

Jo Furniss – The Last to Know

I’ve read the previous two of Furniss’ books, the post-apocalypse All the Little Children, the psychological thriller The Trailing Spouse, and now this one, which has a very strong Gothic flavour about it. The set up is familiar – a married couple return to his family home, and the wife feels immediately an atmosphere of threat which leads her to doubt everything she thinks she knows about her husband. It’s nicely, and not too predictably, worked out, and Furniss builds up the tension very effectively.

Amitav Ghosh – Flood of Fire

Final volume in the Ibis trilogy which was just fantastic, exhilarating, teeming with characters and landscapes and plot and historical detail, and sweeping the reader along with the narrative.

Lesley Glaister – Blasted Things

Glaister never lets me down. Most of her novels have a contemporary setting but this one pitches us right into the horrors of a WWI field hospital, and then the conventionality of a 1920s middle-class marriage. The brutality of the first and the claustrophobia of the second are skilfully conveyed, and the characters are vivid and multi-dimensional. At times I thought I could see where the plot was leading but I was invariably wrong. I’d like to re-read this to savour the writing, as my concentration is still shot and I have a tendency to race through books to get the plot.

Winston Graham – Ross Poldark/Demelza/Jeremy Poldark/Warleggan/Black Moon

Post-bereavement binge reading. I’d never read the Poldark series, but was content to revisit the plot familiar to me from the recent TV series, and to conjure up mental images of the Cornish coastline.

Elly Griffiths – The Midnight Hour

The latest Brighton mystery, with police and private detectives working together to solve a crime. As always, Griffiths’ novels are a delight.

Susan Hill – A Change of Circumstance

The latest Simon Serrailer novel.

Nick Hornby – Juliet Naked

I did feel ‘seen’, as they say, whilst reading this. Musical obsessions, the kind that make one track down an alternative mix or a rare bootleg live recording because it has an extra few notes from the object of one’s obsession, yes, thank you, we know about that. Very funny, and rather touching too.

Katherine Ryan Howard – 56 Days

Writing about the pandemic is tricky, given where we are now. I’ve seen TV programmes take various tacks – ignore, nod to it with the occasional shot of masked shoppers or whatever, or set something in the build up to ‘all this’ (see Series 2 of This Way Up). This one goes for it – the narrative starts in mid-pandemic but darts back to the days when we were talking about it but with no idea of what was to come – and really uses the ideas of lockdown and isolation to drive the plot forward. Very intriguing and tense and took me by surprise at a number of points.

Stephen King – Billy Summers

King, it would be pretty uncontroversial to say, is on a roll. His recent books are amongst his very best, and his embrace of the crime genre (even when he turns it to his own purposes) has helped to overcome the one problem with his fiction, the endings. This one is completely gripping throughout.

John Lanchester – The Wall

I had no idea what to expect of this, having downloaded it on the strength of Capital. We’re in a future Britain, changed irrevocably because of climate change (the past events which have created this new version of the world are only touched upon lightly, we have to accept this world as it is, with its rules and structures).

John le Carré – The Tailor of Panama

This was the book I was reading at the point when my life changed completely. I bear it no particular grudge, but would need to re-read before reviewing its place in the Le Carré oeuvre.

Laura Lippman – Dream Girl

Lippman possibly channelling King here (I won’t say which King, because that might be slightly spoilery). As always, superbly written.

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

This one is a heartbreaker. Majumdar gives the reader hope and then snatches it away, over and over. Beautifully done, and the three voices that we hear are clear and convincing, however flawed their characters and perspectives.

Jennifer Makumbi – Manchester Happened

A fascinating collection of short stories about migration, specifically between Uganda and Manchester, that illuminate many different perspectives. I was particularly taken with the first story, set in the early 50s, as I’ve been doing a PhD on a novel written at that time, and set in Manchester (Passing Time – I may have mentioned it once or twice)

Klaus Mann – Mephisto

This isn’t a fun read – it’s bitter, cynical, despairing. How could it be other, written as it was by an exile from Nazi Germany, in 1936? It is based very much on real people (Goering, Goebbels and their wives, future Hollywood star Elisabeth Bergner, and many others), and got Mann into difficulties when the model for central character Hendrik Hofgens objected vigorously to Mann’s portrayal of him as someone who made a pact with the devil, in exchange for fame and success…

Denise Mina – The End of the Wasp Season

Mina’s crime novels are always unsettling and this is no exception. She wrongfooted me several times during this narrative, but not just for the sake of it.

Erich Maria Remarque – Arch of Triumph

I read a lot of Remarque during my teens (starting in the obvious place with All Quiet, but particularly enjoying his novels set between the wars, Three Comrades, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, A Night in Lisbon. This one powerfully conveys the life of people who’ve ended up in Paris in those precarious days, without documents. Coincidentally, it reminded me that I had the remnants of a bottle of Calvados at the back of a pantry shelf. I no longer have those remnants.

C J Sansom – Heartstone/Lamentation

Two Shardlake historical detective novels. I enjoy these, although sometimes the style grates (too much ‘he said sadly/she said quietly/he said grimly’ and a bit too much of people telling each other the history)

Elif Shafak – 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World

A strange one, this. The narratives of our protagonist, who is dead when we first meet her, but whose memories take 10 minutes, 38 seconds to fade, and she shares them with us, as she passes from one world to another, and of her loyal friends, all of them people who for one reason or another are on the margins, are powerful and moving. The tone changes in the final act, becomes almost comedic, which is strange.

Ali Smith – How to be Both

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this, with the shifting tenses and then the shifting timeframes and perspectives, but as with all of Ali Smith’s work, it’s worth the effort, and will be worth re-reading.

Zadie Smith – Swingtime

I still haven’t quite come to terms with Zadie Smith, but I enjoyed this one more than NW. There was something troubling about the portrayal of Tracey and her mum though, a hint of snobbery?

Cath Staincliffe – Running out of Road

Not for the first time, Staincliffe made me hold my breath for long stretches of narrative.

Stuart Turton – The Devil and the Dark Water

A vividly written historical thriller, set on the high seas, with a supernatural (is it or isn’t it?) thread. Very vividly written

Nicola Upson – Sorry for the Dead/An Expert in Murder/Angel with Two Faces/Two for Sorrow/Fear in the Sunlight/The Death of Lucy Kyte

Post-bereavement binge reading of a series in which the real-life crime writer/dramatist Josephine Tey is the protagonist in various fictional murders.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – Lolly Willowes

Dorothy Whipple – High Wages

I loved this, my second Whipple. A resourceful young woman as our hero, and the crushing weight of social conventions at the time (written in 1930).

Chris Whitaker – We Begin at the End

An absolutely gripping and moving crime thriller, with a compelling young female hero.

Non-Fiction

Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller – The Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan

Carole Angier – Speak Silence: In Search of W G Sebald

The first biography of W G Sebald, hampered somewhat by its author not having the cooperation of Sebald’s wife or daughter. This does mean that a lot of it is very speculative and dependent on sources whose reliability we might reasonably question. There’s lots of new information here, however, and some useful insights.

James Baldwin – The Last Interview

Anthony Burgess – Obscenity & the Arts

Ciaran Carson – Belfast Confetti

I discovered this poet accidentally through my PhD researches, which brought up a remarkable poem, ‘Turn Around’, about maps and labyrinths.

Kate Clanchy – Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me

Oh boy, where to start. I read this having already seen some of the negative comments on Twitter, but also having read many of the poems that Clanchy has posted from the young poets she’s worked with, and found them very striking, and moving. She is trying, I think, in Some Kids, to let us see the diversity of these young people in all its glory, but there’s something very off-key about the way she describes them, and ultimately it was a very uncomfortable read.

Teju Cole – Known & Strange Things: Essays

Dan Davies – In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile       

If I say that this is the one book I’ve read so far this year that made me feel physically sick, it is no reflection on the author or the writing. It’s a response to his subject. I felt a sense of hopelessness in reading it, at the opportunities to stop him that were missed, through bad luck or deliberate blindness, or corruption. It’s a shocking read, rightly so.

Grant Graff – The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

An extraordinary account of 9/11, built from the words of those who experienced it, directly or vicariously as they waited to hear from people they loved, including the transcripts of phone calls from the planes and other emergency calls. It’s fascinating, often heartbreaking, and sheds new light on an event that we might all feel we know, because those images are so ubiquitous and burned into our memories.

Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

Leo Marks – Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945

The memoir of a man who was key to the code-setting and code-breaking activities during the war, and who knew most of the SOE operatives who were sent into France. It’s self-deprecating, with a wry humour, but Marks speaks movingly and powerfully of the tragedy of what happened to those young men and women.

Ben MacIntyre – Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II

An account of one of the more improbable seeming exploits of British intelligence during the war – a corpse, bearing apparent secrets that were meant to deceive the enemy.

Caitlin Moran – More than a Woman

Ridiculously funny, but also very moving when Moran talks about her daughter’s eating disorder. It doesn’t always resonate with me – for starters, I’m much further ahead on that journey than Moran or probably much of her intended readership – but when it does, it really does.

Mary Oliver – American Primitive

I chose ‘In Blackwater Woods’ for my husband’s funeral ceremony. ‘To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go’.

Kavita Puri – Partition Voices: Untold British Stories

First hand accounts from the Partition of India and Pakistan. Harrowing and haunting.

Philippe Sands – The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

Reads like a thriller, the account of a senior Nazi who escaped arrest after the war, but it never loses sight of what Otto Wachter was responsible for, and Sands draws out the connections between Wachter and the fate of his own family.

Kate Vigurs – Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

SOE again. I’ve been fascinated by these stories since I was a teenager, watching old black & white films – Odette, and Carve her Name with Pride. This is a much less romanticised account than those films gave, and doesn’t shy away from the extent to which naivety or over-confidence led to some of the tragedies which befell the agents.

Isobel Wilkerson – The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

I thought I knew nothing about the Great Migration, but reading this gripping account, I realised that everything I’ve read about the African-American experience in the 20th century, fictional and non-fictional, has had this at the core. Fascinating.

Reading has always been my solace as well as my inspiration. It will be again, even if for now I’m reluctant to tackle anything too challenging, or anything which might come too close to my own grief and loss.

My two novels of the year are Jon McGregor’s Lean, Fall, Stand, and Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi.  In non-fiction, I’ll pick Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking, an account of the early months of the pandemic, and Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors, about child survivors of the Holocaust. (Both are reviewed in my half-time report.)

Thank you to all of the writers whose work has entertained, comforted, amazed, intrigued and in whatever other ways enriched me in 2021.

  1. Love, persevering (thoughts on 2021) | Passing Time

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