I’ve read a lot less so far this year than in the first half of 2021 – half as many books, in fact – despite the fact that back then I was intensively working on my PhD thesis, trying to finish and submit it by the end of the summer (spoiler – I did, and was awarded the doctorate in May 2022). My ability to concentrate, and to sleep well enough at night not to fall asleep over a book in the daytime, is still impaired following the loss of my husband, but for several months of this year was also limited by the painful aftermath of knee surgery. However, I did read (and the flip side of the surgery recovery was relative inactivity), and it’s a reasonably eclectic selection. As always, I try to avoid spoilers, but you takes your chances if you read on. And, as always, I have missed one or two books out that really weren’t worth drawing anyone’s attention to. I haven’t picked out a winner from this half-year’s crop, but I have starred those books which had the greatest impact on me and which I’m most eager to share.
Ben Aaronovitch – Amongst Our Weapons
The latest in the funny, engaging and often rather magical (yes, it’s about magic, but there are so many moments that achieve that, rather than just describing it) Rivers of London series. The interface between ‘the weird stuff’ and regular policing never fails to entertain (e.g. the senior copper who won’t take any lip from witnesses, whatever they say they’re the god of).
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Very, very unsettling. Especially when, whilst I was reading it, on holiday with friends, we had an episode when none of us could get internet on our phones, and there was this weird looking cloud up ahead… Can say no more without spoilers but it’s excellent and unnerving.
J L Carr – A Month in the Country*
This is beautiful. A tender gem of a book. There’s joy here, something almost magical in the uncovering of the long-hidden mural, which mirrors the gradual revelations about some of the characters, but there’s such deep sadness too. Remarkable.
Sinead Crowley – Can Anybody Help Me?
A decent thriller, with an interesting setting, in the world of ‘mumsnet’ type fora, where people seek reassurance and online friendship via online identities, but end up giving away more about themselves than they intend.
Will Dean – Black River
Third outing for Dean’s deaf female detective, Tuva Moodyson. It’s a dark and gripping tale, the lead character is fascinating and I will certainly find the first two in the series and then read on.
Maurizio de Giovanni – The Bastards of Pizzofalcone
Hard-boiled Naples-set Italian crime. The series has been compared to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which we read voraciously for years (it may still be going on, I’m not sure, with Steve Carella et al mysteriously un-aged). There’s an earlier novel, The Crocodile, which I haven’t read, but must do so.
Bernardine Evaristo – Mr Loverman
This is lovely – we see our hero through his own eyes and through those of other people close to him, and he isn’t who he initially seems to be. There is warmth and humour and real sadness, and one ends up kind of rooting for all of the characters, even when they’re most at odds with each other.
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop*
Low-key and heartbreaking, and beautifully written. The initial reviews when this appeared in 1979 were screechingly condescending – ‘a harmless, conventional little anecdote’, according to The Times – but there have been more discerning readers since. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple – it may appear gentle but it’s razor sharp.
Alan Garner – Treaclewalker*
Every Alan Garner book brings with it echoes from every other Alan Garner book, including his memoir, Where Shall We Run To? It’s all part of this rich weave of folk tales, childhood memories, of place and landscape. His style is as spare as ever and the rhythms of his writing as mesmerising as ever.
Winston Graham – Poldark
I started binge reading the Poldark series (which, surprisingly, I never read during my historical fiction obsessed teens), after my husband died and I needed reading matter that was not going to challenge or break me. They are very well written, and clearly well researched, the plots were familiar from the more recent TV adaptation (at least for the first five of the series), and very enjoyable.
Elly Griffiths – The Locked Room
The latest Ruth Galloway novel, set just at the start of the pandemic, which is beautifully well handled and conveys the strangeness and the anxiety of that time.
Robert Harris – Enigma/The Fear Index/Pompeii/The Second Sleep
I had a bit of a binge on Robert Harris, evidently. They’re all very different. Enigma fed into my long-standing fascination with WWII codebreaking, with a plot blending actual events with invention, but thoroughly researched and much better than the film of the book. The Fear Index is a highly intriguing contemporary thriller, however probable or otherwise its central premiss may be. Pompeii is, unsurprisingly, a historical account of the destruction of the city, which gives us not only the individual and social dramas, but the scientific background too, whether in terms of volcanic eruptions, or the engineering of water supplies – gripping and fascinating, even though of course we know what’s coming. The Second Sleep is most intriguing – I won’t say anything about the plot because you have to read it and pick up on the subtle hints and clues before things become clear (and if anyone reads this and Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, which I talk about below, there’s a surprising link).
Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley
‘As an evocation of place and a lost way of life, Harrison’s novel is astonishing, as potent and irresistible as a magic spell’, as the Guardian reviewer puts it. But there’s nothing romantic or sentimentalised about it, and there are darker undercurrents as national politics starts to infiltrate the life of the countryside.
Tayari Jones – Silver Sparrow/Leaving Atlanta*
I read An American Marriage last year, and loved it, so I followed it up with these two. Silver Sparrow explores the lives of two sisters, who share a bigamous father. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘moving, intimate and wise’. Leaving Atlanta was Jones’ debut and is a response to the Atlanta child murders (see also James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen), drawing on her childhood in that city at the time. It’s compelling and dark, and offers a different, child-centred insight into these strange and deeply troubling crimes.
Philip Kazan – The Black Earth
A bow drawn at a venture, but I very much enjoyed this account of WWII in Greece (about which I knew very little) and the internecine battles which engulfed the country so that the bloodshed didn’t end with the end of the war. It’s got a romance at its heart, but it’s not romantic fiction, it’s well constructed, dark and gritty.
Barbara Kingsolver – The Bean Trees
Kingsolver’s debut. Well worth reading, though it’s kind of softer than some of her later work, verging on sentimental.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano*
A friend told me this was his absolute all-time favourite book, and I had to admit I’d never read it. I have now remedied that, and I can entirely see how one could become lost in it, and obsessed with it. I would not dream of offering any insights without a re-read, but I can still summon up its woozy, shifting realities and its deep sadness.
Val McDermid – 1979
One can practically smell the cigarette smoke in this thriller set in a newspaper office in, oddly enough, 1979. McDermid at the top of her game. I love all her work, except for the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series which I have never got on with. Soz Val – that still leaves a lot for me to enjoy!
Dervla McTiernan – The Murder Rule
I was disappointed in this, having enjoyed a couple of her others (The Ruin and The Scholar) very much. This is a stand-alone, and the setting is the US rather than Ireland. Neither the plot nor the characters entirely convinced me, I’m afraid.
Sarah Moss – The Fell*
One of my favourite contemporary novelists, and this is a remarkable, powerful novel. It’s set mid-pandemic, with one character shielding, another self-isolating after contact with Covid, and it explores subtly and sensitively the sense of ‘accumulating dread’ as Moss puts it. But the dread is less of Covid itself, more of the effects of isolation and confinement. Beautifully written, with the voices of the four protagonists creating ‘polyphonic momentum’.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Fair Maiden
A troubling tale, with echoes of Lolita, which was widely regarded as a disappointment from Oates. I think I agree – I’m not sure what she was attempting here (a reworking/reimagining of Lolita? To what purpose?). It is of course well written and the protagonist (the ‘fair maiden’) is an excellent creation.
Rob Palk – Animal Lovers
Very funny, and very touching. Palk has a delicious turn of phrase, but never lets the comedic elements turn the characters into mere jokes or caricatures.
Philip Pullman – Serpentine
This novella is set between the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust. It seems slight, but it sheds light on the troubled relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon. Eagerly awaiting the final part of the second trilogy…
Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men
I have read the Rebus novels in an entirely random order, and thought I had read this already but it turns out the plot is familiar from the TV adaptation – it matters not, I’m absorbed and entertained.
Donal Ryan – Strange Flowers
Ryan writes with such beauty and tenderness, about people and about landscape. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story within the story, which took me out of the narrative that I was fully invested in, rather than enriching it or shedding light on it. But it’s a fine novel, even with that caveat, and will stay with me.
Sunjeev Sahota – China Room
I’ve read both of Sahota’s previous novels, and this one didn’t disappoint. Much of it is set in the 1920s, with a contemporary plot woven through, and it’s quite different in pace and tone to its predecessors. Subtly powerful and very moving.
Elizabeth Strout – Oh, William!*
Oh, Elizabeth! I thought I might have got used to Strout’s writing, and that it might therefore affect me less. I was mistaken. As always, her narratives overlap with one another and so we meet or hear of people and stories from other books, and with every novel the tapestry becomes richer. As the Guardian’s reviewer says, ‘the intense pleasure of Strout’s writing becomes the simple joy of learning more while – always – understanding less. “We are all mysterious, is what I mean,” says Lucy towards the close of this novel, leaving us already hungry for the next one’.
Russ Thomas – Firewatching
Sheffield set crime, very dark. This is Thomas’s debut and I will look out for more from him. The plot is complex, as are the characters, but it’s not driven, as far too many thrillers are, by the need to include ‘an incredible twist which you’ll never guess’. (That’s a bugbear of mine. Twist away, but it’s got to work with the plot and the characters, rather than just blasting in from nowhere simply to make us gasp.)
Lesley Thomson – The House with no Rooms
The fourth in the Detective’s Daughter series. The two leads are each decidedly odd, and not in the classic ‘detective with a fatal flaw/memorable quirk’ way, and the crimes are odd and troubling too.
Rose Tremain – Music and Silence*
This is fabulous. Set in the Danish royal court in the mid-17th century, it interweaves the stories of royalty and musicians and servants in the most intriguing and moving ways. And as the title would suggest, music plays a major, almost magical, certainly spiritual role.
Nicola Upson – Josephine Tey series
I started binging this series last year, and have continued. The conceit of having a writer of crime fiction getting involved in real crimes is hardly a new one, but it’s nicely done, and the period setting (the series has now reached the start of WWII) is interestingly handled, drawing out complexities that could only have been hinted at by Tey and her contemporaries.
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
I found this difficult to read, and am not sure why. It may well be that my concentration, which has at times been sadly lacking this year, was insufficient to follow the narrative or fully appreciate the very beautiful poetic prose. Another attempt may be called for, given how strong the recommendations have been for this.
S J Watson – Before I go to Sleep
This was certainly gripping (and much better than the film, which had to skate over so many aspects of the plot that the improbabilities were sharply highlighted). I don’t think I quite believed in any of it, but I was fascinated to see how Watson put the narrative together and how he was going to resolve things. Entertaining.
Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle
After the horrors of slavery in The Underground Railroad, and of a brutal reform school in The Nickel Boys, there is really quite a lot of hope, and much more scope for humour in this story of a furniture salesman’s attempt to negotiate the blurred lines and moral grey areas of Harlem in the 50s/60s. The writing is just as acute as in his other, darker novels, and the narrative just as gripping.
James Baldwin – The Evidence of Things not Seen
This is Baldwin’s essay on the Atlanta Child Murders (see Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, above). As always with Baldwin, it’s both passionate and lucid, and if it comes to no firm conclusions about guilt or innocence, that is hardly surprising since we appear to have moved on barely at all since Wayne Williams was charged with two of the murders back in 1982.
Antony Beevor – The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
I’ve read most of Beevor’s WWII history tomes, but this is a bit different. It’s a complex narrative, and one is very grateful for the Dramatis Personae at the front, to help the reader keep track of who is who (I remember reading Dr Zhivago as a teenager and struggling with the many variants of each character’s name). Gripping stuff.
Ruth Coker Burks – All the Young Men: How One Young Woman Risked it all to Care for the Dying
I feared this might be a bit sentimental, and also a bit too much God-stuff for my liking, but Burks is not given to soppiness, or to judgement. She’s an outsider, as a single parent in a rather conventional society, and her chance encounter with an AIDS patient – isolated, terrified, uncared for – immediately starts her on a path which leads to remarkable work both in exercising practical compassion and in lobbying for changes to the way people with AIDS are treated. The title isn’t as hyperbolic as it appears either – she lost friends and jobs, and ran the real risk of losing custody of her daughter due to her activism.
Michel Butor – Selected Essays*
A new translation of some of Butor’s essays on the novel. He writes with such clarity, so refreshing for those of us who have wrestled with some of his slipperier contemporaries (looking at you, Deleuze, in particular), and sheds light on his own four novels, as well as giving an insight into his later work.
Joe Hadju – Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe
I had a tantalisingly brief visit to Budapest, as part of a Danube cruise, which left me wanting to know much more about the city. I am unlikely to visit in the near future given the political climate there, but the history is fascinating.
Debora Harding – Dancing with the Octopus
As the sub-title tells us, this is ‘The Telling of a True Crime’. And it really is about ‘the telling’ – the remembering and attempted forgetting, the being believed and, horrifically, not being believed. It’s a tough read and a gripping one.
Kerry Hudson – Lowborn*
This is a vital read, as more and more families are forced into the kind of poverty that Hudson experienced as a child and a teenager. What hits me most is what bloody hard work it is being poor. The simplest things – eating nourishing food, keeping warm, keeping clean, staying safe – things that many of us take for granted, can only be achieved with constant, relentless battling against the system.
Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
I’ve been fascinated by Partition since reading Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown novels, and watching the dramatisation. I think the experience of living in Northern Nigeria during the build up to its Civil war, when Igbo people were murdered or driven out of the northern territories, gave those events particular resonance for me. I’ve previously read a collection of personal accounts of these events (Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices) but this is a detailed, solid history, with an emphasis on the human consequences of violence and displacement.
Rachel Lichtenstein – On Brick Lane
Portrait of a changing community through time, as different waves of immigration each reshape the area (Huguenot, Jewish, Bangladeshi) and its culture.
Wendy Lower – The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
When we are losing day by day the eye-witnesses to the Holocaust these scraps of photographic evidence become more vital, and Lower uses an image of one of the massacres of Jews in what is now Ukraine to identify killers, witnesses and victims. It’s a brutal read, as it should be.
Patrick Marnham – War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France
A gripping account of the murkier aspects of SOE’s activities in Occupied France. It’s a very complicated story – it helps if one already knows some of the story of at least some of the protagonists – and sheds some light on who was doing the betraying…
Wendy Mitchell – What I Wish People Knew about Dementia
I read a lot about dementia when my mother-in-law was diagnosed. Some things were helpful, others less so. Wendy Mitchell’s first book didn’t so much give us practical help, as tremendous insight, from the person actually with the dementia, into what the condition means. Remarkably, she’s still writing, still sharing her experiences and this book may give us some useful ideas in supporting my father who has recently been diagnosed. He’s aware of his condition, as Mitchell is, and so can be involved to some extent in finding work-arounds to make life easier (mother-in-law’s confusion progressed so quickly that any solution we came up with one week was useless by the next).
Caroline Moorehead – A House in the Mountains: The Women who Liberated Italy from Fascism*
I know very little about Italy’s war (see above for the same admission re Greece), but this was a fantastic, inspiring read. It focuses on four young women, in the mountains around Turin, who risked their lives daily during German occupation to move weapons and pass on messages, to fight, to take prisoners, to help liberate their country.
Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
Another biography of Hendrix, and dammit, the ending is the same as always. Having read so much about the man, there were anecdotes here about which I was sceptical, but also real new research and insights.
Tim Parks – Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal
Fascinating account of how HE in Italy works – the subtitle is very revealing. Having just completed a PhD in English HE, I am very thankful not to have had to go through the Italian system!
Samantha Power – The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
An essential read for anyone interested in international politics, particularly in the politics of war and genocide from someone who, both as a journalist and as a US government official (including as Obama’s ambassador to the UN), saw at close quarters many of the events she discusses.
Tracy Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star
A delight. Funny and touching, beautifully written.
Dorothy Whipple – Random Commentary
I only recently discovered Whipple’s novels and that she had lived in Nottinghamshire, including a spell in the vicinity of Newstead Abbey, very close to my teenage home. These are her own edited extracts from her diaries between 1925 and 1945, touching on the minutiae of everyday life, the successes and frustrations of her writing career and the momentous world events just off stage.
Reading has, over the last eight months, to some extent been an escape. But that doesn’t mean only reading easy stuff, or cosy stuff (I feel about ‘cosy’ books similarly to how I feel about Classic FM’s insistence that music should be ‘soothing’). The books I’ve read – the funny ones, the challenging ones, the heartbreaking ones, the gripping ones – have all taken me out of my immediate situation, out of the familiar home that is so strange without him in it. I’ve not only gained that respite, but also what George Eliot called the extension of sympathies – it’s easy to become very self-focused in a situation like mine, but books take me into other lives, other places, other histories. And I’m grateful for that.