I’m still not reading as much as I used to. It’s the silence that’s the problem. Lord knows I used to tut sometimes when I was reading and he broke my train of thought with his own train of thought, but Lord knows I would love to have him do that now. So I turn to the TV sometimes when in the past I would have turned to a book, just to break the silence. Nonetheless, I’ve still normally got two or three books on the go – one on the Kindle and a couple of physical books, usually one fiction and one non, and nonetheless it’s still quite an eclectic list. As always, I haven’t listed absolutely everything – I want to share my enthusiasms rather than my disappointments – and as always I have tried to avoid spoilers but make no guarantees. Top reads this half-year? Jan Carson’s The Raptures, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land. From the first half of the year, I’d pick out Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, and Sarah Moss’s The Fell. Since I make the rules for this blog, I shan’t require myself to choose amongst those six titles.
Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
This, and its sequel The Women of Troy (which I have yet to read) tell the familiar story (familiar not only from Homer but from countless retellings – in my case the first encounter was with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans and The Luck of Troy) with the focus shifted to the women. In this one, the central role is that of Briseis, handed over to Achilles, appropriated by Agamemnon and retrieved by Achilles, all as part of the spoils of war. It’s a grim tale, beautifully told.
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Sebald and Bernhard are often linked, and I figured it was about time I gave the latter a go. The choice of book was a foregone conclusion once I discovered that The Loser was about (in part) Glenn Gould, who fascinates me. There are elements of the style that certainly recall Sebald (any influence was from Bernhard on Sebald) – the novel, like Austerlitz, is one unbroken paragraph, and the narrator’s voice constantly makes it explicit that these are his thoughts, and when he was thinking them (‘I thought, as I entered the inn’, ‘I thought in the inn’ , ‘he said, I thought’, etc) which reminded me again of Austerlitz.
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Shuttle
I adored The Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a child (never read Fauntleroy, as far as I can recall) and this adult novel was a delight too. It’s quite Gothic in places, but punctured with humour, and with a hero (Bettina) who shines from the pages. The theme is intermarriage between British aristos (broke, with run-down country estates to maintain) and wealthy American heiresses but it’s also a very perceptive (based on first-hand experience) account of coercive control.
Jan Carson – The Raptures
This is stunning. I had no idea for most of it where it was heading, what the answers to the questions were going to be, and indeed ultimately there were no firm answers. But it grips on every page, its characters live and breathe, even when they’re no longer living and breathing. It’s a supernatural mystery, a who (or what) dunit, an allegory about plague and pandemic, a coming of age narrative, a portrait of a small Protestant Northern Irish community. Never mind all that, just read it.
Ann Cleeves – The Rising Tide
A new Vera! I wasn’t sure Cleeves was still writing Veras. Anyway, very pleased to get this and it’s as enjoyable as ever.
Robert Galbraith – Ink Black Heart
Oh dear. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike books so far, although few of them need to be the length they are. But this one desperately needed an editor to tell her to slash great chunks of the book so that it’s coherent, and particularly to cut back the use of verbatim online conversations (three columns of different conversations, going over several pages) which are incredibly hard to read and to follow. There’s also the issue of the subject matter – online abuse – and its proximity to the author’s life on Twitter and other social media over recent years. I think it’s too close for her to be able to examine that world with any objectivity and the book is a mess.
Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls
I read The Signature of All Things a few years back and loved it. Still haven’t read Eat Love Pray or whatever it’s called, fairly sure that would not be my cup of tea. But she’s a lovely writer – City of Girls is captivating, and very witty, it sparkles like one of those screwball comedies from the era in which the book is set. And then the tone shifts, and whilst it’s every bit as witty it’s also darker and deeper and very moving.
Graham Greene – The Quiet American
I honestly thought I’d read all of Greene, many years ago (he was a favourite of my mum’s). But this one had eluded me and it’s a fine example of his style and of his preoccupations.
Elly Griffiths – Bleeding Heart Yard
This is Griffiths’ third novel featuring detective Harbinder Kaur, now relocated in that London, and it is hugely enjoyable. As always with Griffiths, the characters are drawn with humour and affection (mostly), and with compassion and insight.
Abdulrazak Gurnah – After Lives
Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 but his name had never registered with me. I shall put that right now and read his other books, because this one was excellent. Set in what is now Tanzania, in the early 20th century when the area was a German colony, it sweeps across that century, through the first and second world wars, the shifting boundaries and colonial rulers, but is always centred on the lives of a handful of characters who are battered, in different ways, by these forces. Despite the scale and the horror of what is unfolding, it manages to be, in relation to these people, gentle and subtle and, somehow, hopeful.
Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
I’d read Homegoing a couple of years ago, an epic family history that begins in Kumasi, Ghana, and crosses continents and centuries. The scale in Transcendent Kingdom is much smaller, although it still reaches back to Kumasi, but the central family is contracting rather than expanding (as the narrator says, “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one”. Its concerns are philosophical, scientific even, as the central character is a neuroscientist, her research intimately connected with her family’s tragedy.
Robert Harris – Act of Oblivion
After Cromwell’s death, those who signed King Charles’ death warrant are on the run, and supporters of the new King are determined to track them down. Harris cleverly builds the tension but also gives us insight into both sides, so we as readers have to keep switching our perspective, as we are with first the regicides and then the manhunter, and we see how both are driven by the absolute certainty that they and their cause are absolutely right.
Mick Herron – Live Tigers/Spook Street
The third and fourth of the Slough House novels and they’re as sharp and funny and dark as ever. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and to seeing the dramatisation of the second book – Gary Oldman has a marvellous time as Jackson Lamb, really letting rip, in every sense.
Tayari Jones – The Untelling
Secrets and lies and their toxic effects upon relationships are the theme here, and Jones is perceptive and subtle in her portrayal of Aria(dne) and the small circle of people who matter to her.
Stephen King – Fairy Tale
This resembles his 1984 collaboration with the late Peter Straub, The Talisman, more than it does his most recent spate of novels. That’s deliberate, I’m sure – King often makes references to his other books, sometimes in passing, sometimes to create resonant connections (see his various books set in or around Castle Rock, for example), and there are some nice echoes here. He and Straub had talked about another collaboration, although it had never got off the ground, so maybe we can take this as a tribute. It’s King on top form, in any case.
John le Carré – Silverview
Ah, the last le Carré. Edited by his son, from what was a virtually complete manuscript. It’s not the best le Carré but it’s bloody good le Carré and it has the melancholy and the anger that have characterised his work in later years.
Attica Locke – The Cutting Season
A stand-alone from Locke, after her two excellent short series of crime novels. This is crime that drags one back into the past, the slavery past, and it is tense and gripping stuff.
David Park – A Run in the Park/Travelling in a Strange Land
Beautiful writing. A Run in the Park is the gentler read, although there’s plenty of emotional heft in there. Travelling in a Strange Land goes to dark places but in both books there is always darkness and light, loss and love, grief and hope.
Sara Paretsky – Tunnel Vision
The eighth in Paretsky’s excellent detective series, featuring PI V I Warshawsky battling corporate crime and corruption. I’ve read these in random order as I got hold of them, so at some point I will try and fill in the gaps.
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
My first Patchett – this is compelling and often moving. It’s about a terrorist attack, and the fate of the hostages, but its also about love, beauty and music.
Louise Penny – The Madness of Crowds
Inspector Gamache series, no. 17, the most recent. As with the Paretsky, I’m reading these in a totally random order, so there are references in this one to events which I don’t yet know about, but the main plot stands alone. As always with Penny, there are times when Three Pines seems just too magically cosy but she always undercuts that with the crime and its motivation, which are anything but.
Bapsi Sidwha – The Ice Candy Man
Many years ago I read Sidwha’s debut novel, The Crow Eaters, which I remember loving even if its plot has faded from my memory. The setting is Lahore, once in India, then allocated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. The Ice Candy Man (also published as Cracking India) starts in the period leading up to Partition and confronts the horrors of what happened, through the eyes of a child, who at first has no real notion that the different communities (Sikh, Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian) are potentially a threat to one another. Indeed, her home is a place where people from these communities meet and bicker and insult one another in a largely friendly way, and when violence is predicted insist that they will stand by their friends. We see things through Lenny’s eyes, not all of which she understands, not all of which adults are prepared to explain to her. It’s unflinching, but also often funny and touching.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
I struggle with Zadie Smith and am still trying to work out why. Her characters never quite seem to live and breathe, as if she’s at too much of a distance from them to really bring them to life. This, her debut, didn’t change my view, unfortunately.
Russ Thomas – Nightwalking/Cold Reckoning
Parts 2 and 3 of Thomas’s Sheffield-based trilogy which began with Firewatching. Excellent plotting and interesting, complicated lead characters.
Anne Tyler – Redhead at the Side of the Road
I hadn’t read any Tyler for ages, not since being so disappointed with Vinegar Girl (kind of a take on Taming of the Shrew, but it really didn’t work). But I have read most of her stuff, and I love most of her stuff (top two are Saint Maybe and Breathing Lessons, I think). This one is a lovely variation on ‘a perennial Tyler theme: the decent, mundane, settling-for-less kind of life whose uneasy decorum is suddenly exploded by the random, the uncontrolled, the latent sense of what might have been’, as The Guardian’s reviewer put it.
I read this account of widowhood, by a family friend, a few years back when it was first published. Reading it again now was a remarkable experience – so many of Molly’s observations are ones that I can relate to – I kept thinking ‘Yes! Yes, that’s it!’. It’s insightful, honest and warm.
Sarah Churchwell – The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe
Having felt rather grubby after watching Blonde I thought this would be a good antidote. It’s the story of the stories of Monroe’s life, of the clichés and stereotypes, the biographies and memoirs and attempts to uncover the ‘real’ Monroe. It’s incisive and rigorous and fascinating. It was published before the film of Blonde came out, but includes Joyce Carol Oates’ novel in her analysis, along with Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and a host of lesser lights whose accounts have been published over the years.
Laura Cumming – On Chapel Sands: My Mother and other Missing Persons
A very intriguing memoir/detective story. Cummings gradually reveals the secrets of her mother’s early life, and at each step shows how she had to reevaluate everything she thought she knew, and her understanding of the people involved. If it were fiction it would be a great read but it gains depth through the knowledge that it is a true story – it’s deeply personal, and terribly sad.
Mike Duncan – The Storm before the Storm
The rise of the Roman Republic, as Duncan tells it, was the beginning of its fall. Fascinating, accessibly written account.
Sebastian Haffner – Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Haffner (real name Raimund Pretzel) wrote this account of Germany in the First World War, the Weimar Republic and during the rise of Nazism, in 1939, after he had emigrated to England. It was only published in 2003, having been left unfinished, as Haffner worked on his less personal account, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, and was collated for publication by his son. It is therefore written without hindsight, at least without the knowledge of what lay inexorably at the end of the Nazi road, and thus its insights are fresh and passionate, exploring how Germans came to choose Hitler.
Sudhir Hazareesingh – Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
Epic is right. An extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life and achievements, which resonate to this day (as I was reminded in the cinema the other day, watching Wakanda Forever…)
Hans Jahner – Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955
An excellent study, exploring many aspects of the post-war period, and taking the story further, beyond the bomb sites and the hunger, to recovery, and division. He draws on a number of memoirs, often from women, which shed light on daily life, on culture and politics, on work and money. It’s rigorous but entertainingly written, often with a wry humour.
Michelle Obama – Becoming
Great stuff – she writes interestingly and engagingly, about her life before she hooked up with Barack as well as showing us his presidency from her perspective and that of the family. I would have liked to hear her account of the years after his presidency ended – maybe another volume will be forthcoming…
My reading this year has taken me out of my own time and place and as always I feel enriched by it, I feel my sympathies have been extended, as George Eliot puts it. I’ve been entertained as well as educated, often at the same time, and I’ve been moved to both laughter (laughing out loud is something I do too little of these days, living alone) and tears (well, no shortage of those, nor any surprise to those who know me, even before recent losses). I am deeply grateful to all of the writers with whom I’ve shared 2022 and who, in their various ways, have helped me through it.