Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see. Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive. Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach. All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz). The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.
Night will Fall is a film about this film. Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng. The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there. Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death. As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least. These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail. Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…
The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved. But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive. Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.
Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide. What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve. There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening. But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.
Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe? To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished? At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.
If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence. Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves. They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did. Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.
The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers. The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living. This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes. It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again. As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world. And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.
As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.
Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t. And night has fallen for so many. It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today. The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.
Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)
I honestly hadn’t thought about it being the end of a decade until I saw the first few ‘best of’ lists appearing.
On a personal level, it’s been quite momentous. We both retired, midway through the decade, a decision which we haven’t regretted for a nano-second. I finished my (second) undergrad degree before I left work, and then went straight on to study for a PhD, which I hope to complete early in the next decade. Each of our children graduated twice (four different Universities, three different cities) and found permanent, rewarding employment.
I lost a good friend and colleague to cancer and helped to set up and then chair a charity as his legacy, raising around £30k since 2013 for cancer charities, through a fabulous fundraising event, the 24 Hour Inspire, and other ventures.
I started this blog in January 2012, and whilst I’ve had periods of writer’s block this year it’s given me a way of being creative, having spent most of my life denying that I am or could be. I was also offered the chance to go to the opera for free with a friend, and write reviews of the productions, which has been an absolute delight.
We put lots of things on hold for a while as my mother in law’s dementia worsened, and her care needs became urgent. She died last Christmas. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018 and the chemo he’s been on is no longer working. We go into the New Year with heavy hearts.
Politically it’s been a nightmarish decade. The Tories back in power, first in coalition, then in their own right, albeit for a while as a minority government. The EU Referendum and the government’s complete inability to approach the negotiations in good faith and with understanding and intelligence. Obama replaced in the White House by someone so utterly unfit for any kind of high office that I still wonder whether we slipped into some parallel universe at about the halfway point of the decade, after which nothing made any kind of sense.
Should have realised, when I woke one morning in early January 2016 to learn that Bowie had left us. Should have known it was a portent.
So since looking forward is a mug’s game at present, I’ll look back, to the books, films and TV programmes that have sustained me during the last ten years.
Books of the Decade
Some of these titles feature in my already published Books of the Year and Books of the Century lists, as one might expect. I’ll indicate those that do, or that are reviewed in my 60 Books challenge series, so as not to repeat myself too much (and have time to also do the full panoply of decade and year lists that I am somehow compelled to do).
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho (Books of the Century)
Ferdinand Addis – Rome: The Eternal City was a birthday gift from the Roman branch of our family, following a recent visit to the city, which had made me realise just how fragmented and unreliable my sense of its history was. A hotch-potch of Shakespeare, the New Testament, Robert Graves and Robert Harris, I really needed to get a grip on it all. Addis’s tome is just the thing. It’s very entertainingly written, it takes key events and explains how they came to pass and what followed, and it takes us from Romulus & Remus to Federico Fellini.
Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah. Her Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the top three books of the century (according to me). Adichie’s protagonist here goes off to University in the States, and we follow her struggles to acclimatise and to understand what race means in America, as well as her feelings for her lover back in Lagos. It’s often very funny, and always very sharp and perceptive. The Guardian said that ‘It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.’
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (Books of the Century)
Naomi Alderman – The Power (Books of the Century)
Lynne Alexander – The Sister illuminates a life lived in the shadows: Alice James was sister to the more famous Henry and William, prevented by ill health and the constraints of Victorian society from expressing her own creativity. Alexander doesn’t hammer this message home simplistically but brings Alice to sympathetic life. ‘A furious volcano of thoughts and desires trapped within a carapace of pain, Alice is a feminist cipher but, more movingly, a beautifully drawn and memorable individual, brave, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent.’ (The Guardian)
Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities is an exuberant and wildly eclectic tour of cities in Western civilisation drawing on books, films, architecture, myth, visual arts. Totally my cup of tea. Described as ‘an exhaustive, engaging book’ which generates ‘sheer joy for the curious reader’. It certainly did for this curious reader.
Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a fascinating study of Poland, the GDR and Hungary after the end of the Second World War. The Telegraph said that she takes ‘a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable – and even occasionally witty. In that respect alone, it is a true masterpiece’. (Books of the Year)
Kate Atkinson – Life after Life (Books of the Century)
Margaret Atwood – The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It does take the action forward – we get to see some of what happened after that book’s final page, but perhaps more significantly, we see Gilead from perspectives other than that of June/Offred, and so we understand more about how Gilead works, and about, in particular the role of the Aunts. It’s completely compelling, and very disturbing. (Books of the Year)
Julian Barnes – The Levels of Life (Books of the Century)
Linda Buckley-Archer – The Many Lives of John Stone. Buckley-Archer began her literary career with the YA Timequake trilogy. This is beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
James Lee Burke – Robicheaux (Books of the Century)
Jane Casey – Cruel Acts (Books of the Year, and Century)
Jonathan Coe – Middle England. I picked The Rotter’s Club for my books of the century, and this is the third part of that trilogy. This made me laugh a lot. Made me weep a bit. Reminded me of music I love (Hatfield & the North, Vaughan Williams) and of lyrics that always move me: Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’. (Not mentioned in Coe’s book, but I kept on thinking of the line ‘Sweet moderation, heart of our nation’). It’s rueful and wistful and, I think, hopeful… (Books of the Year)
Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay is the final part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Another series aimed at a young adult readership, this one is pretty dark (not that YA reading should be sugar-coated or cosy, it should challenge and disrupt if it’s doing its job). Vivid and exciting, with a splendid hero in Katniss Everdene, and resists too neat an ending – after so much tragedy and trauma, that would have jarred horribly.
Stevie Davies – Awakening (Books of the Century)
Edmund de Waal – Hare with the Amber Eyes (Books of the Century)
Emma Donoghue – Room (Books of the Century)
Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk. Sadly the last novel from Dunmore, who died of cancer in 2018. I picked The Siege as one of my Books of the Century, and read The Betrayal as part of my 60 books challenge – her novels are very varied but always beautifully and powerfully written. The Guardian describes her writing as ‘hazardously human’. It’s particularly poignant to note that the fictional Julia Fawkes ‘lies buried with the inscription “Her words remain our inheritance.” Julia may have disappeared from the record, but Dunmore’s words remain.
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters (Books of the Century)
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race (Books of the Century)
Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (Books of the Century)
Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (60 Books)
Lara Feigel – The Bitter Taste of Victory (Books of the Century)
Will Ferguson – 419 (Books of the Century)
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Books of the Century)
Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is particularly difficult to write about without revealing a vital twist, so I will avoid any discussion of the plot. Read it anyway, just avoid the reviews (so no link to the Guardian, which called It an ‘achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker … a moral comedy to shout from the rooftops’.) (Books of the Year)
Tana French – Broken Harbour (Books of the Year and Century)
Esther Freud – Mr Mac and Me reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. A writer/artist (D H Lawrence for Dunmore, Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Freud) finds themselves in a rural community at the start of the First World War, and is regarded with suspicion by the locals due to their unconventional behaviour). Mackintosh is seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, intoxicated by the glimpses of a wider world, of art and beauty, that Mackintosh brings.
Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (60 Books)
Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Books of the Century)
Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition (Books of the Century)
Alan Garner – Boneland (Books of the Century)
Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (Books of the Century)
Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, having a deep-rooted suspicion of the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. But I really did. Gilbert’s fictional protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is brilliant, lonely, not pretty. She’s a scientist, a naturalist, in the wrong era (she’s born in 1800) to have any chance of fulfilling her ambitions, or her desires. She’s remarkable, utterly believable, her openness and imagination endearing and fascinating. It’s an ambitious novel, that fully succeeds in its ambitions.
Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Gildea brings out of the shadows the Resistance that was marginalised for decades – women, Communists, foreigners. It’s much more complicated than the myth that de Gaulle propagated at the Liberation, and more interesting.
Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (Books of the Century)
David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon (Books of the Century)
Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (60 Books)
Elly Griffiths – The Stone Circle (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (Books of the Year and Century)
Jane Harper – The Lost Man (Books of the Year and Century)
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Books of the Century)
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness – the final part of the series of novels featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick.
Noah Hawley – Before the Fall is an excellent thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality, from the writer of the TV version of Fargo
Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (Books of the Century)
Sarah Helm – If this is a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken (Books of the Year and Century)
Susan Hill – The Comforts of Home is the most recent (that I’ve read) of the Simon Serrailler series. (Books of the Year. The Various Haunts of Men was one of my Books of the Century).
Christopher Hitchen – Mortality (Books of the Century)
Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (Books of the Century)
Jessica Frances Kane – The Report is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of the novel is a little known wartime tragedy, in which no bombs fell, but 173 civilians died. I had never heard about the Bethnal Green disaster when I came across this book, and it set off many trains of thought.
Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale. Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther blend crime fiction with World War II European history. They span from the immediate pre-war period to the long aftermath of the war, and Bernie has been part of it all. He’s a survivor, who’s done bad things and seen worse ones, but somehow retained his humanity, a dry humour, and at least some of his integrity.
Stephen King – The Institute. King’s latest references a number of his previous novels (Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…) but does something a bit different with these themes. In a way, he’s setting two version of America against each other: the corporate world of the Institute, ‘the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil, run by ‘a bunch of middle-management automatons’, against small-town America (the good and the bad thereof). It’s proper cancel all other activities including meals and sleep till the last page King. (Books of the Year)
Otto Dov Kulka – Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Books of the Century)
John le Carre – Pigeon Tunnel (60 Books)
Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman (Books of the Century)
Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (Books of the Year and Century)
Kenan Malik – Quest for a Moral Compass (Books of the Century)
Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies. We’re still eagerly awaiting the third part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. (Wolf Hall was one of my Books of the Century).
Helen Mathers – Patron Saint of Prostitutes is a fascinating biography of Josephine Butler, the remarkable Victorian campaigner who challenged all of the conventions about how a pious and respectable woman should behave by working with prostitutes, and challenging publicly the way in which they were brutalised and abused in the name of public morals.
Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13 (Books of the Century)
Dervla McTiernan – The Ruin (Books of the Century)
Livi Michael – Succession (Books of the Century)
Denise Mina – The Long Drop (Books of the Century)
Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know is an account by someone diagnosed with early onset dementia. She’s frank and fearless about explaining how the condition affects her as it progresses, but uses her energies to campaign for awareness and understanding, and for practical support. Her blog is funny, sad and enlightening, and it is so rare and refreshing to hear about dementia from someone who is actually experiencing it.
Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Mullen – Darktown (Books of the Century)
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…
Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand that First Held Mine (Books of the Century)
David Olusoga – Black and British (Books of the Century)
Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Book 1). I won’t say too much about this as I don’t want to risk giving any spoilers. But it is sheer delight to be back in this world and to re-experience the sheer power, the subtlety, the glorious imagination of Pullman’s writing.
Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies, the most recent Rebus. He’s retired now, and battling with COPD and the lifestyle changes that has forced on him. Does any of that stop him getting involved in the solving of a crime, and getting under the feet of the cops? Have you met Rebus? (Books of the Year)
Danny Rhodes – Fan is about football and football culture, about supporting Nottingham Forest, and, inexorably, about Hillsborough. It’s powerful and harrowing.
Sally Rooney – Normal People (Books of the Year and Century)
Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (Books of the Year and Century)
Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (Books of the Year and Century)
Philippe Sands – East-West Street (Books of the Century)
Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland (Books of the Century)
Phil Scraton – Hillsborough: The Truth. When Scraton published this 2016 edition of his authoritative, rigorous, and personal account of the disaster, he would not have imagined the news that broke in December 2019, that Duckenfield had been found not guilty. Again, the families who have endured so much – lies, betrayal, vilification, dismissal – for so long, are in pain, and again, it seems no one will be held accountable for 96 entirely avoidable deaths.
Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (Books of the Century)
Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go (Books of the Century)
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All-Alone’s (Books of the Century)
Anita Shreve – The Stars are Fire was Shreve’s last book. Her protagonist, Grace, has a life that is limited by societal convention and tight family budgets but she thinks it’s fine, mostly, until she loses almost everything, in the terrible fires that swept Maine in 1947. The disaster is described with visceral power and horror, but Shreve is just as interested in its aftermath, as Grace tries to find a way to start again.
Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Books of the Century)
Patti Smith – M Train. I picked Just Kids for my Books of the Century, but could just as well have chosen this. With the humour, self-deprecation and warmth that characterised her earlier memoir, she talks about her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the series of terrible losses that she experienced, of her music. And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders.
Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Occupation of France, and I’m well versed in its horrors. I know better than to minimise the brutality – but the majority of the murders of French citizens and those who were in France during the Occupation took place not on French soil but in what Snyder calls the Bloodlands. ‘Both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter… The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. … The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”
Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark (Books of the Century)
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. I was torn when I did the list of books of the century, and chose The Silence between Breaths. So I’m making recompense now. What Staincliffe does so well is to focus not just on the crime (though there is a strong police procedural element to this one, unlike some of her stand-alone novels) but on the ripples created by the crime, on the families of victim and perpetrators, on the police officers themselves. This one will break your heart.
Susie Steiner – Missing, Presumed (Books of the Century)
Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now (Books of the Century)
Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity is a brilliant and moving YA novel about young women undercover in Occupied France in WWII. It’s so very cleverly structured – things that don’t seem to quite make sense suddenly become clear in the second half, when the narrator changes. The plot is utterly gripping and the ending made me weep. A lot.
Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn. This is part 1 of the Plague Times trilogy, a dystopian future where plague wipes out large swathes of the population. We’ve been here, or hereabouts, before of course – Day of the Triffids, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Stand… Welsh makes it work though, she gives weight to the moral issues as well as giving us suspense, action, horror, and everything we’d expect from the post-apocalypse.
Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad (Books of the Century)
Jeanette Winterson – Why be Happy when you could be Normal? (Books of the Century)
Farewell to those writers listed above who we lost during the decade: Helen Dunmore, Sue Eckstein, Philip Kerr, Harper Lee and Anita Shreve. Thank you all.
Films of the Decade
I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite films in each of these categories. Many of them I’ve written about already elsewhere, so again I’m not attempting to review or even comment on each one.
Scifi and Superheroes: A brilliant decade both for the superhero genre and – IMHO – Marvel specifically, and for other sci-fi franchises: Star Trek had Beyond, and Star Wars fielded The Last Jedi and Rogue One. My pick from the MCU: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Guardians of the Galaxy I, Thor: Ragnarok. And outside this particular arc, from the X Men, the elegiac Logan. And though I don’t generally do DC, I have to have Wonder Woman.
Best of the bunch: Not dissing Endgame, but Assemble is when I fell in love with Marvel (and with Captain America, TBH). And Black Panther had a significance beyond its place in the Avengers story, and was exhilarating not just for people of colour in the audience, but for anyone who cares about seeing the rich diversity of humanity on screen, as heroes and as villains.
We had Inception and Interstellar, Her and Ex Machina, Looper and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity, Monsters and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place and Source Code.
And the two best SF films of the decade: Annihilation, and Arrival. Visually stunning, intelligent sci-fi. Of the two, Arrival, with its emotionally devastating twist, and its fascinating exploration of language, edges it.
Thrills, Crimes & Heists: Baby Driver and Drive, Bad Times at the El Royale, Skyfall, Gone Girl and Widows. I’m torn on which to pick. With caveats, to do with the film’s failure to meet the low bar of the Bechdel test, I’d pick Baby Driver, which was beautifully described by Empire as: ‘not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.’ Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
War: Anthropoid (the assassination of Heydrich), Childhood of a Leader (a more allegorical account of the birth of fascism), Lore (a German teenager in the aftermath of the war). And the best one: Dunkirk – I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
French films: Michael Haneke’s Amour,Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (a French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins story), Olivier Assayas’s Double Vies (Non-Fiction), Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. Varda by Agnes and Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. My favourites: Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (so much in this movie, but just watch that opening sequence, with the young women leaving hockey match and returning to their homes in the banlieues, and a gorgeous sequence as they dance in shoplifted dresses to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’) , Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (a stunning Malian film, beautiful and shattering, but with unexpected moments of humour too).
Horror: Cabin in the Woods, What we do in the Shadows. Get Out and Us. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl with all the Gifts. Under the Skin.
History/Biography: First Man and Hidden Figures, Lincoln, Selma and BlackKKlansman. Love and Mercy (biopic of Brian Wilson).
Comedy: Booksmart and Lady Bird. Death of Stalin and Four Lions. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You. World’s End and Submarine. The Muppets, and Paddington.
Animation: Inside Out, Tangled, Toy Story 3.
Adaptations: Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Drama: Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. Dallas Buyers Club and Pride. Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Beauty. The Farewell and Short-term 12. Twentieth-century Women and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Winter’s Bone and Room. We Need to Talk about Kevin and If Beale Street Could Talk. Life, above all and Cold War.
Farewell and thank you to Marvel man Stan Lee, to Emmanuelle Riva (star of Haneke’s Amour, and long before that, of Hiroshima mon amour), to Agnes Varda, and to Michael Bond, creator of Paddington.
TV of the Decade
Subtitled Crime/Thrillers: Dicte, Follow the Money, Greyzone, Rough Justice, Spiral, The Team, Trapped, Wallander, Witnesses, Beck, Before we Die, Blue Eyes, The Bridge, Deutschland 83/86. Plus the bilingual English/Welsh productions, Hidden and Hinterland. Best of the bunch – Spiral (a master-class in French profanity, and a compelling if infuriating bunch of characters, dealing with grim and gritty crime on the streets of Paris.
Brit Crime/Thrillers: Endeavour, The Fall, Foyle’s War, Happy Valley, , Informer, Killing Eve, Kiri, Lewis, Line of Duty, Little Drummer Girl, London Spy, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jenkins, Midsomer Murders, The Missing, No Offence, River, Scott and Bailey, Sherlock, Shetland, Southcliffe, Strike, Suspects, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Unforgotten, Vera, Wallander, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, DCI Banks, Black Earth Rising, Ashes to Ashes. Best of the bunch – Endeavour for beautiful, subtle writing for all the lead characters; Killing Eve for deranged, delicious wickedness, Line of Duty for twisty turny plotting, and stunning, forget-to-breathe set pieces in the interview room, Unforgotten for the warmth and humanity of the two leads, the clever subtlety of the writing, and the emotional complexity of cold case investigation.
Other Crime/Thrillers: Fargo, Homeland, Mystery Road, Southland, The Americans. Best of the bunch – Fargo. Bonkers, funny and very very dark.
Sci-fi/Fantasy: Agent Carter, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, The Fades, Utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, Humans, Misfits, Orphan Black, The Returned, Star Trek: Discovery, True Blood, Being Human. Best of the bunch – Agents of Shield for daring plotting and terrific writing. Doctor Who for bringing us not only Doctors 11, 12 and 13, but the War Doctor and the reappearance of the very first Doctor, River Song and a whole raft of new companions, new and old foes… And Who, as always, through this decade, has given us a hero who thinks, who cares, who values kindness above all things, who isn’t human but somehow reflects back to us the best of humanity. Orphan Black for Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as most of the key characters. The Returned for a spooky, troubling, atmospheric take on the notion of the revenant.
Comedy: Big Bang Theory, Community, Derry Girls, Doc Martin, Fleabag, The Good Place, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Raised by Wolves, The Thick of It, W1A, Young Sheldon. Best of the bunch – Derry Girls
History/Biography: A Very English Scandal, Brexit: An Uncivil War, Cilla, Gentleman Jack, Mo, Poldark, Resistance, To Walk Invisible, Wolf Hall, Summer of Rockets, World on Fire, War and Peace. A Very English Scandal was a startlingly funny and somehow touching take on a scandal that I recall from my early teenage years (the newspaper coverage at the time was highly educational!). I wrote about Gentleman Jack in my review of the year. And Resistance was a powerful – and historically sound, whilst using the device of a fictional central character who could link to all of the key resistance groups and events – account of Occupied Paris, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.
Drama: The Casual Vacancy, Desperate Housewives, Doctor Foster, Spin, This is England, Treme, Years and Years. This is England (the TV series) was so powerful that I haven’t rewatched it. It broke me – particularly TiE88. Treme was a joy – it drew its characters with so much love and understanding, that we ended up loving them too. The cast was brilliant, as was the music (it’s the only drama of the decade that has led us to seek out a whole raft of CDs). And Years and Years was timely, moving and let us hope not overly prescient…
This was the decade that I really got into opera. Having the chance to see (and latterly to review) Opera North productions at Leeds Grand Theatre and Town Hall has been not only a delight but an education. I’ve seen productions from across the centuries, and not only has the singing been glorious, but the stagings have been wonderfully inventive. You can find my reviews of the titles in bold elsewhere on this site.
Cole Porter’sKiss me Kate
Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
Poulenc’s La Voix humaine
Puccini’s La Boheme, Gianni Schicchi, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot
Britten’s Death in Venice and Peter Grimes
Ravel’s L’Enfant et ses sortileges
Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in Maschero
Falla’s La Vida Breva
Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury
Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti
Giordano’s Andrea Chenier
Kevin Puts’s Silent Night
Handel’s Giulio Cesare
Martinu’s The Greek Passion
Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
Lehar’s The Merry Widow
Janacek’s Jenufa, Osudand Katya Kabanaova
Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppeia
Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute
Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden
Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
As always, we have listened to a LOT of music. And over the course of the decade, more and more of it has been jazz. That’s partly thanks to Radio 3, with Jazz Record Requests and J to Z bringing us artists we weren’t familiar with along with lots of stuff from long-term favourites (Monk, Miles, Mingus et al). We’ve seen some live jazz too, from the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation, Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes from the City, and the Stan Tracey Octet.
For several years of this decade, Tramlines was where we went, one weekend a year, for live music. Music in pubs and clubs, in parks, in the art gallery, the Cathedral… It’s changed now, and it’s more a conventional music festival, which doesn’t suit us as well (though it’s a great success and a huge achievement for the city) – what we loved was just wandering around the city centre, from one venue to another, catching bands we’d never heard of as well as a few big names. It was bloody brilliant. And it was where we first saw Songhoy Blues, one of my bands of the decade. These young Malian musicians made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
We’re privileged in Sheffield too to have Music in the Round – chamber music in the Crucible Studio from the house band, Ensemble 360, and a host of guest musicians. As the name suggests, the audience sits around the performers, so you’re guaranteed a good view, and it gives an intimate feel to the event. I could not begin to list the concerts we’ve attended there. Not just classical either – some of the jazz concerts referred to above were in the Crucible Studio, as was a wonderful gig from the Unthanks.
There have been other venues too – a remarkable performance of Terry Riley’s In C, in the Arts Tower paternoster lifts, and a programme of Reich, Adams, Zorn and others at the Leadmill, from the Ligeti Quartet.
So, another decade bites the dust. These have been some of the best bits. Love and thanks to all of the people who’ve shared these cultural delights with me, to all of the people who’ve created and performed these cultural delights for me, and to all of those who’ve passed on their own enthusiasms to me over the years.
Onwards. Whatever the next decade brings, let’s ensure it’s full of wonderful books, films, TV and music. Let’s hang on to the hope that things can and will get better…
Every week, for the last three and a half years, I’ve posted on Facebook about ‘Good Things’. This isn’t a ‘let’s not talk about the bad stuff’ exercise – it acknowledges, explicitly, that the reason I’m doing it is because there is a lot of bad stuff, globally and personally, and it is thus important sometimes to home in on and hold on to the good that is there, even if that good stuff seems rather small and trivial in comparison to war and climate change and poverty and everything. It’s not ‘always look on the bright side’ so much as ‘always look for the bright moments’. Older readers might think of the 1913 children’s book Pollyanna, whose central character is known for being relentlessly cheery at all times. Whilst this can be rather cloying, and I would refute the notion that there is something good to be found in every situation, the idea that it is healthy to remind oneself that there are good things is a valid one. Which is why I’ve kept those posts going, and why they invariably get likes and comments, and people urging me to continue.
It’s certainly not as if the period during which I’ve been doing this (and there were sporadic efforts before, my ‘reasons to be cheerful’) lent itself particularly to optimism, on any front. The world has been going to hell in a handcart faster than ever, it would seem. And on a personal level, when I posted my first ‘Good Things’ my youngest brother was terminally ill with cancer. He died the following February, just before the pandemic deprived us of so many of the things that might normally bring us comfort in hard times. Then, of course, in October 2021, I lost my husband. He died less than 24 hours after I’d posted that week’s Good Things, and when I re-read it I realised that despite the horror of what had happened, I stood by everything I’d said. Those good things were real and true and not invalidated by the huge Bad Thing that had engulfed us. So I’ve carried on.
It’s hard to find much on the national or global scale to celebrate – at most, some things didn’t turn out quite as badly as we feared (the US mid-terms, notably). Our government was incompetent and corrupt, chaotic and callous, as we’ve come to expect, and the usual people are suffering as a result – don’t be poor, don’t be disabled, don’t be old, don’t be sick, and for heaven’s sake, don’t be a refugee… Conspiracy theories, whether about climate change or vaccines or anything else one can think of, seem to be multiplying and spreading more rapidly each year, not helped by the takeover of Twitter, already an excellent breeding ground, by a leading conspiracy theory enabler and exponent. Ukraine is still suffering under – and fighting back against – the Russian invasion. Women in Afghanistan are shut out of the universities. It is easy to despair.
Of course there are always good people standing up for the vulnerable. The RNLI will carry on risking their members’ lives to save those whose dinghies are capsizing in the Channel. Food banks will continue handing out essentials to families who can’t make ends meet. Individuals and organisations will continue to provide safety nets, to challenge bigotry, to tell the truth and to shame (or at least try to shame) the powerful into using their power for good, and the brave will stand up anyway, in Iran and Afghanistan as in so many other places, whatever the risk.
In my own life, despite the sadness, I’ve had good things.
I got a new knee in February and (after a short but tough period of recovery) that gave me the confidence to be braver and more adventurous than I would have done otherwise. I went to Wembley to the Championship Playoff final, with my son. (The football has actually been a Good Thing in 2022, the first year for decades when I could have said that.) I went to Progfest with my brother in law and to the Tramlines music festival, with my son and with friends. I travelled to Rome, on my own (but was met by my brother, with whom I stayed). I would have done none of those things without the op, I would have been too scared, not only of the pain, but of my knee suddenly refusing to bear my weight, or of falling. That fear nearly paralysed me when he died – I could see myself so easily becoming virtually housebound, dependent entirely on others to get around, and that hasn’t happened.
I have needed more help this year, especially without a car or someone to drive it, and I’ve always found the help that I’ve needed, sometimes by asking very directly for it (anyone taller than me – i.e. most adults – entering the house is likely to be greeted on the doorstep with a request to change a light bulb or lift something down off a high shelf), at other times because some nice young man or woman has seen me struggling with a suitcase or whatever and has offered assistance. I’ve also found someone to help me with the cleaning, someone to help me with the garden, a handyman and a decorator.
I finished the PhD, submitting just over a week before he died, and had my viva in May. I’m very proud of the thesis, and I absolutely could not have done it without his support, in big ways and small – so many times I was writing away, lost in my work, only to realise that he had snuck in, delivered a hot cup of tea or coffee and snuck out again, without breaking my train of thought.
I’ve been to the theatre, to a stunning production of Much Ado, by Ramps on the Moon which used its cast of (mainly) deaf and disabled actors inventively and boldly, and tweaked the text accordingly. Much Ado works or doesn’t depending on Beatrice and Benedick, and here both were outstanding and unforgettable. The Guardian reviewer described Daneka Etchell (who is autistic) as ‘the most compelling Beatrice you might ever see’, and she was responsible for an extraordinary scene, when, in her distress at the injustice being inflicted on Hero, she starts stimming. Both her anguish and Benedick’s tenderness in trying to help calm her were very moving.
We very much enjoyed a performance by Under the Stars, an organisation who we supported with Martyn’s memorial fundraiser, who are an arts and events charity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism, running music and drama workshops and nightclubs. The play was The Many Journeys of Maria Rossini and it used words, music and dance, exuberantly and engagingly, to tell the story. Under the Stars band also performed at Tramlines.
Final theatre outing of the year was to Richard Hawley’s musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which we’d somehow missed when it was first produced at the Crucible in 2019. We loved it. The musical weaves together the stories of some of the inhabitants of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, over five decades, telling those stories through some of Hawley’s songs. The action is beautifully choreographed, the singing is marvellous, and it builds to a very moving climax. Obviously this piece has special relevance and resonance for Sheffielders, but it goes beyond that – every major city has communities like Park Hill.
I’ve done my usual summaries of what I’ve read and watched over the year. As far as listening to music at home goes, I’ve tried to develop my own approach to music nights, which were so much about our shared enjoyment of music that initially I couldn’t see at all how I would do it. Now, I pick a few things over the course of the week, prompted by someone mentioning an artist or a band, by an artist’s death, or some other kind of event, just so that I don’t get paralysed by the vast choice when I look at our CD wall. I listen when I can to the Radio 3 weekend programmes we used to love, to Inside Music, Sound of Cinema, Music Planet, J to Z, Jazz Record Requests, and these also often suggest what I listen to from our collection.
Highlights amongst the music that I’ve heard live this year:
Beethoven String Quartets plus a piece by Caroline Shaw (‘Entr’acte’), in a Music in the Round concert which I sponsored in Martyn’s memory, at the Crucible in May
Focus, the highlight of the Progfest in April. Still led by Thijs van Leer, who may not be able to reach all the high notes these days but is still a great performer, and the band (which included Pierre van der Linden, another veteran) was great and of course the music brought back so many memories of listening with Martyn.
Jazz Sheffield gigs from Laura Jurd, Zoe Rahman and the Espen Ericksen Trio with Andy Shephard, all excellent.
Tramlines highlights: my old favourite, the Coral, and new favourite, Self Esteem.
A rare orchestral concert, at a great venue, the Auditorium in Rome: Gershwin, Bernstein and Stravinsky.
Last New Year’s Day was one of the hardest to wake up to in all of the days since he died. Knowing that I was about to start on a year without him, the first year without him since 1973… It was bleak. Perhaps, whilst this NYE/NYD will acknowledge the sadness, it may be easier. I hope it will be less bleak, less raw.
So, allons-y to 2023. I will formally graduate (for the last time, definitely, categorically) on 11 January, and my next project will be to look for a publisher for a version of the thesis. I’ll have chapters published in two forthcoming books, both on W G Sebald. I’ll travel, to see friends in Scotland, to see family in various parts of the country, maybe a city break in Europe. I’ll go to two family weddings. I’ll finish phase 2 of the decorating, maybe even phase 3. I’ll carry on sharing the cultural riches of Sheffield with friends and family.
Without being Pollyanna-ish, I do know how very lucky I am, to be surrounded by people who want to and do help me, emotionally and practically. I am thankful for them, every day.
For you, I wish for health and strength, for peace and comfort, for love and support.
In 2023 I wish, of course, for a world without war, a world where people are not persecuted for their beliefs, or simply for who they are, a world where women can be safe on the streets and in their homes. I wish for action on climate change, before it’s too late. That’s a lot, I know.
But as we go into another new year I think, as always, of this poem, which gives me hope.
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.
The usual caveats and footnotes. I try to avoid spoilers but you take your chances if you read on. I haven’t listed things I watched that were just a bit rubbish in an uninteresting way. I’m still watching more than I ever used to before he died – the TV brings human voices into my home, which would otherwise be far too quiet much of the time. I do still read a lot too, but the balance between the two has certainly shifted, whether permanently or not it is too early to say. I haven’t included ongoing series which featured in the half-time report, unless there was something significant to add. I’ve noted which of the films I saw at the cinema rather than in my living-room via streaming services, only to mark the gradual return to the cinema over the last year or so, and in recognition of the very different experience that this represents. And I’ve asterisked the best stuff, though to pick a film or TV series of the year would be too difficult, given the range of genres and styles and brows.
All Quiet on the Western Front (cinema)*
Superb remake of the Milestone milestone (and the ‘70s adaptation which seems to be largely forgotten – I haven’t seen it so can’t say whether or not that’s deserved). It is faithful to the book apart from introducing a narrative strand showing the negotiations leading up to the Armistice, which is very powerful, and there is a stunning opening sequence that is both shocking and moving.
This is a fine, beautiful film. I read the WWI poets at school and independently, and I also read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which intersects with the narrative of this film about Siegfried Sassoon. Superb performances, beautiful soundtrack which intersperses the popular songs of Ivor Novello, amongst others, with the music of Butterworth, Britten and Vaughan Williams, very powerful and moving.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (cinema)*
How can they follow up Black Panther, without Chadwick Boseman? By acknowledging his loss in a very powerful way, letting it suffuse the film, not pulling any punches about what grief and loss can do to us. Of course those themes were going to resonate with me even more intensely this year, as the anniversary of my husband’s funeral loomed – but I was so glad that they didn’t do the fantasy/scifi/superhero thing of in some way undoing death, or de-stinging it. Tchalla died as Boseman did, of a regular common or garden mortal ailment which all of the medical brilliance in the world couldn’t fix. And that was right. The rest of the movie – well, it was grand, it packed probably too many ideas in (a common flaw) and not all of them quite worked, but it was visually lovely, and even without Boseman (except for glimpses in flashback) the cast is superb (inc. Nyongo, Bassett, Wright, Gurira).
Don’t. Just don’t. This was a gratuitous and exploitative take on the life of Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe, which gave her no growth and no agency, and the viewer no insight into her intelligence, her wit and her convictions. I read Joyce Carol Oates’ book quite a few years ago and don’t remember feeling like this about it, so perhaps some of the problem is the difference between reading, where I can identify with Norma Jean/Marilyn, and watching, where I am forced into a voyeur’s role. But in any case, just don’t.
Bridge of Spies
Essentially, a Tom Hanks movie about an ordinaryish sort of a bloke who sticks to his guns and does what’s right even when everyone is telling him not to. Excellent, if not groundbreaking. I liked Rylance’s repeated refrain of ‘Would it help?’ when asked whether he is worried or afraid. And his characterisation of Hanks’ character (in this film and so many others) as The Standing Man, a man who gets up again every time he is knocked down.
Highly enjoyable fictionalised account of the Supremes’ rise to fame and Diana Ross’s rise to the lead role, displacing Jennifer Hudson’s Florence Ballard equivalent. The music, inevitably, is pastiche Motown, but very good pastiche Motown, and then there’s Hudson’s blockbuster number, ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’) which blows your socks off.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Dr Strange’s Multiverse of Madness looks relatively sane compared to this. Michelle Yeoh is brilliant (when isn’t she?), as is Jamie Lee Curtis. I had no idea what was going on half the time, some of it was quite gross, a lot of it was very funny and ultimately it was rather poignant. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Eye in the Sky
Very, very tense. And doesn’t shirk the moral murkiness of warfare. Helen Mirren is excellently steely in the lead.
What possessed me to watch this, after spending a weekend with my father, who has dementia? I don’t know. It’s exceptionally good, of course, and the fact that it was, as one gradually realises, from his perspective, not from that of those caring for him, was fascinating and very moving.
An old-fashioned star biopic with added sleaze. Its relationship with the facts of Frances Farmer’s life seems to be tenuous at times, but Jessica Lange is brilliant. Interesting to compare it with Blonde – obviously the life stories of Farmer and Monroe have both similarities and profound differences – but despite the inevitable sense of voyeurism as we see Farmer suffer, she is shown, right until the final act, to have agency, to have some fight in her.
Cynthia Erivo is superb as Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railway. It’s an incredible story, but whilst the film obviously simplifies some things a little, it is faithful to the history, whilst leaving us to decide whether Tubman’s own belief that she is guided and strengthened by God in her work to escort slaves to freedom is right, or whether her ‘visions’ are the result of a head injury in childhood. The soundtrack, by Terence Blanchard who also did the soundtrack to The Woman King, is excellent too, and the film makes use of Erivo’s stunning voice as she uses gospel songs to communicate with the slaves on the plantation.
A Hidden Life*
Franz Katzenkammer’s life may have been hidden but posthumously he was beatified by his Church as a martyr, having been executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler, so he has not been forgotten. And this film is a beautiful and subtle portrait of a man who, as heroes have done in every unjust and brutal regime, simply said no, this isn’t right, I can’t do it. It wasn’t just the refusal to fight for the Nazi regime, because even if he’d been given a medical corps option, that oath of loyalty would still have been required, and he couldn’t do it. It’s a long film and I started off wondering how on earth this fairly simple story could be spun out to three hours plus. But the pacing of the film was just right, and it was essential that we felt the pattern of his life on the farm, the seasons and the harvests, to know what he was risking and why.
I Came By
Well, Hugh Bonneville may not have convinced me as Mountbatten (see below) but he actually was quite convincingly sinister in this thriller, even if the plot was a bit creaky.
The Iron Lady
And another film about dementia. Why do I do this? I watched it not because of that, but out of curiosity to see how Streep played Thatcher, particularly having seen Gillian Anderson (The Crown) and Patricia Hodge (The Falklands Play) in the role recently. Streep is somewhere between the two – her Thatcher is not as odd as Anderson’s, nor as sympathetic as Hodge’s, though the scenes of her confusion are inevitably touching.
Lord, this was long. And turgid. And talky. I may have learned my lesson about Stone – he managed to make 9/11 tedious in World Trade Center and this is only marginally better. I don’t know the conspiracy theories all that well, but it seems from my minimal research that much of what he’s presenting here (via Jim Garrison) is dodgy and effectively discredited. And I can’t see why a judge would allow Garrison to expound on his theories at enormous length without tying it in clearly to the person who was actually on trial. No wonder the jury let him off. Enough already.
A Jazzman’s Blues
A labour of love from director Tyler Perry, this is a classic narrative of racism, escape through music, ‘passing’, so all of the elements are familiar, but it’s well done.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
2022 adaptation, from Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. I haven’t read the book since I was an undergrad (first time around) so I’m not sure how faithfully it follows Lawrence’s plot, but it has the feel of Lawrence, in its combination of earthiness, sensuality and reverence. Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell are well cast and play it with conviction.
The Lives of Others*
Brilliant. Subtle and low-key, the oppressive atmosphere of Stasi surveillance and control is unnerving, and the character of Stasi Captain Gert Wiesler, beautifully portrayed by Ulrich Muhe, is ultimately very moving.
Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton are wonderful as the Loving couple whose marriage broke state laws in Virginia about interracial mixing and who fought this right up to Supreme Court level, and won.
The Man with the Iron Heart
Based on Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, which I read last year, this account of the assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942 starts with the attack, then freeze frames and we return to the young Heydrich himself and follow him through his career before going back to the parachutists and the resistance in Prague. Because it takes this approach, there’s less time to develop the characters of the resistance members but it’s well done, nonetheless. Impossible not to compare with Anthropoid, which came out a year or so after this, and whose focus is on the resistance throughout. My one quibble with this version of events is that, for reasons I do not comprehend, it makes the son of the family who sheltered the parachutists a boy of, at most, 10/11, whereas in reality he was 17. This makes the scenes of his capture and interrogation even worse, of course, but we hardly need to make the Nazis’ crimes more hideous, given that we are about to see the wiping out of the population of Lidice.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Proper unsettling. We have a potentially unreliable narrator in Elisabeth Olsen’s Martha – it’s a while before we get a glimpse of what her life had been before escaping to her sister, and we can’t be sure of everything we see. There’s a sense of threat remaining with her, which could just be the effects of trauma, but we can’t be sure of that either. Olsen is wonderful, and Sarah Paulson manages to get the balance between exasperation and incomprehension, and sympathy. John Hawkes is compelling in an awful way as the cult leader.
Moonage Daydream (cinema)*
This one got a lot of love from those who love Bowie, but also a lot of criticism from people who wanted Brett Morgen to make a different kind of film about Bowie. It was a visual and aural onslaught, sound and vision bombarding us with the music and the changing images of Bowie, interwoven with interview material. The latter is chronological, unlike the music and visuals, so that we get a sense of a man learning about himself, growing up in public, gradually finding a way to be at ease with himself, which was very moving.
I loved Get Out and Us, and I am more ambivalent about Nope. It is more sci fi than horror, so I had to recalibrate a bit, as I was expecting something more like Peele’s first two movies. But I think possibly there are just too many ideas jostling for the audience’s attention here – I want to rewatch it to see if some of that comes more into focus. Performances are excellent, and there are many moments that have stayed with me, but I can’t quite grasp it as a whole.
Fascinating Nigerian crime thriller set in the weeks leading up to independence. It’s not a whodunnit, strictly speaking, since the perp is pretty easily identifiable early on. What we don’t know is why. But even that isn’t where all of the interest lies – that’s in the tensions that exist between the Hausa detective who’s leading the investigation, and the Igbo and Yoruba people who live in the area, along with a handful of supercilious Brits. The bit where one character ‘foresees’ that in seven years there would be civil war is a bit on the nose – by 1966 civil war was gearing up with coups, counter-coups and pogroms, and in ‘67 it was raging – but of course it was all too foreseeable, even if not with that level of precision.
See How they Run
Highly enjoyable, very meta, Christie spoof/hommage, with an excellent odd couple pairing of cops in Sam Rockwell’s weary, boozed up Inspector, and Saoirse Ronan’s bright eyed and idealistic Constable.
Another Pixar gem. Obviously I was going to love the jazz theme, and the score, and I loved the central character (voiced by Jamie Foxx). It’s about what makes us who we are, what is the spark that animates our lives, and it’s very touching.
The anniversary of her death meant lots of Diana-centred TV. This was very good, not a conventional or realistic biopic but a glimpse into the world of someone on the edge, who’s given up on being what her circumstances require her to be. The scenes with her and her children are very touching, and ring true. The Family are kept largely in the background (apart from a couple of scenes with the (then) PoW, played by Poldark’s Evil George, Jack Farthing). It’s interesting to compare with Elizabeth Debicki’s take in The Crown Season 5 – I think Stewart is somewhere between Debicki and Emma Corrin’s earlier version of Diana).
Thor: Love & Thunder (cinema)
Tonally all over the place – the humour is pretty broad (the goats), but the scenes with the captured children are genuinely tense and scary, and the ending packs some emotional power. Thoroughly enjoyable.
This would have passed me by entirely as I’m neither a Burt Lancaster fan, particularly, nor interested in trains, at all. However, someone on Twitter mentioned it and I am glad they did, as it confounded all of my expectations. I envisaged a straightforward early 60s action movie (Alistair MacLean, that sort of thing), but whilst there is plenty of action, there are also moral dilemmas – do we risk lives to save artworks from being removed to Germany before the Allies reach Paris? – and the tension of waiting for the Allies to arrive and how that affects the actions of the Resistance, is powerfully present (reminded me of Is Paris Burning?). Lancaster apparently learned some of the skills of a railway engineer and you can almost smell the sweat and the engine oil. Absolutely gripping, and avoids the typical war movie clichés.
Trees of Peace
A very different treatment of the Rwandan genocide. We see only what can be seen from the hiding place under the kitchen of a Hutu home, by the four women sheltered there – through a small window, which they dare not look out of for long, and through the trap door when the husband periodically brings them food supplies. It’s extremely claustrophobic, and the horror outside is powerfully conveyed through sound – gunfire, shouting, weeping, screaming. It’s a tribute to the Rwandan women who led much of the reconciliation and justice initiatives after the genocide was over.
A United Kingdom
Excellent portrayal of the marriage between the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and an English girl, which had huge political ramifications. Oyelowo and Pike are very convincing, and Pike does a lovely job of showing her uncertainty as to how to behave when she first arrives in her new ‘kingdom’.
Partition, a theme in this year’s watching and reading, due to the anniversary, here from the perspective of Mountbatten and his wife, arriving as the last Viceroy, and overseeing the process that carved up India and left whole populations on the wrong side of new borders, with horrific consequences. We see the violence, the queues of refugees, but also the ludicrous carving up of the Viceroy’s library (does Pakistan get Jane Austen, or the Brontes?) and the silverware (divvied up proportionally according to population size). I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. But the biggest problem with the film is the Romeo & Juliet romance across the divide, which seemed manufactured, and the happy ending was both predictable and entirely improbable. It was, perhaps, a missed opportunity given that the director’s grandmother survived (barely) the events of Partition, and her real story might have been more compelling for being less romantic.
Who You Think I Am
Juliette Binoche (excellent) in a very twisty tale of false identity and internet romance. It took me a while to put the pieces together, and I’m still not sure they all fitted, but it was compelling and entertaining.
The Woman King (cinema)*
Women warriors in 18th century Dahomey (now Benin)? Sounds like my kind of movie, and indeed it was. Viola Davis was brilliant, as was Thuso Mbedu as the young recruit to her army. The film doesn’t dodge the tricky questions about slavery and about the treatment of women (even in a society which has an army of powerful women). It was filmed in South Africa but the scenes along the coast reminded me powerfully of my childhood visits to Cape Coast, where we visited the castle and its Door of No Return, from which the captured slaves were loaded onto the ships.
The Young Victoria
Enjoyable, but not massively enlightening. Emily Blunt is excellent, of course, and her Vic is pretty feisty, and the relationship with Albert is charming. It resonated often with the early series of The Crown, where Claire Foy’s Elizabeth is discovering that whilst she may be a monarch she can’t actually change anything.
AIDS: The Unheard Tapes
Recorded interviews with people with AIDS, some who made it, some who didn’t. Honest and direct, these interviews take us through from the first early warnings of an epidemic to the miracle of a treatment that actually worked. All of the interviews are voiced by actors so the viewer does not know, until the final episode, who died and who survived, and that realisation – in both cases – is incredibly moving.
Prequel to Rogue One, one of my favourite latter-day Star Wars films. It takes a while to get going but once it does, it’s phenomenal. I enjoyed Mando, but this is stronger and darker, and – once it builds up the momentum – totally compelling.
Fascinating series – here the personal is political and vice versa, as we accompany Birgitte Nyborg Christensen on her rise to power. She’s a sympathetic character, but we see her flaws, we see how she’s prepared to manipulate people (even her own family), and how ruthless she can be, whilst being fundamentally a good person. It’s intelligently done and I now understand an awful lot more about Danish politics than I ever expected to.
Call my Agent
The French original, not the remake. Very funny, often wildly OTT, with highly enjoyable turns from some of the top stars of French cinema (Binoche, Huppert, Reno and many more), sending themselves up something rotten.
Even more than Series 1, this second series is likely to induce a degree of paranoia in any of us. Can we trust anything we see or hear? Apparently not. I have no idea how plausible it all is, but no matter, it was gripping and kept on wrongfooting me.
This got a critical hammering from some reviewers, but I enjoyed it – it was very tense, the lead character (Keeley Hawes, brilliant as always) was not entirely likeable (she does that very well too – see Line of Duty and It’s a Sin), but we end up rooting for her anyway, as the hotel she and her family and friends are staying in is attacked by armed men (terrorists? We don’t know who or why at first). Written by Louise Doughty, one of my favourite contemporary writers (and very versatile – best known for Apple Tree Yard, but her finest book (IMHO) is Fires in the Dark about the Roma Holocaust), which is why I decided to watch even after some rather snarky reviews, and I’m glad I did.
Marvel noir. We’d watched Series 1 a couple of years back but for some reason hadn’t continued with it. Series 2 was strongest when focusing on the Punisher rather than on Electra, I think, but Series 3 was the strongest, with the return of Kingpin. Daredevil himself is a bit broody (OK, he’s given plenty of reasons to brood, but it can be wearing – which is why his appearance in She Hulk was such a delight). Very enjoyable.
This is a remarkable documentary, about the recovery of the slave ship Clotilda, which brought slaves to Alabama after the abolition of the trade, and which was then sunk to avoid prosecution. There’s a community there who are directly descended from the Africans who were on that ship. Not only that, but Zora Neale Hurston made a film about that community, featuring the last of those Africans, Cudjo Lewis. Seeing him on screen gave me goosebumps. The descendants have had conflicted emotions about the raising of the ship, fearing that their history would be appropriated for tourism and profit by, in some cases, the descendants of the very people who had kidnapped and enslaved their own ancestors, and those who had encouraged the liberalisation of rules about heavy industry in the area, resulting in cancer clusters amongst the Africatown people. But they have allies who are determined to ensure that their history remains their history.
The last time the Doctor is Jodie Whitaker. The season finale was typical of the Chibnall era, loads of stuff happening, impossible (at least on a single watching) to keep track of all the threads, but things come together very nicely at the end. Her final words included a nod to Dennis Potter’s extraordinary interview with Melvyn Bragg after he knew he was terminally ill – ‘the blossomest blossom’ – which was very moving (that interview has stayed with me ever since we watched when it was first broadcast, as a beautiful musing on mortality). There’s a lot in this finale for the Whovians, which is fine by me, especially as we’re coming up to the show’s 60th anniversary – it was rather lovely to see Docs 5, 6, 7 and 8, and 1 as portrayed by David Bradley, and to see Ace and Tegan back in the fray. And the Doctor’s companions’ support group was a delightful idea – I would have liked to listen in on a lot more of that. I’ve loved Whitaker’s Doctor, even if not all of the stories have been quite as strong as the best of RTD and Moffat, and she’s opened the door for future Doctors to be anything they damn well please. Lots to look forward to in 2023.
The landscapes are stunning, the pace is varied, sometimes dreamily slow, sometimes all crackle and fire and violence. Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer are both excellent and make a compelling duo. It’s hard to write about, but it’s exceptional TV and I will rewatch it soon, to appreciate its subtleties and its beauty.
Rev. Richard Coles exploring ways of working through bereavement (laughter yoga, skydiving, animal therapy, widows’ retreat). As always, his engaging, reflective, self-deprecating style was just right for the topic, and whilst it did, inevitably, make me cry a fair bit, it also made me think a lot about the process I’m going through, and how I can understand it better. Thanks, Rev.
The Good Nazi
A Nazi who saved Jews in Vilnius by employing and housing them, and who enabled at least some of them to find hiding places when the SS decided to eradicate them. I would have been interested to know a lot more about Plagge – why did someone who was a very early member of the Nazi party and rose through the ranks, suddenly become so appalled by what they were doing that he decided to risk his life to undermine it? But a lot of the programme was about the archaeological investigation in the housing blocks where the Jewish workers were living, and the search for evidence of the spaces where they hid during the last days before the Red Army arrived, and this was fascinating in itself.
I couldn’t bring myself to watch this when it was first broadcast, too close to the events. I’d found the news footage from care homes particularly heartbreaking, with elderly residents unable to understand why their family members couldn’t come in to see them. The drama focuses right down on one care home, and within that one care worker (Jodie Comer) and one resident (Stephen Graham, playing a 47 year old with early onset Alzheimers). Given those two in the cast, it was always going to be powerful (and the other actors included Ian Hart, Sheila Johnston and Cathy Tyson, so the quality throughout was high). The central part, where Comer’s Sarah finds herself managing alone through a night shift with a resident dying of Covid is shot in a long take so we see her rushing from one place to another, from the phone to the critically ill resident and back again, trying to manage, trying to get help, and weeping as she does so, and it’s a stunning piece of film making. The third act didn’t convince me (or the Guardianreviewer) but up to that point it was a triumph and if you didn’t feel angry as well as heartbroken by the end you probably don’t have a soul.
A gender switched version of Nick Hornby’s book, which was filmed with John Cusack in the lead role, here taken by Zoe Kravitz. I’m so up for that – when I read the book, I felt some affinity with the lead character despite him being a bit of a dick, mainly because of his obsessiveness about music, and making lists of songs, all of which I could identify with. I gather there will only be this one series which is a shame, but it was very enjoyable, and Kravitz is very engaging.
India 1947: Partition in Colour
Partition again – a documentary series using contemporary footage as well as talking heads. Very well constructed, lucid explanations, passionately expressed, of what happened and why.
David Tennant, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Moffat – what more could one wish for? If one wished for an entirely plausible plot one would be disappointed. However, the way it works is to create a sequence of chance events that set in motion an inexorable series of desperate and disastrous decisions that build and twist towards a desperate and disastrous outcome, all overseen, bizarrely, by Tucci’s criminologist/death row prisoner. To say more than that would risk spoilers – if you’re prepared to suspend your credulity and just enjoy the ride, as I did, go for it.
Is That Black Enough for You?
In-depth account of black Hollywood – actors, directors, producers – from the 30s to the late 70s. Fascinating stuff, though the narration is sometimes a little dry, and I would have liked it to take the story a few decades further – maybe a Part 2? The big names are here (interviewees include Belafonte, Fishburne and Samuel L Jackson) but so are many, both behind and in front of the camera, of whom I had never, or barely, heard.
This, like Daredevil, is noir, very noir. And it twists the beguiling charm of David Tennant into something terrifying and horrific, for which I may never forgive them…
Jewel in the Crown
I wondered how this series, which had a huge impact on me when first broadcast (1984) would stand up. I need not have worried – it is superb throughout. The cast is outstanding and the narrative tension is so intense – I re-watched it around the time of the anniversary of Partition so it had an added, very powerful resonance (Paul Scott’s novels were where I first learned about Partition). The final episode, the scene with the train, is imprinted so firmly in my memory after all these years that I could have said, with Ahmed, ‘It seems to be me they want’, as he stepped out of the carriage. And other moments too: Daphne Manners, saying ‘Steady the buffs’ as she walks into the darkness of the Bibaghar Gardens, or the way she lifts her chin defiantly and resolutely when she says of Hari Kumar, ‘Oh, he’s just a boy who went to Chillingborough’.
Superlative detective drama from Val McDermid. Pirie is a fine creation, entirely believable and likeable, and the writing and plotting were of a very high standard.
The Lazarus Project*
This is a cracker of a thriller, by the writer of Giri Haji, the best thriller series of 2021. That didn’t get a second series, but I am very much hoping this one will. Great cast, fascinating premiss, and the idea of a timeloop (I do love a timeloop) is explored rigorously and pitilessly.
The Long Call
An Ann Cleeves adaptation that is neither Vera nor Shetland – as always, well plotted and an interesting setting (in an extreme fundamentalist community). The lead detective could have been given a bit more character but if there are future series he might well grow on me.
This probably shouldn’t have been done, but as it was, and as I watched it, I have to say it was done well. There was nothing voyeuristic here as far as the murders were concerned, and the portrayal of Maxine Carr was ambiguous – she is shown as clearly being in a coercive relationship but she’s far from being a mere victim, much more complicated than that.
Our Friends in the North
Another trip to the archives for this series, notable for the stellar careers it launched (Eccleston, Craig, McKee and Strong). It’s a gritty take on politics and social change from the ’60s to just before the Tories lost power in 1997. Some things don’t wear too well – the sex scenes were excruciating, and the amount of nudity required of the female characters was annoying. But it had a lot of heart, and a lot of anger, and great performances (aside from the four already mentioned, Peter Vaughan was particularly brilliant).
Passport to Freedom
Gripping Brazilian series about the staff at the consulate in Hamburg who managed to get visas for hundreds of Jews, until the point when Brazil entered the War on the Allies’ side. I had never heard of Aracy de Carvalho but she has been recognised as one of the Righteous among the Nations. I assume some of the peripheral characters and events may have been invented or enhanced for dramatic purposes, but it the core of the narrative was soundly researched, and it was all very well done.
We were late coming to this delightful party, but fell hopelessly in love with all five of the Queer Eye guys. They’re funny, warm and utterly charming, and spending time in their company is most therapeutic.
Rings of Power
This looks absolutely stunning – it takes a while to build and seems quite slow at first, but it’s setting up a world, and this pays off as the series progresses. Morfydd Clark is excellent as Galadriel.
The Roads to Freedom
Another archive treasure, this is an adaptation from 1971 of Sartre’s trilogy, set in the period just before the Nazi invasion and the fall of the French army. Would anyone make something like this now? Not a lot happens, at least until the final episode, the ‘action’ is all in Matthieu’s head (Michael Bryant, superb, playing Sartre’s representative in the novels) as he constantly questions his own motivations and desires, the nature of freedom, and so on. I loved it.
The frankness is slightly startling at first, but one quickly gets used to it, because the tone overall is really very sweet and funny. The setting is odd – the school is straight out of Sunnydale, and it appears to be set in open countryside, which makes one wonder about its catchment area – but that gives it perhaps more universality than if we’d been able to locate it somewhere recognisable. The performances are delightful.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
Firstly, it’s always brilliant to see Tatiana Maslany, who pulled off a real acting coup in Orphan Black by playing multiple clones so cleverly that I more than once had to stop myself looking them up on IMdB. Secondly, it’s funny, and feminist. Thirdly, Daredevil shows up, and Tim Roth having enormous fun as Emil Blonsky.
This documentary on Sidney Poitier is fascinating and moving. I had no idea about his early life, about how he got into acting, and it made me admire and respect him even more than I did already. For anyone interested in the civil rights movement, and in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, this is a must-watch.
Strange New Worlds*
I enjoyed this unequivocally (in comparison to Star Trek Discovery, about which I have longstanding reservations). Anson Mount as Captain Pike is great, and I love Spock and Uhura, but all of the lead characters have a bit more spikiness to them than their Discovery opposite numbers. Some great storylines here, a nice balance of peril and humour.
Aidan Turner in a rather impressive beard portrays a very clever man who behaves like an idiot when he realises he’s potentially compromised in a murder investigation. It’s all very gripping and enjoyable but I didn’t really believe a word of it.
This series really couldn’t decide what it was trying to do and the various elements clash horribly. There’s no need for reconstructions of the events that we all saw on the screen only a couple of years ago – it’s much more interesting, even if highly speculative, to go behind the scenes and see the private interplay between Johnson and Cummings and so forth. And these scenes are intercut with sequences in care homes and IC wards, which are relentless and powerful, genuinely hard to watch (much as the daily updates from London hospitals were at the time), which makes the indulgence of watching Boris and Carrie, or the daft dream sequences as Boris succumbs to fever, seem really quite crass. There could be several films to be made here, perhaps when a bit more time has elapsed.
Solid Nordic noir, based in the Faro Islands, and taking in police corruption, anti-whaling activism and murder.
The Undeclared War
This is in similar territory to The Capture but works rather less well, due to some dodgy plotting. What was great was the imaginative way of showing the process of cyber detective work in literal terms, rather than just endless sequences of people sitting in front of computers and pressing keys.
Documentary series about the still unsolved disappearance in 1983 of Emanuela Orlandi, who lived within the Vatican itself. The investigation takes in the attempted murder of the Pope, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the Mafia and corruption within the Vatican. It’s compelling material, even if the programme suffers from documentary disease – repetition, gimmicky camera work and an ever-present soundtrack – as if the makers lack confidence in the story they’re telling (or have rashly committed to more episodes than the material can really sustain).
Stephen Graham again, this time in the true story of Matthew Collins, the former far-right activist who now works for Hope Not Hate, and who linked up with a member of National Action who was scared and alienated by their murderous plans. What it does terrifically well is to refuse to show Robbie, the ‘walk-in’, as a reformed character, as having had the kind of Damascene conversion that Collins had. He’s still a racist, just maybe not as much of one, and not one who can contemplate the murder of an MP.
The Walking Dead
The final season. Although the many loose ends will, we assume, be picked up in one or more spin-off series – I’ll wait and see whether those look tantalising enough to watch. The final episode itself would have been better split into two, one feature length, and then a shorter coda. As it was, some of the – very gripping – action seemed compressed, with unexplained jumps in time which made some of the escapes from apparently certain death seem ridiculously easy, and one therefore resented the drawn-out reunions and farewells which had strong Return of the King vibes. But there were some brilliant sequences and not all of our guys made it (though rather more of them than we might have expected at the start, at least if we hadn’t been watching this series for as many years as we have). Overall, I’ve loved TWD, even with the Saviour-shaped slump in the middle. Along the way there have been many episodes watched from the very edge of the sofa, many great characters, many stunning set pieces, and some really inventive direction. And a lot of gore.
Norwegian noir, Seasons 2 and 3. Good, solid crime drama that brings together the worlds of policing and investigative journalism through the lead cop, Wisting, and his daughter Line.
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.
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.
I only saw two films at the cinema in 2021. It took me a while to feel confident in going back, but I’m glad I did, for the delight that was Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. (I subsequently saw West Side Story, see below) It seemed fitting, as well, given that the last films I saw at the cinema, in March 2020, were her Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The second of those was the last film I saw at the cinema with my late husband.
There are plenty of films here, viewed on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and regular TV channels. It’s a different experience, certainly, less immersive (I wouldn’t check my phone during a film at the cinema whereas, I’m afraid, I can’t always help myself when at home). But it’s been invaluable, during the various phases of lockdown, and during the weeks immediately after my husband’s death when some already familiar films provided comfort and distraction.
Anyone who has read my reviews of previous years will expect, and will get, a lot of detective, crime and thriller series, a fair bit of scifi/fantasy, and some serious drama. They might not expect a flurry of reality shows – indeed, neither did I. If anyone had told me that in October/November 2021, I would be binging Married at First Sight Australia, The Bachelor (Australia), and Selling Sunset, I would have scoffed. But there, indeed, I was. They served a very useful purpose – they were ludicrous, and despite featuring ‘real’ people, seemed to have no connection to any reality that I recognised, and that was fine, because (for the most part) nothing that happened on these shows was going to break my heart into little pieces. Rather, I spent a lot of time shaking my head in disbelief…
The following list of TV programmes and films (some with commentary, some not) includes things I watched with him, things we’d watched together but which I continued on my own, things I watched with the kids in the strange weeks following his death, and programmes/films to which they introduced me.
The A Word (series 3) – excellent performances, and very touching. Not the last word on autism (it’s far too complex to be that – as they say, if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person) but a portrait of one autistic child and his family.
It’s A Sin – this was stunning, and devastating. Superbly played by all of the leads (special mention to Keeley Hawes, who was horrifying as Ritchie’s mother).
Elizabeth R – I rewatched this to see how something that at the time seemed like landmark television held up 50 years later. It was slow by contemporary standards, and the budget constraints were pretty obvious in the crowd scenes, processions, battles, etc, but Glenda Jackson’s performance was as powerful as I remembered it.
Peaky Blinders – My husband never fancied watching this, despite so many people saying how good it was. I started watching it, with my son, after his death – whilst it’s not what you might call comfort watching, it was something that was good in its own right and had no associations with him that might have ambushed me. It’s brilliantly done, the script, the performances, the pacing, the sets are all marvellous, even if the accents are a bit wonky…
Small Axe – What struck me most forcibly was how different each film is from the others in the series. Mangrove is, of necessity, talky, with a fair bit of declaiming in the courtroom scenes, but Lovers’ Rock has only minimal dialogue, with long sequences where we are just watching people dance and sing along to the music. Music is at the heart of all the episodes except the final one, Education where the appalling travesty of education that was all too often SEN schooling was illustrated by a teacher inflicting his rendition of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on his class (and compounding the crime by claiming that the Animals wrote it…). These films were, individually and as a group, powerful and moving, and vital. It was hard to watch and listen to at times, but well worth doing so, whether one was generally familiar with the events and situations described or not.
Passing – Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel is understated, beautifully shot and full of tension. Wonderful performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.
Petite Maman – a beautiful, magical exploration of loss. The trigger warning referred to ‘mild bereavement references’, and thankfully they were mild, poignant rather than heart wrenching.
The Dig – understated account of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo treasure, during the uneasy days just before the Second World War. Along the way it deals with class and gender prejudices, but with a very gentle touch.
The Harder They Fall – gripping and violent account of black outlaws in the wild west. Not only are most of the characters black, but women play key roles too (Regina King in particular is magnificent). The soundtrack is brilliant – gospel, rap, afrobeat…
1917 – a super-tense account of two young soldiers’ attempt to get an urgent message through to another batallion, across no-man’s land and behind enemy lines. The tension is heightened by the filming which is, for much of the film, a long continuous take
Good Vibrations – warm and funny account of the eponymous record shop in Belfast, and its role in the success of the Undertones.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – fascinating, flawed depiction of the trial of activists for incitement of violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. I wanted more, a lot more, about Bobby Seale, originally the eighth man, without legal representation, and at one point bound and gagged in the courtroom, but it wasn’t that film. Very talky (but how could a courtroom drama be otherwise?), and I suspect somewhat romanticised (did that final scene – the reading of the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam during the course of the trial – take place, and did junior prosecutor Richard Schultz stand, out of respect to the fallen?). The word that crops up most often in reviews is ‘portentous’ and I guess that’s fair.
Battlestar Galactica – the 2004 series, and very different to the original 1970s show. This is gritty and hard-hitting – blood, sweat and tears all in copious supply. The plot was complex and intelligent, and rarely predictable (even when one is very familiar with the genre). The political/religious threads were fascinating, and the ending didn’t tie them all up neatly, leaving viewers to decide, or to wonder.
His Dark Materials – series 2 of the Philip Pullman adaptation was even better than the first. I knew the plot, but still got goosebumps
The Last Wave – ludicrous French fantasy which failed to make any sense at all. We’d watched in hope of something more like The Returned, but it wasn’t even close.
The Mandalorian – very engaging Star Wars spin-off which I managed to comprehend despite not being entirely au fait with that world.
Agents of Shield – the last ever series, and it went out with impeccable style, lots of heart, and a final episode that eschewed high drama and tragedy for a poignant glimpse of something resembling real life.
Loki – wonderfully entertaining, and the double act between Hiddleston and Owen Wilson was a joy to watch.
Wandavision – this was outstanding television. We had no idea what was going on, for quite a while, and the darkness crept up on us. Ultimately, it’s about grief. ‘What is grief, if not love, persevering?’.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – more like the Avengers films than the previous two spin-offs, this marked out new territory with its recognition of race, a tough look at the realities rather than just cheering the notion of a black Captain America.
Hawkeye pairs the supposedly low-key Avenger with an Avenger wannabe, played by Hailee Steinfeld. This works extremely well – she’s desperate to be a super hero, and to be the partner of a super hero, he just wants to get home for Christmas with his kids. There are also obviously bad guys and conspiracies and some jolly good archery.
Black Widow – about bloody time. But also a bit late, in that Natasha died in Endgame. But it fills in her story very satisfyingly, with a good dash of humour and lots of fighting and exploding. Loved Florence Pugh as Yelena.
Shang Chi& the Legend of the Ten Rings – a cracking addition to the MCU, with a predominantly Asian cast, this is visually stunning, and I love the cast, particularly Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh.
The Walking Dead – on to the final stretch now (disregarding any future spinoffs). Since the Whisperers storyline it has been back to full strength, with inventive approaches to storytelling forced on them by the pandemic.
Doctor Who – a New Year’s special and the final series for Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor.The Special was OK, the series was much better – it threw any number of elements into the mix and then stirred them up furiously, and it was genuinely exhilarating. The ‘Village of the Angels’ ep was also genuinely chilling. A couple more specials and then a new (old) showrunner and a new Doc…
Deadpool 2 – very funny, very rude
Fantastic Beasts 2 – completely baffling. Did I nod off partway through? What was all that about? And why?
Happy Deathday – a Halloween choice, and a good one. I do love a time loop.
28 Weeks Later – I saw 28 Days later years ago, but had never got round to the sequel. It may not live up to that, and there were some dodgy elements of the plot that were never explained (e.g., given that the zombies are driven by mindless rage, how does the zombified father have the mental control to stalk and pursue his children?), but it was thoroughly entertaining.
Justice League – this was long. Entertaining enough (once we’d worked out that the reason we seemed to have been pitched right into the middle of the action without any explanation as to what was going on was that we’d mistakenly selected the recording of part 2, thus pitching us right into the middle of the action). I can’t get along with this Batman though – the dark broodiness seems comical.
Kingsman – very silly, very violent, quite rude, very diverting.
Lucy – started off brilliantly, got dafter, if more visually exciting, as it went along.
The Shape of Water – beautiful, magical, strange and moving. It will also always be to me the last thing that I watched with my husband, the night before he died.
Shazam – post-bereavement fun watch
Starship Troopers – violent political satire on militaristic nationalism, based on a Heinlein novel which celebrated militaristic nationalism (and which director Verhoeven described as ‘a very bad book’ and so right wing he could not bear to read it all).
Zombieland Double Tap – not as good as the first film, but entertaining
NB – the adjective ‘grim’ crops up a number of times below. This is not necessarily a criticism, more of a warning that in this particular drama we are a long way from Midsomer, Mallorca or Paradise.
All the Sins (Finland, series 1 & 2) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Darkness (Those That Kill) (Denmark, series 2) – serial killer series focusing on a profiler, who is so bad at her job that she sleeps with the perp (sorry if I’ve spoilered it, but actually I’ve saved you some time…)
Deutschland 89 (Germany, series 3) – a fine finale to the series, as we’ve followed Martin through the last six years of the GDR. Whereas much of the history invoked in ’83 and ’86 wasn’t too familiar to us, this one of course was, and it was fascinating to see if from such a different perspective.
DNA (Denmark) – entertaining, but plot holes aplenty
Ice Cold Murders – Rocco Schiavone (Italy) – the plots are ok, and the maverick detective is ok if a bit of a cliché, but the ‘comedic’ elements haven’t travelled very well and sit poorly with the darker elements of the plot
Monster (Norway) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Nordic Murders (Germany) – not really Nordic, as we understand it. Set on an island that is part Polish, part German. Series 1 (I haven’t followed up subsequent series) started off well enough with the release of a former prosecutor after serving a prison sentence for murder, but then every episode seemed to feature said former prosecutor somehow getting involved in, and miraculously solving, the crimes.
Paris Police 1900 (France) – fascinating, set in the days when the Dreyfus affair was tearing France apart, and antisemitic conspiracy theories were rife.
Rebecka Martinsson (Sweden) – we watched series 1 some time ago so were slightly thrown when the eponymous detective looked entirely different in series 2 thanks to a change of actor. Having got used to that, it was entertaining, even if the lead characters were quite annoying.
Spiral (France) – our final encounter with Laure, Gilou and Josephine. They will be sorely missed.
The Twelve (Belgium) – a courtroom drama with two strands, a murder trial, and the personal lives of some of the jurors. There were some holes in the former plot line, and the second was a bit soapy, but overall it was enjoyable enough.
21 Bridges – v. enjoyable cop thriller with Chadwick Boseman in the lead.
The Valhalla Murders (Iceland) – Grim.
Bloodlands – convoluted plot, not entirely convincing. A second series is apparently in the works but I may not bother.
Inspector George Gently – I do love a period detective drama, if it’s done well and thoughtfully uses the period setting rather than just tapping into some vague nostalgia for the old days when there were bobbies on the beat. Gently is an excellent example of the genre – the 60s setting brings out, in early episodes, the fact that murderers faced the death penalty, the way in which the war was still so present in the minds of those who fought in it, and a barrier to understanding between the generations, the racism, sexism, homophobia and so on that were taken for granted…
WPC 56 – the tone of this is all over the place. Quite serious stuff about racism and sexism and heavy-handed policing, mingled with rather heavy-handed comedy/slapstick involving a bumbling spiv, or a clumsy copper. The lead character (in series 1 and 2) is also an unconvincing mixture of forthright and gutsy, with naïve and romantic (not an impossible combination, I do realise, but neither the script nor the performance is good enough to make it work).
Endeavour (season 6) – yes, this is period detective drama. But it’s so much more. The quality of the writing is consistently high, and the performances, particularly from the core team of Evans, Allam and Lesser, are subtle and convincing – and often very moving. And of course, whilst we are enjoying the 60s/70s setting, we are always conscious that this is the ‘origin story’ of Morse and there’s a fascination in seeing Evans’ portrayal, and the scripts, gradually connecting with the original series.
Grace – didn’t quite work, despite John Simm, who I really like. It’s quite a cracker of a plot (based on, though its ending departs from, Peter James’ Dead Simple) but the eponymous DI’s dabbling in the supernatural (he consults a medium, despite having nearly lost his job over doing so in a previous case) was odd – I think we were meant to believe that the medium was the real deal and his input valuable to the case, but it wasn’t very convincing.
Innocent – series 2, but with an entirely different cast and plot from series 1. The link is that both feature people who have done time but then had their convictions overturned, and focus both on the difficulty of reintegrating with their previous lives, and their desire to expose the real murderer.
Killing Eve – season 3. OK, I know it’s not quite as brilliant as the first two, but even slightly less good Killing Eve is a cut above the average.
Line of Duty – I did not share the disappointment that some felt about the big reveal which turned out not to be such a big reveal. Yes, our household did let out an incredulous shout as we realised who was being led into the interrogation suite, but it was obvious immediately that this was no criminal mastermind but someone obeying orders from much higher up, so we are still waiting for the actual Big Reveal (series 7?)
Mystery Road – gritty Australian crime series (series 2). Excellent, and featuring a significant number of indigenous Australian actors, including the lead, Aaron Pederson. He’s incredibly dour – the character was described by the Guardian’s reviewer as ‘caught between traditions, between worldviews, between laws and lores’. The history and racial politics of Australia are always present here, whether as a troubling undercurrent or in the foreground of the plot.
Shetland – the series has long since parted company with Ann Cleeves’ novels, but stands on its own two feet very well.
Too Close – a psychological drama with a number of glaring plot holes, but great performances from Emily Watson and Denise Gough.
Traces – excellent crime drama written by Val McDermid, set in Dundee, and featuring Martin Compston (Line of Duty).
Unforgotten (Season 4) – this series is always emotionally hard-hitting. The ‘reveal’ scene at the end of Season 3 still haunts me, and the focus on the way in which the impact of the crime continues to devastate long afterwards is powerfully done. This series was no exception. Apparently some viewers were cross about the ending, which I don’t really understand – I thought it was, yes, heartbreaking but handled with subtlety and humanity.
Vera (Season 10) – we do love Vera. And I have a very soft spot for her DS, especially (I may have mentioned this in previous years’ reviews) the way he kneels down to put her crime scene shoe covers on.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the 1979 series, with Alec Guinness as (surely) the definitive Smiley. I remember watching it at the time and being enthralled. The opening sequence was slow, and almost dialogue-free, but told us an awful lot regardless – subtle atmosphere building and character development. Everything was slightly sepia, as if nicotine stained. The 2011 film was excellent, but I was surprised how closely they followed the series.
Gosford Park – easy to get distracted by the star cast, but one did have to concentrate to follow the plot. Thoroughly entertaining, great script, splendid performances, no depth or nuance but that didn’t stop it being most enjoyable.
Death in Paradise/The Mallorca Files/McDonald & Dodds/Midsomer Murders – murder in a beautiful setting and/or with a slightly tongue in cheek approach, nothing too heavy or emotionally engaging. There are times when that’s just what one needs.
Brooklyn 99 – having been urged for several years to watch this by my son, I finally started to watch it, with him, in the days following Martyn’s death. Very funny, very well written.
Community (Season 6) – They got six seasons, but no sign of a movie… Continued to be super-meta and bonkers to the very end.
Good Girls – this one was my daughter’s contribution to post-bereavement watching. Whilst some (many) plot developments could be seen coming, the script and the performances make it immensely enjoyable.
Modern Family (Season 9) – it tends to re-tread the same ground repeatedly, but Phil makes me laugh such a lot that all is forgiven.
Parks & Recreation (Season 1) – I gather that Season 1 is simply an intro to when it gets really good, from Season 2 onwards. I intend to check that out soon. Meantime, we rather enjoyed Season 1.
What We Do in the Shadows – mad, silly, rude and gory
This Way Up – Aisling Bea’s comedy has so much heart. It’s full of people who aren’t horrible, just human and who make mistakes and hurt people without particularly intending to, and people who are trying really hard to cope with life. It made me laugh and cry.
Ted Lasso (Season 1) – a warm hug of a show. But not as cosy as that suggests, it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness and unkindness, and Ted isn’t a Forrest Gump, as I feared, but a very intelligent person who’s found a way of living and relating to people that merely seems simple. I loved it. And it’s about football.
Films we watched, huddled together on the sofa, in the aftermath: Bridesmaids, Hitch, Lovebirds, Murder Mystery. All enjoyable and silly, and just what we needed.
Strictly Come Dancing – I had never watched this before. I can’t imagine how I could have sold it to Martyn, TBH. But I am now so invested, having wept my way through Rose’s silent dance, and John and Johannes talking about coming out, and Rhys’s Dad and AJ’s Mum… The dancing is so joyous and life affirming, and for all the clichés about ‘journeys’ we are watching people grow and flourish in a most extraordinary way. I’m hooked.
The Great British Bake-off – another bit of joyful telly. These people are competing against one another, but they seem to care about each other too. As the final three waited for the announcement of the winner, they were all holding hands, which was rather sweet. Baking, like dancing, is something I cannot comprehend or imagine ever doing, even incompetently, so it does all feel rather like magic.
Taskmaster – it does depend a bit on who the competitors are, but generally it’s engaging, funny, and bonkers.
Get Back – this was glorious. I remember watching the Let it Be documentary, way way back, with Martyn, and the selection of material made everything seem sour, and sad. Seeing all these hours of footage, what comes across is the joy that they still found in making music, the laughter, the sweet moments, the magical process where we hear the song we know emerging from what seemed to be an aimless jam. There’s friction, sure, but ‘you know, lads, the band!’ as Paul says. And I’ve always loved that rooftop performance. Favourite moments – the ‘Get Back’ moment, John and Yoko waltzing to ‘I Me Mine’, Heather mimicking Yoko’s primal screamy vocals, Paul saying, very early on, that it would be really cool if the gig were to be interrupted by the cops. Paul mocking the idea that future generations might think the band broke up because Yoko sat on an amp. Mal. And Glyn. Everyone trying to stall the cops as they head for the roof. I know some people (probably quite a few) found its running time too long. All I can say is that it never outstayed its welcome for me. My apprenticeship was 47 years of listening to musicians jamming, trying things out, allowing tunes to emerge. Listening as it happened, and then listening to recordings of it happening… So every minute of this was tinged with sadness, that Martyn wasn’t there to watch it with me, and memories of listening to this music with him, and listening to him making his own music.
Summer of Soul (or – when the revolution could not be televised) – 2021 documentary, mixing footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with commentary from some of the artists, and some members of the audience. It features performances from (amongst others), Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder… An extraordinary record of an extraordinary event.
Hamilton – a real treat. The conceit (rapping about 18th century American history) is audacious, and carried off with such flair and style. As the Guardian reviewer put it, it offers us ‘history de-wigged’, it captures ‘the fervour and excitement of revolution’, and celebrates the ways in which immigrants shaped America by casting almost entirely non-white performers. Stunning, and I will be re-watching this soon.
Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace – wonderful footage from the recording of the Amazing Grace album, Aretha paying her gospel dues. That voice, oh lord. And she sang her mash-up of ‘You’ve got a friend’ with ‘Precious Lord’.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – brilliant doc on one of my absolute favourite musicians, a most remarkable and fascinating man with an extraordinary life.
Once were Brothers – another excellent doc, this one on The Band, largely through Robbie Robertson’s reminiscences, which are very articulate and thoughtful.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes – a labour of love from writer/director and actor Caroline Catz, exploring the life and work of this innovator in electronic music, someone who undoubtedly should be better known.
West Side Story – Spielberg was never going to diss the original movie, so my fear was that it might be just a bit too reverential, rather than that he would ditch any of the things that are most vital about it. The music, the lyrics, the choreography, are all there, and any changes are contextual – the setting for some of the big dance numbers, who some of the songs are given to, for example. There’s additional dialogue which allows for a fleshing out of the social issues touched upon in ‘Gee Officer Krupke’, and the context of a neighbourhood that’s not only disputed territory between the rival gangs, but scheduled for demolition and future gentrification. Lovely as Natalie Wood was, I much prefer Rachel Zegler, and whilst Ariana Debose can’t eclipse Rita Moreno (who could), she matches the vibrancy of that performance and, of course, we get Moreno anyway, in an added role as Doc’s widow. She gets to sing ‘Somewhere’, which broke me, that song, in her still lovely but more fragile voice, reflecting her own attempts to find a place for her and the man she loved. I loved it, and I cried, quite a lot, as I always do, but I also smiled in sheer delight, as I always do.
Carousel/South Pacific – first time for the former, the second (my Mum’s favourite musical) I have watched many, many times. I really disliked Carousel. Most of the music didn’t really move me (apart from it’s one really big wonderful tune), and I loathed Billy Bigelow, at best a charmless yob, at worst a violent bully, and so I hated him being given another chance to show Julie that he loved her (by hitting their daughter, apparently – but it’s OK because it felt like a kiss…). This stuff is seriously toxic and that one really big wonderful tune cannot redeem it. South Pacific, on the other hand, only a couple of years later from the same team, is wonderful. Now I know they dodge the issue of racial prejudice by having lovely Joe Cable die before he can keep his promise to Liat, but that song, ‘You Have to be Carefully Taught’ is brilliant, and pretty radical. Just to have Nellie and Joe acknowledging the irrationality of their prejudices, and their feeling of helplessness in the face of those irrational responses, is pretty radical. The tunes are great, the performances are great, and the use of coloured filters (a lot more extreme than the director had intended) is still startling and strange.
A mixed bag of musical biogs on Billie, Ella, Fela Kuti and Betty Davis (this last one rather undermined by the dearth of performance footage)
It’s impossible to think back over this year without constantly labelling the memories as ‘before’ or ‘after’. There are things I’d never have watched if he’d still been here, and things it seems awful that he missed because he would have loved them (Get Back, the latest series of Endeavour, to name but two). I don’t want to get maudlin but melancholy is inevitable. We had 44 years of watching telly on the sofa together, and we shared a love for Doctor Who for the last 47 years (starting with Pertwee, ending with Whitaker – I go on alone to the next regeneration). This time next year that before/after feeling will be less acute. I will have a whole 12 months of watching on my own, with family, with friends. I’ll still wish he was here though.
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.
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.
I do appear to have read quite a lot of books in the first half of 2021… And this isn’t quite everything – I’ve left out one or two re-reads, one or two very academic books that I read solely for purposes of my thesis, and one or two that were just such a waste of time to read that I couldn’t be bothered to waste further time saying how rubbish they were. Not that everything I list here was marvellous, but there is a difference, I would say, between noting my issues with, e.g., Ian McEwan’s Solar, and slating a random thriller that I got for 99p off Amazon. I’m reasonably discriminating in my acquisitions, so it’s rare that there are more than a couple of utter duds. And ultimately, the reason I write about what I read is to share the good stuff, to infect other people with my own enthusiasms, and big up the writers who’ve given me pleasure and enlightenment.
I’ve split fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is in strictly alphabetical author order, not grouped by genre. Non-fiction is grouped, very roughly, by topic. I’ve included links to reviews where they’re not too spoilery but as always, caveat lector.
Eric Ambler – The Mask of Dimitrios. A cracking thriller, set in the tense period before the outbreak of WWII, and pitting a writer of detective novels against an international network of crime, from Istanbul to Paris. Ambler was hugely influential, particularly on Graham Greene, and his perspective is politically informed and leftist.
James Baldwin – Another Country/Just Above my Head. I read the former as a teenager, and it is just as bleakly powerful half a century later. The latter is new to me, and I gather is not regarded as one of his best but I loved it, loving the rhythms of the prose and the dialogue, the elegiac tone, the immersion in the church and in music. I’ve been absorbed in Baldwin’s life and work over the last couple of years, his essays and novels, an excellent biography (see below), and Raoul Peck’s remarkable film, I Am Not Your Negro. Plus he cropped up in a Radio 4 programme hosted by Clarke Peters, about the 1987 performance of his play, The Amen Corner. Everything I read, hear, watch makes me admire and love Baldwin more.
Belinda Bauer – Exit. I’ve been a fan of Bauer’s sharp, off-beat crime novels for several years now, and this is terrific. It’s very funny, in a dark way, and it keeps on surprising the reader without resorting to the kind of twists for twists’ sake that too many thriller writers employ in lieu of convincing characterisation and intelligent plotting…
Mark Billingham – Cry Baby – another excellent crime writer. This is a Tom Thorne novel, but a prequel, going back to the time before the start of the series (Sleepyhead). Thorne is a not a rookie here though, he’s already got ten years (and associated traumas) under his belt, and this case is a brute.
William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms. One never knows what to expect with Boyd. This starts off in seemingly very familiar territory – in fact, we’re in The 39 Steps territory. From there on we go all over the shop really, big pharma conspiracies, London’s marginalised communities of illegal migrants, sex workers and the homeless, hit-men and a good man on the run. It doesn’t entirely hold together, but it’s a great read and – being Boyd – beautifully written.
Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders. Historical fiction this time, and the setting is a village in Derbyshire, in the year of the Great Plague. It’s based (at least in the set-up) on the true story of Eyam, familiar to anyone who grew up in Notts/Derbyshire/South Yorkshire, the story of the vicar who persuaded his parishioners to quarantine themselves after a case of plague in the village. This is dramatic and remarkable enough but Brooks then takes the plot in even more dramatic and unexpected directions… Oddly, one of the reviews seemed to be saying that the Eyam story was itself melodramatic and improbable. Clearly didn’t go to school in our neck of the woods…
Anthony Burgess – Nothing Like the Sun. Fascinating to read this so soon after reading Orlando (see below), as it connects so powerfully with the Elizabethan section of the latter. The language is exuberantly, extravagantly Shakespearian, but it subtly evolves over the life of the writer, who as a boy plays with language that goes beyond his understanding, but learns its power, and the limits of that power.
James Lee Burke – A Private Cathedral. I’ve really enjoyed the Dave Robicheaux series but this one was odd. It all got a bit supernatural, and whilst there’s always been that undercurrent, with Robicheaux having dream-like visions of the past, this takes it to another level and I’m not sure I’m convinced…
Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist. Another one that didn’t quite convince me. The historical setting and detail were great, but, as with the Burke, there was a supernatural element that didn’t quite work (for me) and the way the feminist/gay/racial strands of the plot were handled felt anachronistic and a bit artificial.
Michel Butor – Passing Time. Of course I’ve read this book this year, as I have every year for the last 15. I’m including it this time because I’ve unusually spent a lot of time immersed in the English translation, which I’ve been helping to revise for a new edition, out now…
Peter Carey – True History of the Kelly Gang. I’ve read most of Carey’s novels, and I love them. The language of this one took a bit of getting into (though no more than Illywhacker, say) because it is all in Ned Kelly’s voice, but once I was comfortable with that, it was a riot. It’s ‘true history’ but one should note that there is no definite or indefinite article in the title, which alerts us that Carey, as always, tells stories that are ‘playful, shape-changing’. The story is remarkable enough, as is Ned himself, who as we are constantly reminded in the narrative, is just a boy, and Carey makes it vivid and viscerally immediate.
M R Carey – The Girl with All the Gifts. Excellent – whenever you think the ‘zombie’ idea has been done, as it were, to death, there’s a new take on it that creates new possibilities not just for drama but for emotional heft.
Candice Carty-Williams – Queenie. Funny, perceptive, heartbreaking. My daughter is Queenie’s age, and that undoubtedly made my emotional response more intense – I wanted to hold that girl and keep her from harm, keep her from harming herself.
Jane Casey – The Killing Kind. A stand-alone thriller by one of my favourite contemporary crime writers, it had me gripped from the start, and kind of scared too, that prickling feeling at the back of the neck, that sense of unease was pervasive, and not entirely resolved at the end of the novel…
Harlan Coben – The Boy from the Woods/The Stranger. Coben’s thrillers are reliably slick page turners, even if one doesn’t look to them for in-depth characterisation (and it does sometimes grate that all of his protagonists are both rich AND gorgeous…). I do like to have one or two on my Kindle to turn to between more demanding reads.
Jonathan Coe – The Rain before it Falls. Beautiful and moving. I’ve read several of Coe’s including his trilogy (The Rotters’ Club/The Closed Circle/Middle England) and he writes with warmth, understanding and compassion about even the less sympathetic of his characters, as well as incisively and with humour about the world we live in. Here we are taken back into the past life of an elderly woman through the series of cassette tapes she leaves for the benefit of an elusive legatee, a story told through a series of photographs. This is clever stuff, but it’s never merely clever. It is, as the Guardian reviewer said, ‘a brief, sad, often very moving story of mothers and daughters, of pain passed on through generations, and of deep and abiding loneliness’.
Suzanne Collins – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I knew this was linked to the Hunger Games trilogy, but hadn’t twigged that it was a prequel so was mightily confused for a while… Once I’d grasped that it was the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, that obviously coloured the way I understood the protagonist, but not so much that it destroyed any suspense, and not so much that one didn’t occasionally sympathise with him (to a point). The book wasn’t necessary in any way, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt. This attracted some controversy, which I don’t think was entirely fair. OK, Cummins relied on research rather than shared experience or background to create the world of the refugees, but isn’t that what novelists do? Should they only write what they know? And Cummins is very aware of this issue, and it is clear that her migrants are not presented as being representative, that this is one story, albeit one that touches on a lot of other stories. I found it a totally compelling read, had to keep reminding myself to breathe…
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions/The Book of Not/This Mournable Body. I read these in the wrong order by mistake (1, 3, 2…)! Nervous Conditions was the first novel by a Zimbabwean woman to be published in English, and This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker. The novels explore the intersections between race, colonialism and gender in a way that’s engaging and moving.
A A Dhand – Streets of Darkness. Bradford set crime novel, the first in a series. I loved the setting, but found the plot a tad melodramatic, and the over-use of ‘dark secrets from the past’ a bit wearisome. Will give it another go, this had a lot to recommend it even with those caveats.
Charles Dickens – Mugby Junction. I thought I’d read all Dickens but I’d missed this short story, part of a collection, featuring a few by Dickens and then stories by other contributors. I haven’t yet tracked down an edition with all of the stories, so read this primarily for Mugby Junction itself. The opening sequence, a man arriving at a railway station late at night, got me hooked, though the plot subsequently veered towards Dickens’ more sentimental side.
Louise Doughty – Black Water. The setting is Indonesia, in 1965 and 1998, and it is a tense political thriller, rooted in character and tackling head-on the complex moral dilemmas of those times. Doughty may be best known for Apple Tree Yard, which is excellent, but her work is incredibly varied – I would always put Fires in the Dark, a harrowing and important novel that addresses the Romani Holocaust, as my top Doughty but I also loved the recent Platform 7 which was different again.
Sebastian Faulks – Engleby. We’re not left in any doubt that our eponymous protagonist is odd, an outsider, but as we see things through his eyes (until late in the novel), we don’t entirely realise who he is and what he is capable of. Our sympathies gradually detach from him as we see him more clearly, and Faulks lets us hear what others say about Engleby through diary entries etc. I doubt that any reader would be shocked and amazed by the major plot development, of which I will say nothing, however, in case I am mistaken.
Helen Fields – Perfect Silence. Book 4 in her DI Luc Callanach series, tense and well plotted.
Nicci French – Frieda Klein series. I binged these over Christmas/New Year. Eight books, starting with Blue Monday and ending with Day of the Dead. Proper edge of the seat stuff, though I had some plot issues, about which I can say no more without spoilers.
Tana French – The Searcher. A stand-alone from the author of the superb Dublin Murders series. Rural Irish noir with an ex-Chicago cop as protagonist, and a host of references to the Western genre. Very enjoyable, if not quite French’s best.
Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies/River of Smoke. Books 1 and 2 of the Ibis Trilogy, and book 3 will feature in my end of year list, as I am looking forward to it enormously. Ghosh’s canvas here is vast – the setting is early 19th century, and the story ranges across India, Mauritius, Canton and Hong Kong, as a cast of diverse and fascinating individuals are drawn together directly or indirectly by the opium trade, and the ship, the Ibis, on which they all find themselves at some point. There is a Babel of different languages, not just the native languages of the Bihari, Bengali, Parsi, Cantonese, English and Americans, but the nautical languages, the ‘pidgin’ languages developed to enable trade between these diverse peoples. It’s glorious and exhilarating.
Isabelle Grey – Out of Sight. This is a stand-alone novel from the author of the DI Grace Fisher series, and it was actually her fictional debut. It’s a psychological thriller, which builds the emotional tension with great skill.
Elly Griffiths – The Night Hawks. The latest Ruth Galloway and another highly enjoyable read. Griffiths is great at creating atmosphere and tension, and her characters (both the familiar ones, who are old friends now, and the new characters) are fully real.
Sophie Hannah – Haven’t They Grown. Psychological thriller that presents us right at the start with something impossible, even crazy, that the protagonist – and the reader – have to try to figure out. It’s very twisty, and I couldn’t see how on earth Hannah was going to resolve it all, but she does, and it’s all hugely enjoyable.
Jane Harper – The Survivors. Harper’s four crime novels are all exceptionally strong on landscape and location. Here the setting is a coastal community in Tasmania, far from the scorching heat of The Lost Man, where storms at sea are part of the local history whilst resonating in the present. There’s real tragedy here, coming from human frailty and fear rather than from evil.
Sarah Hilary – Fragile. A stand-alone thriller from the author of the Marnie Rome series. This is not just about secrets and lies (without secrets and lies there would be very little fiction of any genre, after all), it’s about responsibility and guilt and how even when everything is known, there is no absolute truth, and no complete absolution. The sense of place is potent, and the characters subtly drawn, with compassion and understanding.
Joe Hill – NOS4A2. Son of King. And this is very King, which is not a criticism, because I love King, though on the strength of this I would say that ‘son of’ shares not only the best qualities but also some of the flaws of his father. No matter, this was a cracking read, with real terror, and an excellent protagonist, a teenage girl whose life becomes entangled with evil.
Dorothy Hughes – In A Lonely Place. This is noir, very noir. (There’s a 1950 Nicholas Ray film based on the book, which, however, changes the central premise.) It’s brilliant, and I’m baffled as to why Hughes is not better known. (Well, perhaps not entirely baffled, but it’s a grave injustice in any case.)
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant. Ishiguro wrongfoots his readers once again, with this venture into the historical/mythical Dark Ages, with giants and dragons and Arthurian knights, through which he explores old age, memory, loss, love and war, and a huge ethical question about forgetting and healing.
Peter James – Dead Simple. The first in the DI Roy Grace series, recently televised with John Simm in the lead role. A great plot, though I was less taken with DI Grace himself – I will persevere and hope to warm to him a little more (I might watch the TV one – if John Simm doesn’t win me over it’s probably a lost cause).
Stephen King – Later. The latest in his Hard Case Crime series. There is crime, but as King reminds us from time to time, this is horror. Sometimes King loses his grasp of plot and things get a bit baggy and muddled but not here – it’s taut and tense and gripping. As the Washington Post reviewer said, ‘The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench, or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller’.
John le Carré – A Most Wanted Man. Only a few more unread le Carrés, sadly. Hari Kunzru in The Guardian called it ‘one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the war on terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey’.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman. A coming-of-age story from Idi Amin’s Uganda, which moves back in time to explore the lives of earlier generations of women, with diversions into feminist origin myths, as the protagonist tries to navigate a complicated and feud-ridden family life. There’s lots of humour and warmth here, and it is ultimately celebratory, with a final scene that gave me goose-bumps and a huge lump in my throat.
Val McDermid – Killing the Shadows/The Grave Tattoo/Still Life. Three very different McDermids. Killing the Shadows is a highly ingenious serial killer story, with a twist, that the killer is targeting crime writers. It’s done very cleverly, and with self-aware dark humour. The Grave Tattoo gives us a crime that connects with 18th century history and literature. These two are both stand-alones, and in neither case is the protagonist a detective. The third, Still Life, published in 2020, is book 6 in the excellent Karen Pirie series
Ian McEwan – Solar. Hmm. Sometimes acerbically funny, sometimes merely farcical. None of the characters was particularly convincing, and I found it wearying to see yet again the trope of a male protagonist who is made as unappealing (physically and morally) as possible and yet still pulls attractive, younger women. Yaawwwnn. I also was a bit gobsmacked by the reviewer who claimed that McEwan had ‘swotted up to PhD level in Physics’ for the purposes of this book. Even if he had started off with a strong scientific background, I cannot see how he could have done this on any plausible time frame. So, it had its moments, but overall it was too annoying to be enjoyable.
Jon McGregor – Lean Fall Stand. Fiction book of the year (so far, but it will take quite something to dislodge it). McGregor is possibly my favourite contemporary novelist – each of his books has had quite an extraordinary impact on me, subtle and delicate and brutal and compelling. Reviewers tended to all praise the first section but then to favour one or other of the other two sections. I can see why – I felt a sense of regret as each section ended and I realised that the perspective, and the style, had shifted, but then was quickly won over by the brilliance and beauty of the writing. I read it, as I read most things, in too much of a rush and immediately started again at the beginning, taking it slow, savouring it.
Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar. Sequel to The Ruin and featuring the same detective, Cormac O’Reilly. It’s even better than its predecessor, I would say, and I very much enjoyed The Ruin – well-drawn characters, a very clever and thoroughly worked out plot with a lot of tension.
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King. Set in Ethiopia in 1935, during the Italian invasion. It’s a very intense read, violent and dark, absolutely fascinating, with a focus on the women soldiers who fought to defend their homeland against the invaders.
Denise Mina – The Less Dead is a crime novel which wants to challenge the way we tell the stories of the victims of crime, particularly those whose chaotic lives make them both more vulnerable to violence and more likely to be blamed for their own demise, marginalised in both life and death. The story in itself was powerful and of course it chimed with one of last year’s reads, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, and with The Thirteen too…
Sarah Moss – Summerwater. I love Sarah Moss’s books and this one will repay an early re-read to appreciate its subtleties (see my remarks re Jon McGregor). There is, throughout, a sense of unease, something not quite right, that the occupants of these loch-side cabins are not as they appear through the eyes of their neighbours or even to their closest family.
Thomas Mullen – Midnight Atlanta. The third in a superb series along with Darktown and The Lightning Men, set in Atlanta in the 1950s with racial politics absolutely at the heart of the action.
Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies. The invulnerability of youth, friendship, aging and mortality. The first half was gloriously funny, the second broke me.
Caryl Phillips – Crossing the River. Fragments of the history of the African diaspora, linked by a (not literal) familial connection. We start on a West African shore as a man acknowledges his guilt and grief over his children, sold into slavery. We join those lost children in Liberia, as a freed slave endeavours to take the gospel and ‘civilisation’ back to Africa, in Colorado as a slave, freed after the Civil War, dreams of finding her own lost child, and some kind of real freedom, and in Yorkshire where a black GI and a local woman recognise each other’s lostness. And we have the journal of the man to whom those lost children were sold. The chronologies do not make sense, historical plausibility is not the priority here. They are powerful narratives, different voices persuasively rendered, moments that stay with you.
John Preston – The Dig. Lightly fictionalised version of the Sutton Hoo dig. It’s the people that interest Preston, rather than their discoveries, and not those who are most prominent in the official narrative but those who were overshadowed, due to their own natural reticence or the prejudices of others. A lovely, poignant read.
Ian Rankin – A Song for the Dark Times. The latest Rebus. Rebus is still splendidly Rebus and has not allowed his retirement to in any way constrain his mission to annoy the hell out of the establishment.
C J Sansom – Tombland. I was slightly disappointed with the last one I read in the Shardlake series due to some clunky writing but thoroughly enjoyed this, partly because the setting was very different – we’re in Norfolk, at the time of Kett’s Rebellion, and it’s a gripping story (there’s a murder mystery here, but the context is just as compelling as the crime).
Francis Spufford – Light Perpetual. A wonderful book. The opening is a tour de force, and that force propels us through the lives of five children, lives that might not have been. The Guardian calls it ‘both a requiem and a giving of life’. And it’s profoundly musical too, whether in its subject matter or in the way that these five lives interweave in harmony or dissonance.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Again. Olive Kitteridge is, I think, Strout’s finest creation. She’s not a comfortable person, she’s abrasive and clumsy. But she’s utterly convincing, and fascinating. As is Strout’s usual approach, she gives us a series of short stories, with recurring characters, so that we see some of the same events from different perspectives. Olive Again is unflinching in its portrayal of ageing, its indignities and regrets, but it is somehow hopeful, that we can still change, still love.
Graham Swift – Here We Are. This is kind of magical. The Guardian said: ‘This is a beautiful, gentle, intricate novella, the kind of book that stays with you despite not appearing to do anything particularly new or special. In fact, perhaps that’s what makes it so very good: Here We Are smuggles within the pages of a seemingly commonplace tale depths of emotion and narrative complexity that take the breath away.’
Antal Szerb – Journey by Moonlight. This is the great Hungarian novel, and it’s quite something. Written in 1937, its author was murdered by the Nazis during the last months of the war. The book is hard to describe – it reminded me at times of Sebald and at others of Ishiguro. This fascinating article describes it as ‘a brief reprieve from the logic according to which happiness and sadness are opposed to one another’. What that quote doesn’t convey perhaps is that it’s often very funny.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Corner that Held Them. Warner is a most intriguing writer. About this novel, published in 1948 and set in a convent at the time of the Black Death (I know…), she apparently said, ‘I am still inclined to call it People Growing Old. It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant’. This curiously compelling, and often drily humorous novel is about history as ‘a tangle of events’; about a community, rather than about the individuals who comprise that community.
Dorothy Whipple – Greenbanks. I’d not even heard of Whipple until the last year or so (I do apologise to her) but during the plague times I think many people turned back to some of the literature of the interwar period (this is from 1932), and Whipple’s name just kept coming up in recommendations from friends and acquaintances. So, I have now Whippled and I will assuredly do so again, because Greenbanks was lovely. And by that I don’t mean it was all cosy comfort, far from it. It leaves the younger of the two main protagonists with much about her life and future happiness unresolved, and its male characters are portrayed incisively, their ‘pretensions and presumptions’ exposed and punctured. The writing is absolutely delicious.
Christa Wolf – Cassandra. Published in 1983, this is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the woman cursed to prophesy and not be believed. There are many resonances with life in the GDR, and the book was censored when first published. It’s also got a strong theme of the marginalisation of women’s lives, the lack of choice and agency (even for the daughter of a King).
Virginia Woolf – Orlando. I’d been meaning to read this for years, having tried and failed to read other Woolf novels. This was the one to break that pattern, it’s quite extraordinary, a wild ride through the centuries, through English literary history, with a male protagonist who quite suddenly becomes a female protagonist, albeit one who presents as male when it suits her purposes, and who takes male and female lovers. Glorious.
Peter Jones – Little Piece of Harm. I read poetry a lot less often than I intend to. What tempts me to go there is usually a new publication from Longbarrow Press, and this one was a gem. It’s ‘a narrative sequence that focuses on 24 hours in the life of a city that has been shut down in the aftermath of a shooting. As this act of violence ramifies outwards, the sequence explores the geographical reach of Sheffield – its urban settings and its rural landmarks – and eavesdrops on the city’s conversations.’
David Leeming – James Baldwin. A wonderful biography, from someone who knew Baldwin well. I was immersed in this, so much so that I felt quite overwhelmed at his death, as if he was someone I’d known. This isn’t a hagiography – Baldwin was a complicated and often difficult man, who fell out with a lot of people over the years, a man who never worked out how to love himself, who saw himself as ugly, who never found the true love that he wanted. But he’s a towering figure, his vision and passion are so powerfully articulated in his fiction and essays as well as in interviews. Charisma and intellect in such abundance.
W E B Dubois – The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois’ work obviously influenced Baldwin, as it did all of the writers who’ve talked about race in the twentieth century, and into our own. Dubois’ style seems a bit florid (it is of its time, 1903) but nonetheless it is clear and lucid and passionate. He talks about the veil between the black and white worlds, he talks about how it feels to ‘be a problem’. He says it so well that it is no wonder that by the time Baldwin is saying similar things, in a very different style, 60-70 years later, he is angry and weary that they still need saying. They still do.
David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel follows his powerful documentary on Holocaust denial with this passionate, funny, angry account of how Jews are somehow omitted from consideration so often when racial prejudice is under discussion. It’s quite shattering – so many things that I had seen out of the corner of my eye, in a way, but not confronted, in my own thinking about race and in the way it is written and spoken about. Groundbreaking.
Alexandra Wilson – In Black and White Wilson came to attention with a piece in the Guardian, recounting a day in which she, a barrister, on three separate occasions had to persuade court officials that she was not, in fact, the defendant… This sets those incidents in the context of her career in the law, and of the way in which race and class affect the way in which people fare in the legal system.
Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child. The account of a child of the Kindertransport, who came to England with her sister, was fostered with a couple who tried to erase all memory and knowledge of their previous life, and who only discovered the fate of her mother in middle age. W G Sebald used (without her permission) many elements of her story in Austerlitz.
Rachel Clifford – Survivors. Clifford’s study of child survivors of the Holocaust (specifically, those who were in camps, or in hiding, or who otherwise lived out the war in Europe) is fascinating, particularly in its exploration of how understanding of trauma developed over the post-war period.
Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague. Somewhat breathlessly written (perhaps for a YA readership), it’s nonetheless a gripping and powerful story.
Hadley Freeman – The House of Glass. A meticulously researched and emotionally powerful family history, driven by the need to understand her grandmother, and to know what happened to the wider family, who survived the Holocaust and how, who didn’t and why.
Saul Friedlander – The Years of Extermination. Volume 2 of Friedlander’s history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. What can one say – it is exhaustive and relentless, and as always one is struck by the sheer mad obsession of that hatred, that led the Nazis to continue searching for, rounding up and transporting Jewish men, women and children to their deaths, even as the Allies were closing in on Berlin.
Lillian Furst – Random Destinations. A study of various fictionalised accounts of the lives of those who escaped the Holocaust, and how these narratives could face some of the darker aspects of those lives, marked by trauma, struggling with their own sense of identity, with their Jewishness, with their exile, aspects that have sometimes been neglected due to the focus on the successes of the more prominent survivors.
Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto. A detailed and fascinating study of Theresienstadt, the town that became a ghetto prison, and then a Potemkin village to delude the Red Cross into believing that the occupants were well looked after, a place where many died of disease and from which many more were deported to Auschwitz. Hajkova talks about the way in which the ghetto was organised, the hierarchies and power balances between the inhabitants, putting the brief episode with the Red Cross into context rather than making it the centre of the narrative.
Michael Rosen – The Missing. Like Freeman, Rosen set out to find out what happened to the ‘missing’ members of his family. This account is aimed at children/young adults, but does not pull its punches. Rosen incorporates poems and source documents to help readers understand both the facts and their emotional weight. It’s a moving read for adults who feel they know this stuff already, too.
Anne Applebaum – The Twilight of Democracy. I read a while ago Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, which was excellent. This one is different, because it is intensely personal, as well as being rigorously analytical. It’s the account of how, at the start of the millennium, she and her friends (in the US, the UK, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe) were in broad agreement about the future of democracy and how, in the years since, many of those friends have moved so far to the nationalist right that she and they no longer speak.
Adam Hothschild – King Leopold’s Ghost. The horrific story of the exploitation of the Congo Free State (which included the whole of what is now DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908. Leopold exploited the land and its natural resources, but most appallingly its people, who were treated as entirely expendable, and who were, in vast numbers, mutilated, tortured and killed. Those who want to defend colonialism will argue that this is an extreme case, and it is, but the mentality behind it – greed, combined with the deep rooted belief that the African people were inferior beings – can be seen in even the most benign colonial regimes.
Barrack Obama – Promised Land. Volume 1 of his presidential memoirs and it’s huge… I have to admit that some of the detail lost me – I don’t have quite sufficient grasp of the mechanics and structures of the US system to follow it all – but it was (as one would expect from Obama) beautifully and lucidly written, and critical as much of himself as of others.
Shirley Williams – Climbing the Bookshelves. A very engaging memoir that I reached for from my TBR pile when I heard of her death. I’ve always liked and admired Williams, though her politics and mine don’t entirely align – she was always a tad to the right of my natural position, though that would not preclude major areas of agreement. Most of all, she was a politician of complete integrity and that’s a rare and valuable commodity these days. We need more of her ilk.
Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. Highly entertaining – a rambunctious literary life, and a seriously unreliable autobiographer – as Biswell sifts reality from contradictory self-mythologising and explores the work itself. It makes me want to read more Burgess (but selectively).
Richard Coles – Fathomless Riches/Bringing in the Sheaves/The Madness of Grief. The fascination of Volume 1 of this trilogy of memoirs is Coles’ involvement in the music scene, with the Communards, but it is particularly powerful on the AIDs epidemic, to which he lost many friends. He is very honest, self-deprecating and often extremely funny. Vol. 2 covers his life in the church and is very oriented around the church year – I did find this harder to enjoy, although he is a lovely writer and person, as although I was brought up as a Christian, my experiences were in Methodist and ‘charismatic’ church communities, very different to the higher end of the CofE, and it felt quite alien. My atheism remains unshaken. Vol. 3 is about the death of Coles’ husband and it is a heartbreaking and, again, brutally honest account. I loved the bit about the group of widows who saw him in a café and embraced him, physically and with comforting chat, from the perspective of those who know what it is to lose one’s other half and yet go on.
Pamela des Barres – I’m With the Band. I’d always been intrigued by this and it was quite a surprising read. Obviously, a lot of sex was had. But mostly what comes across is the breathless romanticism of des Barres: she isn’t so much adding notches to her bedpost as falling in love with one after another of the rock gods she encounters, each time of course facing disillusionment as they move on to another town and other girls. She does care a lot and know a lot about the music – it isn’t just the fame that turns her on.
Jackie Kay – Bessie Smith. Not a straight biography, more a prose poem. It’s thoroughly researched, but feels as much personal as it is scholarly. The Guardian describes it is ‘a joyous and formally daring undertaking. … an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.
James Young – Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio. An account of the author’s travels with Nico on various UK and European tours in the years leading up to her death. Often grim, and often grimly funny.
Rachel Clarke – Breathtaking. Having read Dear Life, I knew Clarke could write beautifully about mortality and compassion, and here she covers the Covid pandemic and the experience of the medics called upon to take huge risks and work beyond exhaustion to try to keep people alive in those deadly days (days we hope we won’t see again). I also read Dominic Pimenta’s Duty of Care – like Clarke, Pimenta was taken out of his normal work to treat Covid patients, and to help organise resources to deal with the crisis. Both of them are at times incandescent with anger about the failure of government to recognise what needed to be done and to act quickly, to protect NHS staff with adequate PPE, to protect the vulnerable in care homes and in hospital wards.
Daniel Levitin – The Changing Mind. Levitin argues that, contrary to what we’re often told, we don’t lose the capacity to learn and change as we age. We’re likely to get worse at some things, but potentially better at others, and exercising our minds (not just by doing sudokus) has huge benefits in keeping us well into old age.
Bessel van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score, is a fascinating study of how trauma is realised physically, and what that means for therapeutic solutions.
I may not have travelled much in the last six months IRL, but I’ve crossed continents and centuries through the books I’ve read. As always, I am so very grateful to the writers who have taken me to all of these times and places, who have moved, entertained, enlightened and informed me.
I do this to share the good stuff, as I said at the beginning. I hope some readers will find things here that they go on to enjoy, maybe to discover a new writer or to venture into a different genre. If you do, I’d love to know. If you have recommendations for me, feel free to share them. If you hate something I love, fair enough, but I take no responsibility…
I will wait until I’ve got a full year’s reading under my belt before I pick any ‘Best of’ but Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand will be a tough act to beat…