Archive for category Literature

2022 Reading – Half-Time Report

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.

FICTION

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.

NON-FICTION

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.

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2021 Reading: Full-time Report

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

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

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

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

Laurent Binet – HHhH

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

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

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

Susannah Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell/Piranesi

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

Harlan Coben – Win

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

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

Abigail Dean – Girl A

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

Len Deighton – Berlin Game

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

Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle

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

Eva Dolan – After You Die

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

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

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

Margaret Drabble – Pure Gold Baby

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

Helen Fields – Perfect Prey

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

Jo Furniss – The Last to Know

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

Amitav Ghosh – Flood of Fire

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

Lesley Glaister – Blasted Things

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

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

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

Elly Griffiths – The Midnight Hour

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

Susan Hill – A Change of Circumstance

The latest Simon Serrailer novel.

Nick Hornby – Juliet Naked

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

Katherine Ryan Howard – 56 Days

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

Stephen King – Billy Summers

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

John Lanchester – The Wall

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

John le Carré – The Tailor of Panama

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

Laura Lippman – Dream Girl

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

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

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

Jennifer Makumbi – Manchester Happened

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

Klaus Mann – Mephisto

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

Denise Mina – The End of the Wasp Season

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

Erich Maria Remarque – Arch of Triumph

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

C J Sansom – Heartstone/Lamentation

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

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

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

Ali Smith – How to be Both

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

Zadie Smith – Swingtime

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

Cath Staincliffe – Running out of Road

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

Stuart Turton – The Devil and the Dark Water

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

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

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

Sylvia Townsend Warner – Lolly Willowes

Dorothy Whipple – High Wages

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

Chris Whitaker – We Begin at the End

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

Non-Fiction

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

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

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

James Baldwin – The Last Interview

Anthony Burgess – Obscenity & the Arts

Ciaran Carson – Belfast Confetti

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

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

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

Teju Cole – Known & Strange Things: Essays

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

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

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

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

Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Moran – More than a Woman

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

Mary Oliver – American Primitive

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

Kavita Puri – Partition Voices: Untold British Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2021 Reading: Half-time report

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.

FICTION

Eric AmblerThe 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.’

Non-Fiction

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 FreemanThe 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…

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Passing Time

About fifteen years ago I started reading a 1950s French novel by someone I’d only just heard of, right at the start of my part-time undergraduate degree studies. Nothing remarkable there, except that I’m still reading it.

It drew me in, intrigued by the idea of a young French novelist writing about Manchester, and by the first few pages with their blend of ‘grim up north’ dry humour, poetry and dark foreboding. And then things got more confusing, and more intriguing. It’s an account of mundane events (dreadful weather and even worse food) – and of murder, betrayal and revenge. Bleston, which stands in for Manchester (specifically and as the archetypal northern industrial city) in the novel, is both recognisable and realistically described (street names and bus timetables) and also a fantastical place, a monster, a labyrinth.

People who know I’ve been studying this book for such a long time often ask me what it’s about. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that. It’s not that kind of a book – and I can’t imagine I’d have spent all these years obsessing about it, reading about it, researching it, and writing about it, if it had been. Every time I open it I see something I hadn’t seen before. It’s almost as if it’s shapeshifting, it grows and alters as I read.

Michel Butor is often labelled as part of the nouveau roman group, which was never actually a group and of which he never felt he was a part. He has a lot more in common with Proust than with any of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and this novel in particular is a quest for lost time, as Revel, the diarist/narrator, feeling himself overwhelmed by the city and its fogs, tries to set down on paper everything that has happened since his arrival in the town eight months previously. He feels that he’s in a labyrinth, disorientating and tricksy, a trap from which he might never escape – but he ends up creating a labyrinth with his diary entries, as the time line starts to loop back on itself, the present day intruding on the attempt to chronologically record the past, and he finds he has to revisit earlier events to explain what’s happening now.

If Passing Time looks back to Proust, it also looks forward, to the work of W G Sebald. Sebald read the novel when he arrived in Manchester, fifteen years after Butor and it resonated through his writing, from the early poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, through to his final work, Austerlitz. He picked up on the dark undercurrents in Butor’s work, the hauntedness, the theme of exile and displacement, and the sense that wherever we are in Bleston, we are not just in Bleston.

I’ve been not only reading Butor but writing about Butor, and about the connections between this novel and W G Sebald, for a very long time now. The title of this blog is obviously a reference to Butor – if I’ve posted less Butor stuff over recent years its because all of that is going into my PhD thesis, but there’s still plenty here, if you search for Butor or Sebald, and on a range of themes, from music to maps to Manchester, and to the labyrinth, which is the unifying motif in my thesis, one that recurs throughout Passing Time, and Sebald’s oeuvre.

When Butor died in 2016, I posted a tribute here, and said at the end:

It is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.

https://cathannabel.blog/2016/08/29/butor-in-manchester/

And that is, pretty much, exactly what happened. Manchester-based Pariah Press are publishing a new edition of Jean Stewart’s excellent translation, in paperback, in May. It is a thing of beauty and I’d urge anyone who is interested in twentieth-century postwar fiction, in Manchester and/or the mythology of the northern city, in displacement and exile, in the detective novel, in labyrinths, in time and memory, in non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators, to order it now

Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling.

Michel Butor, Passing Time, trans. Jean Stewart

Go on. You can thank me (and Pariah Press) later…

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2020 Books: Full-time Report

Reading has taken me out of lockdown, out of Tier 3, out of my own postcode. As a quick perusal of the titles below will show, it’s hardly been six months of escapism – that’s not the point. The point is that as life closed in, books were always there to take me to different places, different times, where I could hear different voices telling fresh new stories, or old, old stories in a new voice. I’ve been in Ancient Greece, in Finland at the start of the twentieth century, and in the dustbowl of Oklahoma. My fascination with WWII has taken me to besieged Malta, to the Burma railroad, and to the home front and the Blitz. I’ve travelled to India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, West Africa, the Caribbean, postwar Vienna and Prague. I’ve listened to a diversity of voices and a diversity of ideas. I’ve read for pleasure and diversion, and for enlightenment, and I’ve found plenty of both (often in the same books).

As always, the few things I read that weren’t up to much I have simply ignored – I want to share the good stuff, to enthuse other people about the books that have enthused me. I’ve linked to reviews where they’re not too spoilery, but click with care! I may come back to this after I’ve published it, to add on whatever I read between publication and midnight on 31 December – there’s a fair bit of reading time between now and then. I hope that something on this list might inspire you to read and enjoy. Do tell me, if so. (If you read something on my list and hate it, I do apologise, but don’t feel you have to tell me…)

FICTION

Ben Aaronovitch – I’ve continued to devour the Rivers of London novels, and have kept up with the series this autumn/winter by reading October Man (a novella), False Value, and a very tasty collection of short stories, Tales from the Folly.

Arvand Adiga – The White Tiger. Booker Prize winner from 2008. I didn’t love this, but I was gripped by it. I found it difficult to engage with the narrator – not that I always have to identify with, let alone like, the protagonist – but it was vivid and visceral and compelling.

Claire Askew – What You Pay For.  A thriller in which the fact that we know or can work out early on some of the twists and turns of the plot doesn’t matter, because the strength of it lies with the two interweaving voices through whom it is told. An excellent follow-up to All The Hidden Truths, featuring the same detective but a very different story, focusing on a school shooting.

Nadeem Aslam – Maps for Lost Lovers. This is remarkable. It’s profoundly melancholy, sensual, full of colours (the fabrics, the birds and butterflies), smells of perfume and spices, sounds (jazz, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn). We’re in an English town, called Dasht-e-Tanhaii, at least by the Pakistani communities who live there, and who’ve given the streets their own names too. It’s their home but they don’t feel at home there, constantly reminded that they do not belong. The book does not shy away from the brutality of the harsh orthodoxy that means everyone lives in fear of transgression, but, as Kamila Shamsie says, ‘love never steps out of the picture’.

Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad. A funny, dark, feminist retelling of the story of Odysseus, from the point of view of the wife who waited – and the handmaids who were hanged on Odysseus’ return…

Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister the Serial Killer. One of my top crime books. Described as ‘a morbidly funny slashfest’ by the Guardian’s reviewer, which is fair enough. One of the best openings of anything I’ve read for a while.

Jane Casey – Silent Kill. A Maeve Kerrigan novella, from the perspective of one of the secondary characters in the main series. Nicely done – as well as standing alone from a plot point of view, for afficionados of the series it sheds light both on the main protagonist here but on many of the other characters who we’ve not seen from this angle before.

Christopher Cleave – Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I wept my way through this. It took me by surprise, firstly because the two books I’ve read (and loved) by Cleave have had contemporary settings, and this one is WWII, secondly because at first I thought the clipped and brittle dialogue might become wearing. But the setting was beautifully described and the way the characters spoke was as revealing as it was meant to be concealing. It got under my skin and the more passionately I cared about those characters, the more I longed for them to be safe and happy and the more I grieved when bad stuff happened. (Spoiler: it did)

Ann Cleeves – I had a major catch-up with her Vera and Shetland series, and binged all the ones that I’d not read yet over the course of a week or so. I’ve also discovered and binged the Inspector Ramsey books, published in the 1990s and recently revived as e-books. Ramsey rapidly grew on me – one reviewer described him as ‘quiet, puzzled, human’, which is quite right.

Kit de Waal – My Name is Leon. I read The Trick to Time last year, and loved it. This was brilliant too. The voice is that of what we would now call a ‘looked-after’ child – never sure if that is a euphemistic term, or just a naively optimistic one… It’s another book that I wept through and hardly dared to read on at some points, as I so badly wanted Leon to be OK. It’s compassionate and warm and based in real knowledge of the care sector. It’s hopeful too, although de Waal noted in a recent interview (for Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival) that we leave him aged nine, with his most turbulent years to come and the odds are stacked against him.

Elizabeth de Waal – no relation to Kit, to the best of my knowledge. Elizabeth was part of the Ephrussi family, who lived in the eponymous palace in Vienna until the Anschluss. Their story forms part of Elizabeth’s grandson Edmund de Waal’s enthralling The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The Exiles Return is full of melancholy, and of humour. It was unpublished in Elizabeth’s lifetime, and has been brought out by Persephone Press, and is as beautiful to look at as all of their publications.

Helen Dunmore – The House of Orphans. I honestly thought I’d read all of Dunmore’s fiction, so it was a very welcome surprise to find this one. It isn’t my favourite of hers, but it was a compelling read and the setting was new to me (Finland in 1902)

Esi Edugyan – Washington Black. I read Half-Blood Blues a few years back and this is even better. The horrors of the plantation were familiar territory from other reading (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, to name but two recent reads, but going back to Alex Haley’s Roots), but Edugyan’s narrative takes off (literally) from there. It’s extraordinary, breathtaking and audacious.

Lissa Evans – V for Victory/Their Finest. I discovered Evans earlier this year, and had already read Spencer’s List, Old Baggage and Crooked Heart. I was waiting eagerly for V for Victory and it did not disappoint, funny and moving and beautifully written. As was Their Finest. Both, as the titles suggest, are set in WWII and paint a vivid picture of the home front, with the kind of sharp observation that is totally convincing. But most of all, the characters live and breathe and stay with you long after the book has ended.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other. Richly deserving of its awards, this is a glorious polyphony, the voices weave in and out of each other’s stories, each having its moment in the spotlight, so that we see the people we meet from different points of view, including their own.

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North. A harrowing read. The descriptions of life in the PoW camps and the building of the Burma railway are hard to cope with. But truly, where one’s heart breaks is in the lives that the survivors have afterwards, the weight they have to carry from their experiences, the impossibility of anyone actually understanding.

Aminatta Forna – Happiness. I’d previously only read Forna’s memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, in which she writes of her childhood and the fate of her father, a political prisoner in Sierra Leone. This is a wonderful novel, which makes us see the night time Londoners that are so often invisible to us, whether that’s the urban foxes or the migrant security staff and bin men. All of the characters are in some way exiled, displaced or nomadic (a Ghanaian specialist in PTSD and an American wildlife biologist are at the heart of it). It’s beautiful and hopeful and melancholy.

Robert Galbraith – Troubled Blood. I wish it were possible to review this without any reference to Rowling’s views on trans rights. She made it impossible, by including a character who dresses as a woman to seem unthreatening to women he intends to kill. As many reviewers have said, that is tone deaf at best, and tends to reinforce the feeling that she has become sadly obsessed with this aspect of the trans issue. For the record, I disagree profoundly with her. However. This is a gripping – albeit very long – crime thriller, which kept me on tenterhooks to the end, and continues the development both of Strike and Robin’s characters and of their relationship.

Amitav Ghosh – Gun Island is about climate change, about human and animal migration. The Guardian said that it ‘brims with implausibility; outlandish coincidences and chance meetings blend with ancient myth and folklore, tales of heroism and the supernatural.’ I wasn’t sure at first, but decided to go with the flow, and I loved it.

Isabelle Grey – The Special Girls/Wrong Way Home/Shot through the Heart. I began this excellent series, featuring DI Grace Fisher, with Good Girls Don’t Die earlier this year, and binged these later titles more recently.

Elly Griffiths – The Postscript Murders. Sequel to The Stranger Diaries, featuring DS Harbinder Kaur. This is a delight, albeit a delight with a high body count…

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West. Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, blends fable and realism (there are moments when I thought of The Underground Railroad) in its account of refugees – what drives them to flee, what becomes of them.

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills. Ishiguro reckoned that this, his debut, didn’t quite work. ‘I do think it’s too baffling. The ending is almost like a puzzle. I see nothing artistically to be gained by puzzling people to that extent. That was just inexperience—misjudging what is too obvious and what is subtle. Even at the time the ending felt unsatisfactory.’ Nonetheless, it is compelling, and very unsettling (something Ishiguro is rather good at – I was completely discombobulated by The Unconsoled, as if I was trapped in an anxiety dream).

Tayari Jones – An American MarriageIn some ways this is a contemporary take on James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk – the young married couple, the wrongful arrest, the judicial system weighted against him, the long wait. And speaking of the waiting wife, oddly and by pure coincidence, the book I picked up after this was Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad… The narrative is constructed through the voices of the husband, the wife, and later on, the friend, so we see the same events from those different perspectives, which adds depth and nuance. Compelling and moving.

Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You. This was another tough read, an autobiographical account of domestic violence, ‘a meditation on the art of writing about desire, abuse and trauma’.

Philip Kerr – Hitler’s Peace. I’ve read most of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, so was interested in this slice of alt history. As always with Kerr, it’s scrupulously researched – the scenario is startling but robustly established, and there’s that same sense of impossible moral choices that pervades the Gunther series. Gripping, and troubling.

Heda Margolius Kovaly – Innocence. Kovaly is fascinating – earlier this year I read her memoir Under a Cruel Star, which records her life through the Holocaust and Stalinist repression in post-war Czechoslovakia. She later became a translator, with a particular fondness for Raymond Chandler, which feeds into this crime novel set in Prague in 1951, and drawing on her own experiences.

Nella Larsen – Passing. I’d seen her name but had never realised she was an American writer of colour. The clue is in the book’s title – it’s about those who can ‘pass’ as white, and what it does to them, the insecurity, the fear of the consequences should their identity be exposed. Will explore her work further. Passing was published in 1929, and Larsen is one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

John le Carré – Agent Running in the Field. Le Carré never fails me. Elegantly satirical writing, taut plotting, and a dash of righteous indignation. This is his most recent novel, from 2019.

Postscript

And as it turned out, it was his last. He’d said as much in a October 2019 interview, but there was no reason to suppose he might not go on for years. His recent novels were elegiac in tone, and often raging (about Brexit, Trump, the calibre of the current crop of political leaders), as sharp as ever, as funny as ever, as gripping as ever. I started reading him in my early teens, and never really stopped. I’ve five more to read, and then I think I will start again at the beginning, and our introduction to George Smiley, in Call for the Dead.

Laura Lipmann – The Power of Three. One of Lipmann’s earlier stand-alones, from 2005. Secrets, friendships, betrayals…

Attica Locke – Bluebird, Bluebird/Heaven my Home. Having read the two Jay Porter novels (Black Water Rising and Pleasantville) I turned to the two Highway 59 titles. The protagonist is a black Texas Ranger, and race is the tension that’s humming away constantly, relentlessly, in everything that happens. Brilliantly done.

Richard Mathieson – I am Legend. I’d seen the Will Smith movie, but the book is very different, both in the initial premiss and the way the plot unfolds. Mathieson’s vampires are not only unlike those in the movie, but unlike those in the Buffy universe, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and the daddy of them all, Dracula. They don’t work to the same rules. His protagonist is utterly alone and utterly lonely, working out not only how to survive but how it all works, and applying a ruthlessly scientific approach to the process.

Denise Mina – Conviction  Never know quite what you’re going to get with Mina. This one is a very twisty thriller, described by The Scotsman as almost Hitchcockian in its evocation of paranoia and doubt.

Abir Mukherjee – Death in the East. I dived into the Sam Wyndham series with the most recent title, but will go back and read its predecessors with great enthusiasm. This one is a classic locked room mystery, a case that began in Whitechapel in 1905 and resurfaces unexpectedly in India in 1922. The racial politics of immigrant London and colonial India are vividly and often uncomfortably conveyed.

Joyce Carol Oates – A Book of American Martyrs. Two men, two families and the fall-out from a crime, the killing of a doctor by an anti-abortion fundamentalist. The focus moves from the killer and the victim to the wives and the children, struggling to work out who they can be without the men who have defined them. There was a fascinating synergy between this and Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (see above).

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust  A poetic, complex novel of contemporary Kenya. ‘At the core of Owuor’s novel … is a moral concern to forgive past wrongs. … Dust is a fine, compassionate novel that relishes the complexity of human relations. It is written in a language that is often beautifully observant, and is alert in its insight and sympathy.’

Laksmi Pamuntjak – The Birdwoman’s Palate. This is a strange one! It’s about an epidemiological investigation (avian flu), and a culinary road trip. I’m not completely convinced that it all fitted together, but even if it didn’t, both elements were interesting and attractively written (Pamuntjak is a poet and a food writer)

Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only/Body Work. I’ve read a few V I Warshawskis over the years, in no particular order, but not these two – turns out Indemnity Only is the very first in the series. Lots more in that series for me to enjoy.

Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends. Admired rather than loved. I preferred Normal People, I think. I found the protagonists here frustrating, opaque even whilst so much of their inner and external lives was laid out for me.

Liz Rosenberg – The Laws of Gravity. I nearly stopped reading this when I realised that cancer was going to be a major driver of the plot. That made it a tougher read, this year of all years, than it would otherwise have been – but Rosenberg’s writing is warm, compassionate, empathetic, and unsparing.

Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways. The precariousness of a life on the margins, a life in which the most minor misfortune can be catastrophic, and in which choice is an illusion, a luxury. The ‘runaways’ have all ended up in Sheffield, which is where we first meet them, for a variety of reasons which we then discover. Some are in more desperate straits than others but the gulf between the life they live and the life they hoped for is vast and unbridgeable. ‘Sahota moves some of the most urgent political questions of the day away from rhetorical posturing and contested statistics into the realm of humanity.’ 

Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire/Burnt Shadows. Both excellent. But the take on Antigone in Home Fire passed me by somewhat, and Burnt Shadows is the one that stays with me, from the opening sequence in 1945 Nagasaki onwards, as it sweeps across countries, continents and decades. As Shamsie says, ‘History had blown them all off course, no one ending – or even middling, where they had begun’, and that’s turned out to be quite a theme of this year’s reading.

Ali Smith – Autumn. Whenever I read Ali Smith I remind myself I must read more Ali Smith. For some reason, I hadn’t embarked yet on her seasonal quartet and at a few pages in, already I was saying to myself that I must read everything Ali Smith has written.

Zadie Smith – NW. My first Zadie Smith, and I wasn’t quite sure about it. It seemed jumpy, fragmented, and whilst some sections or voices were convincing others weren’t quite. Adam Mars Smith’s review said that the real mystery of the book is that ‘it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four’. However, I will certainly read more of her work – when it works it works astoundingly well.

Cath StaincliffeQuiet Acts of Violence. Staincliffe doesn’t deal in baroque serial killers, but in messy lives and messy crimes. Her speciality perhaps is the way in which the ripples from the crime spread out and touch other lives, and she tells these stories with humanity and compassion, whilst maintaining a powerful sense of tension. The crime is investigated by DI Donna Bell and DC Jade Bradshaw, who were introduced in Girl in the Green Dress and who I’m delighted to meet again here.

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, I know it’s a classic and I should have read it decades ago but hey, there are a lot of books out there, and I just hadn’t got round to this one, OK? I found the dialogue took quite a lot of concentration before I could ‘hear’ it in my head, but the narrative is relentless and powerful. Maybe I should read some other Steinbeck…

Lesley Thomson – The Detective’s Secret. The third in the Detective’s Daughter series, whose protagonists are untypical, to say the least – a cleaner (the detective’s daughter herself) and a train driver, both of them drawn into the investigation of crimes through a mix of chance and compulsion. The plot is complex and skilfully constructed, and, as with the earlier volumes in the series, it’s gripping stuff. Perhaps it’s a series best read in order as the back story of the two main characters is complex in itself.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – English Climate. Stories of England in wartime – the Home Front, gossip and judgement and boredom, Mothers’ Union and knitting circles, ordinary lives made extraordinary. Another Persephone publication. ‘Funny, brilliantly written, at times utterly heart-breaking, delightfully sharp, dry, intelligent and full of memorable characters’

NON-FICTION

Akala – Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.

Jeffrey Boakye – Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

I’m grouping these three together because I read them in fairly quick succession, and found that they were exploring quite similar territory, albeit with very distinct voices – the experience of being black and British, the stereotypes and prejudices (explicit and implicit) they’ve faced. Hirsch and Boakye both have Ghanaian heritage, Akala Caribbean. All three reflect on gender, and how that intersects with race. All three tell their stories and make their arguments with humour, grace and passion.

Jackie Kay – Red Dust Road. Poet Jackie Kay has a somewhat different story to tell, that of an adopted child with a Nigerian father, growing up in a deeply loving and warm white family and needing, as an adult, to find her birth parents. It’s beautiful, and moving without ever being merely sentimental.

Nikesh Shukla – The Good Immigrant. Shukla brings together a collection of 21 short reflections by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working across literature and the media on ‘what it means to be a person of colour’ in Britain today.

James Baldwin – Selected Essays. Some of these I read back in my teens when I was immersing myself in the literature of the civil rights movement, some are new to me. His writing is so compelling – having just seen the film I Am Not Your Negro I can see and hear him as I read.

Kamala Harris – The Truths we Hold: An American Journey.  Read whilst waiting for news of the US election result to emerge, waiting, and hoping… That Harris will shortly become the first woman VP, the first woman of colour at the highest level of US politics, the first South Asian-American… and so on, and so on, is inspiring and wonderful. For Bonnie Greer it is even more deeply significant than Obama’s presidency.

Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures. This fascinating account gives far more depth to the remarkable Afro-American women ‘who helped win the space race’ than the film was able to do. It also gave much more weight to the science, which in the film came across as a kind of magic (inevitably, I guess).  

Rachel Clarke – Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss. Why on earth did I choose to read a book about death, about the end of life, in the year that my darling kid brother died of cancer? Well, perhaps there was method in my madness. It is a very honest book, tough and unsparing. But it’s also tender and loving – the love is both for the dying and for those who are close to them (and for the doctors and nurses who help them in those last days and hours). It’s not just about dying, but ‘about living, loving, learning how to say goodbye’. And thus it is supremely life-affirming.

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. That’s it, the subtitle says it really. What follows is a whole series of examples, taken from all sorts of environments which show not only that women have been invisible to planners, designers and policy makers, but that designing for the ‘default male’ results not only in annoyance and frustration but puts women’s physical and mental health at risk, whether from PPE that simply doesn’t fit the female shape, or from the misdiagnosis of heart failure because it presents differently in women. Some of the examples are relatively familiar, others startling. All are enraging.

Hallie Rubenhold – The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Inevitably, as I read this, I thought of other women, victims of another so-called Ripper. I could not have guessed that soon after I finished this brilliant, rigorous and compassionate account, the death of that other Ripper would have triggered news reports and analyses, many of which did try at least to right the wrongs done to the murdered women, by saying their names, and telling their stories. It was about time. Rubenhold’s account gives a richly detailed account of the life and precarious times of each of the ‘canonical’ Ripper victims, showing how their lives might have been different, as well as how and why things went wrong. It’s a vital, heartbreaking piece of work. I hope, some time, for another volume that restores to ‘the thirteen’ the stories of their lives, not merely of their deaths.

Daniel Trilling – Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe.  So many of the novels I read this year (and in recent years) have been preoccupied with migration, with the forces that make individuals take huge risks in search of a better life (whether that is better economically or simply the chance of survival). Trilling visits the places where ‘the “fault lines” in Europe’s asylum system are clearest’ and talks to refugees and those who work with and try to help them, and his account is both thoroughly researched and compellingly human.

Rowena Edlin-White (ed.) – Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers. This goes way beyond the usual suspects (Byron, Sillitoe, Lawrence). From Walter Hilton, b. 1340, to writers still very much with us and publishing in a variety of genres. The accounts of their lives and works give us some fascinating social history of the region, and whilst some of the writers may be of historical interest only, others would seem well worth tracking down.   

Rob Hindle – The Grail Roads. From my favourite poetry publisher, Longbarrow Press, whose virtues include not only an excellent and varied collection of contemporary poetry, but also books that are beautiful to behold as well as to read and a delivery system that (for those of us in the right postcodes) involves the publisher arriving at one’s front door, seemingly only hours after the order is placed, and handing over a package with the book and a handwritten thank you. This volume blends first hand accounts from WWI soldiers with Arthurian myth, and it’s a powerful piece of work, one that I know I will return to.

Owen Booth – What We’re Teaching our Sons. I don’t know how to categorise this book, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it is funny, observant, and touching. The Irish Times reviewer commented: ‘With the emotional depth of a novel mixed with the breezier form of a parenting manual, Booth has written a remarkable debut whose profound documenting of family life is achieved in less than 200 pages.’

You can find my account of the first half of 2020 here.

Postscript: Obviously, I didn’t stop reading once I’d posted this, so here’s what I read during the remainder of 2020.

Louise Penny – The Nature of the Beast and A Great Reckoning: two more from her always readable and engaging Inspector Gamache series

Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo – Roseanna, the first in their Martin Beck series. I’ve seen the TV adaptation but hadn’t read anything by them before – I was prompted to after a friend commented on their absence from my 100 top crime novels list!

Two more John le Carrés – The Russia House and The Secret Pilgrim.

Lee Jackson – The Welfare of the Dead, a Victorian-set crime novel by a new author to me.

Val McDermid – Place of Execution. Excellent stand-alone, completely gripping and very cleverly plotted.

Arnold Bennett – These Twain. The third in the Clayhanger trilogy (though it turns out there’s a fourth). Much less interesting than its predecessor, Hilda Lessways.

Nicci French – Blue Monday and Tuesday’s Gone. The first two in the Frieda Klein series.

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#BlackLivesMatter #Wakanda Forever

I’ve been trying to write this piece for weeks now. Hesitating because, after all, why would anyone need to read the thoughts of a white, middle-aged, middle-class English woman about something she has never experienced, and could never experience? But nonetheless this post has been buzzing around in my head for so long, and I know that the only way to stop that is to write.

And, this morning, I woke as so many did to the awful news that Chadwick Boseman, the actor best known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, has died at only 43 years old. I remembered how I felt in the cinema watching that film, how exhilarating it was to see the large screen filled with powerful, beautiful black people, in control of their destinies, white people largely irrelevant. And how I thought of what that must have felt like to people of colour, those who’ve seen movie after movie where they are absent, or peripheral, or victimised, or expendable. And those who have been waiting, whether they knew it or not, for a super hero who resembled them.

Some disclaimers. I’m not trying to prove anything here, not trying to get approval or validation. I’m talking, primarily, to other white people, about how we can learn and listen, how we can recognise and take account of our privilege, and know when to speak and when to STFU.  If I get something wrong feel free to tell me (but I’m not asking you to educate me, that’s my responsibility). I’m a work in progress, still, at 63. I expect and hope that I’ll still be learning, expanding my understanding, for the rest of my life, whilst my faculties are intact at least.

So, where am I from? No, where am I really from? My upbringing was very different to that of anyone I went to school with in Chatham or Mansfield in the late 60s/early to mid 70s, very different to that of my cousins and other wider family. It shaped my response to the racial politics of the UK in that era and beyond. It influenced what I read, and what I watched.

When I was three years old, we (my parents, myself and my two younger siblings) flew to a new life in Ghana, West Africa. Of course we were massively privileged in our lives there, in the immediate aftermath of independence, living on the University campus in Kumasi, where my father taught Physics and Maths. We were ‘expats’, not immigrants. No one expected us to integrate, to assimilate, to adopt Ghanaian dress or diet, or to learn the language. My school teachers were all British, my classmates included Ghanaian children, but also British, American, Canadian. (When we moved to Northern Nigeria, there were no African children in my class. Not one.)

That upbringing did not give me a means to understand what it is to be black in Britain. My white skin gave me privilege as a member of an ethnic minority in West Africa as it does here where it makes me part of the norm. But those childhood experiences did broaden my horizons, expand my consciousness and my sympathies, and gave me a wealth of experiences against which to measure the attitudes and assumptions I encountered back home.

I think first of all, of the Door of No Return. Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, two of the forts on the Ghanaian coast which were the point of departure for the slaves, the last place they saw before they were crammed into the holds of the ships for the Atlantic crossing. I don’t recall in detail what my parents told me about their history when we visited, but I still recall the place, and the association with horror, the chill, even in the humid heat of Ghana.

I remember the first time I heard a white person say something casually racist. I remember not so much shock or offence, but bafflement. It seemed to me so incomprehensibly stupid, to generalise in that way. It made no sense to me then, that first time, in Africa, any more than it did later, in Chatham or Mansfield. I never knew how to respond – where do you begin, with something so incomprehensibly stupid?

My memories of Ghana are vivid, warm, happy. I know I can lay no claim to Ghana as part of my heritage – I lived there for just five – albeit formative – years. When I use my Ashanti day name, Abena (girl born on a Tuesday) as part of my Facebook name, when I use an image of kente cloth as the background to my Twitter profile, am I, as I hope and intend, honouring a part of my life for which I am immensely and profoundly grateful, or am I appropriating something to which I have no right? But those things (and my support for the Ghana national football team, and my love of West African music) feel like part of me.

Our parents taught us well. At an early age (before we came home to England, so before I was ten years old) I knew that whilst other ‘expats’ were planning, in light of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Nigeria, to move to jobs in Rhodesia or South Africa, my parents never would. And they taught me why. (Their passionate opposition to those regimes would probably have made them persona non grata anyway.)

I knew that Martin Luther King was an important man, a good man, who represented the values that my parents were teaching us, and they had taught me well enough that I knew by the time I was ten years old that his murder was a terrible thing, a huge loss to the world.

As a teenager, I was drawn to the American civil rights struggles, and I read everything I could get hold of. I read MLK, Angela Davis, George Jackson, James Baldwin, Malcolm X.

But one of the most powerful books for me was by a white man. John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, disguised his skin with a combination of medication (anti-vitiligo treatment), tanning and cosmetics, and went South. He was motivated by the recognition that the only way to know what it was like to be black in the USA, was to become black in the USA. Of course it wasn’t the same – he had an exit strategy (although he was subjected to threats and a near-fatal attack when the book was published and his identity revealed), and he had experienced most of his life up to the point of his self-transformation as a white man with all the privileges that entails. But his account is viscerally compelling. What stayed with me from my first reading was the ‘hate stare’ – something I would never experience, almost certainly never witness.

Alex Haley’s Roots (whether it is fiction or history, or a blending of the two) gave me a black epic, a story that spanned centuries and continents, that took up the story of the people who had been herded through the Door of No Return, and did not flinch from the brutality of slavery and of the injustice that persisted for so long after.

I almost never talked about my interest in the politics of race, not to my schoolfriends. I feared discovering that their response would make friendship problematic, or impossible. And, to be honest, as a teenager desperate to fit in, I feared being regarded as nerdy or odd. We talked about pop music, telly and boys, not about politics. And the strange culture of the times meant that one tribe listened to virtually no black music (though they allowed a free pass to Hendrix), whilst another listened to mainly African-American and Caribbean music, whilst being associated with prejudice against people of South Asian origin, and with the nascent National Front. It was dangerous territory, even though in my grammar school there was, throughout my years there, just one non-white girl (from India, as I recall), and in the Mansfield area at the time, the largest immigrant community was Polish. I kept reading though, just didn’t talk about it.

I read a number of the Heinemann African Writers series from my parents’ bookshelves (Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Camara Laye, Wole Soyinka). I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and Trevor Hudleston’s Naught for your Comfort. I read E R Braithwaite’s Please Sir (a whole heck of a lot less soppy than the film) and Paid Servant.

And those books, and world events, led me on to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, to Kwame Anthony Appiah, David Dabydeen and more recently to Reni Eddo Lodge and David Olusoga.

Meantime, the sound of Ghana, the highlife music that had wafted over from the student residences to our home on campus, was part of me. I was prepped to respond to black American music, to Motown and Stax and Philly, and to ska and reggae. And then I heard Osibisa, and that started a journey of exploration of African music – music from all over that continent, but finding the sounds of Mali and Senegal took hold of me in a way that no other music did. I still feel that way.

For all this, I realised part way through this year, as I nerdily compiled my list of what I’d read, that it was disappointingly, dispiritingly, shamefully white. Somehow I’d kept on gravitating (during what, to be fair, has been a brutal year, full of loss and sadness) towards familiar voices, familiar histories, familiar settings. That this realisation coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd is no coincidence at all.

However well I have been taught, however widely I have read and listened, my life can still be told (if one skips those few years in ‘darkest Africa’, as my grandfather always referred to it) without reference to my race. My journey through school and work, marriage and parenthood, has been untroubled by the colour of my skin. I have experienced prejudice, sure, as a woman in the workplace, and as a girl and woman in public spaces. I can extrapolate from those experiences, but it’s not enough, nowhere near.

So I need to read black writers, to hear those voices, those experiences and to let them expand my ideas, my sympathies, my knowledge. It’s powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s a process that started when I was 5 or 6 years old, looking out of the Door of No Return.

Black lives matter. Of course they do. As the wonderful Dolly Parton put it, “…of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No. My words will make no real difference, I have few illusions on that front. But perhaps I will prompt someone to read more widely, to read more stuff by people who don’t look like they do, to risk being made uncomfortable, being challenged to rethink their assumptions, their bias, the language they use. Perhaps.

And would I take the knee? It’s a beautiful gesture, one of honour and respect. I wasn’t sure at first why it moved me so much, till I saw the photos of MLK and remembered. Yes, I’d take the knee, in a heartbeat. It might take a bit longer for me to get up again though…

My 2020 Reading List (so far):

  • Chimamanda Adichie – Dear Ijeowole
  • Arvind Adiga – The White Tiger
  • Jeffrey Boakye – Black: Listed
  • NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names
  • Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class
  • Nicole Dennis Benn – Patsy
  • Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight
  • Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
  • Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing
  • Mohsin Hamid – Exit West
  • Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)
  • Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You
  • Andrea Levy – The Long Song
  • Attica Locke – Pleasantville
  • Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad
  • Yvonne Adhimabo Owuor – Dust
  • Laksmi Pamuntjiak – The Birdwoman’s Palate
  • Johnny Pitts – Afropean
  • Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways
  • Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire
  • Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures
  • Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – The Good Immigrant
  • Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman
  • Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

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2020 Books – half-time report

We’re halfway through this strange, sad year. In theory, there’s been more time for reading since lockdown. But at times this year, not just due to Covid, I haven’t found it easy to focus on a book. Nonetheless, I’ve read a lot, and these are some of the highlights. In general, they reflect my need for what the brilliant Attica Locke recently described (in a tweet about Nicole Dennis Benn’s lovely novel Patsy, which I am reading at present) as ‘uplift with heft’. Too cosy and too obviously intended to be ‘heartwarming’ and I get angry, because life isn’t cosy, things don’t always work out OK, people die, people are sick, people are broken. Too grim and I just can’t bear it, not now, not in the midst of all this. There has to be something that lifts me up, some element of hope, the possibility of change for the better, the capacity of people to exceed one’s expectations, to be better and to do better.

There’s only one title here that specifically references the pandemic. But several of the fiction and non-fiction titles reflect my realisation part way through the year that my reading so far had been dismayingly white. It seemed appropriate, in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter protests worldwide, to address that.

This isn’t everything I’ve read. I’ve missed a few re-reads, and I have, as I always do, omitted things I found mediocre, or clunky. This is the good stuff.

Fiction

Melanie Abrams – Meadowlark. A bow drawn at a venture, and a thoroughly good read. Like Glaister’s Chosen, it’s exploring the world of closed communities (aka cults), how seductive and deadly they are.

Belinda Bauer – The Shut Eye. A missing child mystery that doesn’t follow the path you expect, that is troubling and puzzling and shocking in all sorts of ways. Bauer is described by the Independent as ‘either so quirkily idiosyncratic – or just plain bloody-minded – that [her] books resolutely resist conforming to whatever the latest modishness is’.

Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy. I’m reading this on the recommendation of Attica Locke, as mentioned above. Patsy is a Jamaican immigrant in New York, living the precarious life of the undocumented, a life that separates her not only from her home and family, but from the hopes that brought her here.

Alan Bennett – The Uncommon Reader. This made me laugh, rather a lot, at a time when laughter was in short supply. Brilliantly witty and sharp, it also manages to be oddly touching.

Arnold Bennett – Hilda Lessways. This is Part 2 of his Clayhanger series, written in 1911, set in the Midlands in the late 19th century, with a female protagonist who blazes off the page.

William Boyd – Love is Blind.  This is a tour de force, and my favourite of his books so far. It’s clever, but never just clever. ‘Audaciously unpredictable’ as the Guardian put it. The narrative takes us from Victorian Scotland to Paris to Russia and to the Bay of Bengal, it’s romantic and vivid, and totally engaging.

NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names. Fine, powerful writing – and with humour amongst the grim. The trajectory is familiar – the African diaspora, in this case from Zimbabwe to the USA, but the voice is fresh.

Jane Casey – The Cutting Place. The latest Maeve Kerrigan, and quite possibly the best yet (I probably say that each time, but the series really does keep upping its game).

Lissa Evans – Old Baggage. A writer I’ve discovered only recently. I read Spencer’s List earlier this year, and after Old Baggage, I read its sequel, Crooked Heart, and eagerly await V for Victory in August. Funny and moving, with characters that get under your skin and into your head and your heart.

Nicci French – The Lying Room. This is the first I’ve read from the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard (who I know as a campaigner for dementia patients in hospital, and author of the powerful and moving What Dementia Teaches us about Love) and Sean French. And very good it is too – steeped in secrets and lies. I will read more.

Tana French – The Trespasser. Latest in the splendid Dublin Murders series. Though we call it a series, French’s distinctive technique is to shift the focus from novel to novel, so that a peripheral character in one becomes the main protagonist in the next.

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You. One of his best. And the writing about music is so vivid that I could almost hear it as I read.

Lesley Glaister – Chosen. The latest from a favourite writer whose work I’ve been following for many years, a gripping and intense psychological thriller, like Meadlowlark, exploring a closed community. Very twisty.

Elizabeth Goudge – The Bird in the Tree / The Herb of Grace / The Heart
of the Family.
First read when I was a teenager, and returned to in the hope of ‘uplift with heft’, The Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy is mystical, romantic, intense – all about hope, and the redemptive power of place
to heal broken humans.

Elly Griffiths – The Lantern Men. The new Ruth Galloway. Always feel like I’m meeting up with a friend when I read these, I’d love to go down the pub with Ruth (when that sort of thing becomes normal again, obviously). And of course, there’s a splendid mystery, and the cast of supporting characters is drawn with humour, insight and affection.

Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing. I’ve had this one in my TBR pile for a while, but it felt as though this was the time to open it. It’s a complex narrative, on a huge scale (centuries, continents). It starts, though, in places that resonate with my own childhood in Ghana in the early 60s – Cape Coast Castle and Kumasi. Often harrowing, always compelling.

Emma Healey – Whistle in the Dark.  By the author of the excellent Elizabeth is Missing, a mystery with an ending that is both terrifying and moving.

Mick Herron – Dead Lions. Second in his Slow Horses series, about a department of MI5 rejects – acerbically funny but without pulling any emotional punches.

Susan Hill – The Benefits of Hindsight. The latest in her excellent Simon Serailler detective series, as always musing on mortality and morality whilst solving the crime.

Judith Kerr – Out of the Hitler Time. This is a trilogy of lightly fictionalised autobiography by the late and dearly beloved author of Mog and The Tiger who Came to Tea, starting with the Kerr family’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany.

Philip Kerr – Metropolis. Sadly the last in the brilliant Bernie Gunther series of detective novels set before, during and after the Nazi era.

Stephen King – If It Bleeds. This guy is unstoppable. A collection of short stories, two of which are kind of standard King – which is still a very good thing – and two of which are classic King which is brilliant.

John le Carré – Legacy of Spies. One more, probably last, Smiley novel from the master. It has an elegiac tone, including a final eulogy to the dream of European collaboration and unity.

Andrea Levy – The Long Song. Very powerful and moving. I loved the storyteller’s voice, the dialogue and the ongoing arguments between her and the person who’s pressing her to tell the story, the gaps that can’t be filled.

Laura Lippman – The Lady in the Lake. Another excellent psychological thriller from Lippman, a polyphonic narrative, using glimpses of events from a number of different points of view to complement or contradict the protagonist’s perspective.

Attica Locke – Pleasantville. Sequel to Black Water Rising, which I read last year, it picks up the story of black Texas lawyer Jay Porter fifteen years after the events of that book. It’s a riveting plot, with a great cast of complex characters and the ability to move between state politics and the domestic exigencies of single parenthood with grace and perception.

Adrian McKinty – The Cold, Cold Ground. First of his Belfast-set Sean Duffy crime series, which I will definitely be following up.

Denise Mina – Still Midnight. Starts with an Asian family facing a home invasion, doesn’t go where you expect it to, gets hold of you and doesn’t let you go till the last page.

Sarah Moss – The Tidal Zone. I properly got into Moss last year and this year have read The Ghost Wall and this one, which is entirely different again (one never does know quite what to expect with Moss). As the Guardian says, this is a novel about the NHS, which makes it rather timely, and about parental anxiety, but also about art, and ideas.

Maggie O’Farrell – This Must be the Place. Always brilliant. Not my top O’Farrell but excellent. As the Guardian says, she is ‘a deft and compelling chronicler of human relationships’.

Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. They’re not at the gritty end of crime fiction (it’s been said that they’re modelled on the classic British whodunit) but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.  

Susie Steiner – Remain Silent. We’ve had a long wait for the new Manon Bradshaw but it was worth it. Manon is a tremendous, real, often abrasive and annoying central character. And one can’t be unaffected by the knowledge that Steiner has been undergoing treatment for a brain tumour, and that the latest news is not good.

Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge. I read Abide with Me last year, and this is the third Strout I’ve read this year. Exceptionally good, deeply empathetic, a novel in interlinked short stories (like Anything is Possible).

Meg Waite-Clayton – Beautiful Exiles. This is a fascinating novel about the formidable Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn hated being described as the third Mrs Hemingway, so I did wish that Waite-Clayton had continued the story after she finally dumped Hemingway…

Elizabeth Wein – The Enigma Game Another brilliant WWII YA novel from the author of Code Name Verity. Thrilling and moving stuff.

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys. This one I think even surpasses The Underground Railroad. It’s devastating. Brilliantly constructed, and with a twist that’s no gimmick, and a protagonist who you want so very badly to be OK whilst knowing the odds against that…

Non-Fiction

Chimanada Ngozi Adichie – Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  My favourite contemporary African writer, passing on her thoughts on feminism to a friend, who’s asked her advice on raising a daughter. The feminism itself isn’t revelatory but Adichie is writing from within the Nigerian Igbo culture that she and her friend share, and that makes it fresh and engaging.

Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class. Davis was one of my heroines, when I was educating myself about the civil rights movement as a teenager. She was, and is, awesome. This was written in 1983, and it’s ahead of the game in terms of what we would now call intersectionality, tracing the connections between the abolitionist movement, the suffragists, and the civil rights struggle to show how those priorities, those needs, coincided or conflicted.

Dorothy DayThe Long Loneliness. I knew absolutely nothing about Day until my son discovered her, whilst doing an MA in American History. She was a remarkable woman – a Catholic socialist anarchist, a journalist and activist, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and faced controversy for her refusal to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This autobiography was published in 1954 (she died in 1980). As baffling as I find her religious faith, her account of the social and political upheavals in which she was involved is fascinating.

Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight. Another fascinating memoir from someone I hadn’t heard of! Diakite is a black Swedish rapper, and here he explores his family history and his father’s roots in the American south, and musing on music, race, and the importance of shiny shoes.

Lara Feigel – The Love Charm of Bombs. The Blitz through the eyes of writers (including Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen) who lived through it and did their bit in some way (air-raid wardens, ambulance drivers, etc). The most interesting, actually, is the exiled Austrian novelist Hilde Spiel.

Alan Garner – Where Shall we Run to? A beautiful, brief memoir of growing up in a landscape that’s steeped in history (ancient and family) and in mythology, the landscape that inspired Garner’s novels, from his children’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to his most recent novel, Boneland.

Atul Gawande – Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. These are essays written whilst Gawande was doing his general surgery residency, focusing on fallibility, mystery and ethics. Honest, inspiring and terrifying.

Heda Margolius Kovaly – Under a Cruel Star. Cruel indeed – Kovaly survived the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz, and escaped the death march to Belsen, but under the postwar regime in Czechoslovakia, her husband was murdered in one of Stalin’s show trials – the Slansky trial, which mainly targeted Jews, and she, tainted by association with a ‘traitor’, struggled to survive before escaping west in 1968.

Diarmaid MacCulloch – Thomas Cromwell. Homework, if you like, for my reading of The Mirror and the Light. It’s notable how much respect is given here to Mantel’s grasp of the history. It’s a hefty tome, but fascinating. I can’t pretend I was equipped to really appreciate the finer points of Tudor politics, but I got a lot from the book, nonetheless.

Ben MacIntyre – Double Cross. Another extraordinary account of WWII espionage. If this was a novel one might accuse it in places of implausibility – a cast of extraordinary characters and plots of extraordinary audacity, on which millions of lives depended.

Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad. The updated version of Malik’s 2010 exploration of how the Rushdie affair transformed the debate worldwide on multiculturalism, tolerance and free speech, helped fuel the rise of radical Islam and pointed the way to the horrors of 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm. This memoir of a childhood spent reading, voraciously, obsessively, constantly reading, really spoke to me… Mangan is a lot younger, and so some of the books that she devoured were too young for me by the time they came out, but she read everything, so there’s a lot of common ground. Very funny, absolutely delightful.

Eva Noack-Mosse – Last Days of Theresienstadt. Noack-Mosse was deported in early 1945 to the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Working in the camp office, she compiled endless lists for the SS, but also her own clandestine statistics and observations. Postwar, this evidence not only helped to reconnect displaced people with their family and friends (or at least to know their fates) but also contributed to war crimes trials.

Marcus O’Dair – Different Every Time. Authorised biography of wonderful musician Robert Wyatt. Affectionate and admiring, but clear-sighted, it’s a fascinating insight into the music and, with it being Wyatt, the politics.

Maggie O’Farrell – I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. The only writer to crop up in both the fiction and non-fiction sections of this blog. Incredibly tense, these encounters with death are nonetheless about life. O’Farrell was inspired to write it because of her daughter’s severe immune disorder and the experience of facing down death with and vicariously through her daughter.

Pete Paphides – Broken Greek. In a way, this is the musical equivalent of Lucy Mangan’s memoir. It’s the account of a childhood where music – the pop music of the era, as naff as it often was – had overwhelming power and significance. It’s also a story of chip shops, where his Greek-Cypriot parents worked to support their family, and of colliding cultures. It’s very funny, and joyful.

Johnny Pitts – Afropean. I was always going to want to read an exploration of blackness and European identity that starts in my own home town of Sheffield, before heading out to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon, Moscow… Whether or not Pitts finds his tribe on this quest, as the Guardian puts it, ‘Afropean announces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen’.

Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things to Me. A 2014 collection of essays, of which the title essay is the earliest (2008) and is credited with launching the concept of ‘mansplaining’ (not the term, which Solnit doesn’t use or like). Solnit is witty, clear, and absolutely furious. Excellent stuff.

Laura Spinney – Pale Rider. This could hardly be more pertinent – a study of the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-19, how it spread, how it was treated, how different governments responded. Lots of parallels, of course, with our own time. Where we are lucky is that our own pandemic does not follow directly on one of the most destructive wars in history, with populations exhausted, malnourished, displaced. We could have learned a lot, though, if the right people had been interested in learning rather than posturing…

Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman. The story behind Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman, a story which one might have assumed to be a parable rather than reality. Stallworth himself didn’t tell how he infiltrated the KKK until 2006, and this account was only published in 2014. It’s fascinating and astonishing. It’s not just about the Klan, of course, it’s about what it was to be a black cop in the 1970s in the USA.

Under lockdown, I’ve travelled through time and around the globe. I’ve been back to 16th century England, 18th century Ghana, 19th century France and Russia, Nazi Berlin, Iron Curtain Prague. I’ve been to Jamaica, the Andaman Islands, Zimbabwe, Nigeria. I’ve been all over the US – Baltimore and Texas, Maine and Florida, Colorado and South Carolina, New York and Detroit. I’ve been all over my own homeland too. I’ve shared lives and experiences that are close to my own, and others that are so utterly different that I could never have imagined them.

Thanks to all of the writers who’ve opened those doors to me. Whatever else the second half of 2020 brings, there will be more books, more doors into other lives and experiences. I’ll let you know what I find.

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Books for the Plague Times

We’re all experiencing varying degrees of anxiety just now, depending upon our own age and health, or that of the people we love, the people on whom we rely, or who rely on us. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re bombarded with information from sources of unknown reliability, and drip-fed information from our government.

What we do know is that all of us are already affected, our lives have already changed. We’re taking precautions that would have seemed silly a couple of weeks ago, and the things we were talking about so intently a couple of weeks ago (Brexit, the football results, holiday plans) are no longer occupying our minds. We’re scared, we’re frustrated, we are in limbo, we are at a loss.

If we find ourselves spending more time at home, as a precaution or through illness, we’ll need more books. Never mind the bog rolls, load up your Kindle or your bookshelves, because whatever the crisis, books are vital. They keep open a window on to the world, they connect us with other places, other times, other people. They inform, challenge, console, inspire, and distract.

This reading list for plague times will focus on consolation, inspiration and distraction. Sifting through my bookshelves I realise how dark much of my reading matter is. Given current world events, and recent personal loss, I feel a hankering for books that can lift me out of the darkness. So I am sharing some of these with you, in case they can lift you too.

I’m not promising that some of these won’t make you cry, if you’re prone to it. I’m not promising that no one dies, or gets diagnosed with a serious illness. I am confident they will leave you feeling cheerier than when you began, or at least having had a break from the grim.

Biography/Autobiography

  • Clive James – Unreliable Memoirs. When this first came out, I was working in a bookshop. During the lulls between customers, I started reading it, but had to stop because it made me laugh so much, so uncontrollably. NSFW, to be sure.
  • Keith Richard – Life. I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
  • Giles Smith – Lost in Music. John Peel said of this book that ‘if you have ever watched a band play or bought a pop record – if you even know someone who has bought one – you should read this book’. 
  • Patti Smith – Just Kids/M Train. I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders. Her warmth and humour permeates every page.

Reading the Detectives

OK, by definition, crime fiction deals in death, often rather nasty death. But in these, what stays with you after reading is not the cruelty or the gore, but the characters, the wit, the dialogue, the humour.

  • Ben Aaronovich – the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight.
  • Dorothy L Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh posthumous titles) – Peter Wimsey series. I can re-read the Wimseys any number of times, because the writing, and esp. the dialogue is so glorious. Paton Walsh’s follow-up novels are pitch perfect, so if you want to renew your acquaintance with Peter, Harriet, Bunter and the Dowager Duchess, you’re in luck.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes. More great writing and dry humour, so even when you know from the start how it’s all going to pan out, you can enjoy the ride.
  • Elly Griffiths – Ruth Galloway series. Lots of Gothic darkness in the plots but Ruth is drawn with such warmth and humour that we feel we know her as a personal friend and would happily spend a few hours down the pub with her when this crisis is over.
  • Lynne Shepherd – Murder at Mansfield Park. Lynne specialises in literary mysteries. They’re pretty dark, but this one is a deliciously subversive take on the Austen.
  • Alexander McCall Smith – No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Love the setting, love the premise, love Mma Precious Ramotswe.

Historical Fiction

The further back the better, frankly. One can lose oneself amongst the Plantaganets or the Tudors – not that there are no echoes of our own times (the occasional plague, for example…) but they’re not overwhelming. I haven’t listed the obvious title, the new Hilary Mantel, which is brilliant (I’m halfway through) because you all know about it anyway and are either reading it or about to read it.

  • Livi Michael – Wars of the Roses trilogy. Michael tells the story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
  • Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason. This was a swooningly romantic take on the story of Richard III which I adored as a teenager, but it stands up to a re-read by a more cynical adult. Skillfully as well as passionately written. A cut above the Jean Plaidys (which I devoured at the time, but suspect would find less sustaining now).
  • Anya Seton – Katherine. As above. I read lots of others by her but this was my favourite. I also loved Dragonwyck (pure Gothickry), and for a couple of slices of US history, The Winthrop Woman and My Theodosia.

Contemporary Fiction

  • 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…
  • Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Well, reading anything by Atkinson is a joy. Life after Life is one of my favourite books ever but I find it emotionally overwhelming so it’s not a recommendation for now (especially since it has a lot about the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic…) This, her debut, is delicious black comedy.
  • Anne Tyler – Saint Maybe. Oh, look, just read anything by Anne Tyler. This was my introduction to her work, but I could just as easily suggest Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist...
  • Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You/Notes on an Exhibition. The most recent Gale, and the first thing I read by him. They don’t shy away from tragedy but the warmth and generosity of the writing always leaves one with a sense of joy and hope. Take Nothing with You talks about music so vividly that somehow I felt I could hear every note as I read.
  • Roddy Doyle – Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper). Also, check out his Two Pints (and its sequel, Two More Pints). All of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book.  Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’ Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).  

Classics Revisited

There’s a particular comfort to be found in re-reading. You can look forward to favourite bits, brace yourself in advance for the bit that always makes you cry. You don’t have to worry about the plot, because you already know how it all turns out, so you can just savour the pleasures of the writing, the characters, the descriptions, the dialogue. In this category I would put my favourites of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, the Brontes. A lot of people rate Trollope but I could never quite take to him. And Hardy is a bit bleak for these times.

From the early part of the twentieth century, I’d go for:

  • Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom.   Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her (I’m now old enough to be her nan).
  • Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger series. A recent discovery (is it a trilogy or a quartet?) I’ve read the first two in either event, and Hilda Lessways is a fantastic character, she blazes off the page.
  • John Galsworthy – Forsyte Saga. Family sagas are grand for times when the future is so imponderable, giving one a reassuring sense of continuity. I watched the original dramatisation in the late 60s, with Susan Hampshire & Eric Porter, the one that caused a bit of a kerfuffle because churches found their pews a bit under-occupied on Sunday nights, due to a clash with the BBC1 repeat showing, and some even changed the time of Evensong so their parishioners would not have to face this dilemma. Try telling your kids about the days when most tellies couldn’t get BBC2 and if you missed a programme it stayed missed…
  • Daphne du Maurier – impossible to pick just one. But if some are over-familiar, browse through her back catalogue, and try The Glassblowers, The House on the Strand, The Parasites – all much less well known but thoroughly good reads.
  • Revisiting one’s childhood reading is often another source of consolation (depending, I suppose, on one’s childhood). I wrote quite a bit about the most significant books of a childhood spent with my head in books in an earlier blog.

Of course, some may interpret ‘books for the plague times’ entirely differently, and I could easily construct an alternative list composed of books about plagues, and other varieties of apocalypse. However, just now there’s quite enough scary in the rolling Coronavirus updates that I don’t need any more. Books to console, inspire and distract, that’s my prescription.

You’ll have your own. And other people have been sharing their lists on social media, which is wonderful. Writer Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) has compiled hers (there’s a degree of overlap but lots of titles that are new to me and so lots of riches to explore:

These lists are as individual as their compilers. What brings me joy might leave you cold, and vice versa. But I love sharing the books I love. And if you’re reminded to track down something you read ages ago, or encouraged to read an author you haven’t tried before, I’ll be very happy.

Stay connected. Hang on to your hat, hang on to your hope. Be safe, be well, be kind.

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Choices and Chances: International Women’s Day, 2020

#IWD2020 #EachforEqual

An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.

A number of things I’ve read or watched just recently have made me ponder the importance of choice in relation to equality. How women across the centuries have been deprived of real choices – and still are.

Re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, in prep for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy, I thought about the two queens, Katherine and Anne. Powerful women, women with influence, women with resources. And yet – their power, their influence, their resources were entirely dependent upon men: fathers, husbands and, in a different sense, sons. Their fortunes changed on the whim of a man, and there was nothing they could do about it: rejected, humiliated, and in Anne’s case, killed.

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century and the women portrayed in Celine Sciamma’s wonderful new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloise is wealthy and privileged. But she has only two choices – the convent or a socially and economically useful marriage. Her elder sister had taken her own life rather than face the latter, and so Héloise must leave the convent and be marketed to potential suitors. There’s a lot to say about this film, about how it doesn’t just subvert the male gaze, it totally obliterates it. We see the women (and there are only a few men on screen, all briefly, all unnamed) through women’s eyes. Heloise seeing herself in the portraits that Marianne paints of her. Marianne’s self-portrait. Marianne surreptitiously glancing at Héloise as she must try to fix her features in mind, in order to paint her without asking her to pose. The two gazing at each other as they realise their mutual desire. Marianne turning, at Heloise’s request, for one last look as she must say goodbye. This is a film I will want to watch and re-watch. (And I was kind of chuffed to read that Sciamma is a huge fan of Wonder Woman – an actual auteur who doesn’t despise it as a superhero blockbuster but recognises its real power and importance.)

Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways is the subject of volume 2 of his Clayhanger trilogy, written in the early years of the twentieth century but set in the 1880s. What’s remarkable is the way in which we are, throughout the novel, in Hilda’s thoughts, seeing everything through her eyes, knowing only what she knows, as she rages against the restrictions of her life, struggles to understand her own emotions, to understand what choices she has, and to face the implications of the choices she has made. She is independent in spirit, she makes her own living for a while (the only female shorthand writer in the Five Towns), but she’s trapped nonetheless. It’s a vivid and moving portrait.

The young woman at the heart of Celine Sciamma’s 2015 film, Girlhood (Bande de filles) rages too. Marieme hasn’t got good enough grades to get to high school so the only option is college for vocational studies. That would mean leaving home though, which her controlling older brother would be unlikely to permit, and which would leave her younger sisters vulnerable. Her attempt to escape her brother’s control simply put her in the power of another man, and her boyfriend offers only a different kind of trap – marriage and babies.

The power in this film lies in its contrasts. We first meet Marieme as she plays American football, an Amazon, powerful in her armour. The girls head for home, all talking at once, laughing and loud and proud. But as they approach home, we see the young men waiting for them, sentinels, and the girls fall silent. We see Marieme taking on the maternal role with her younger sisters, we see her cowed by her brother’s bullying, we see her talking to a young man, all lowered eyes and fleeting glances. Girls together can be joyous (dancing to Rihanna, in shoplifted dresses, looking glamorous just for themselves rather than for a man, high on cheap booze and weed) or threatening (showdowns, mainly verbal but spilling into violence) with other groups of girls, extorting money with threats. These shifts are jarring, troubling. They show us what these young women could be (for good or ill), and what stops them from being what they could be.

So my 2020 heroes are Celine Scammia and Adele Haenel (for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and for protest at the Césars), Greta Gerwig for making a book that I’ve read dozens of times fresh and powerful.

Elizabeth Warren for persisting. The Doctor, Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

And those we’ve lost: Rosalind Walter (Rosie the Riveter), Heather Couper (probably the first female scientist of whom I was aware), Kathryn Cartwright (blogger, ambassador for the Anthony Nolan Trust), Katherine Johnson (NASA mathematician).

And two young women who could change the world, and who clearly terrify those who really don’t want it to change…

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2010-2019 – the best bits… and some of the other bits

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)

Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Trees movingly explores the Biafran war, sexuality and love across the ethnic and religious divides, class and status in Nigerian society.

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.

Documentaries: I Believe in Miracles (Johnny Owen’s account of the glory years at Nottingham Forest), Night will Fall and They Shall Not Grow Old, Nine Muses, They will have to Kill us First.

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.

Music: La la Land

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…

Music

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’s Kiss 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
  • Strauss’s Salome
  • Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
  • Lehar’s The Merry Widow
  • Janacek’s Jenufa, Osud and 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…

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