Posts Tagged Sarah HIlary

Books of the Year 2017

These are the books that have made the most impression upon me, that have made me want to read everything by that author, tweet madly about how wonderful they are and press copies upon everyone I know, during 2017.  Many, but not all, appeared during 2016/17.

Earlier this year I undertook a challenge, to read 60 books in 60 days.  Reader, I nailed it.  I also blogged extensively about the books I read and I don’t intend to duplicate those reviews here, though I will list the books that make my ‘best of’ list which were part of that project.  Quite a few, actually.

One of the first books I read in 2017 was Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. I commented at the time that this was likely to end up being one of my books of the year, and nothing has displaced it.  He made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid, rather, inspired to go away and read the stuff he was talking about.  It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.

clive james

As always, I found myself reading around various aspects of World War II.

Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s (2016) is a fascinating account, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between, drawing on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaving them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were.  I thought often of Michel Butor’s comment, speaking of his own adolescence in the city, that it felt as though nothing was happening but that the nothing was bloody.


Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: in the ruins of the Reich (2016) again draws upon contemporary sources (with particular, but not exclusive, emphasis on some of the women writers, reporters and artists – Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Lee Miller, Erika Mann) to paint a vivid picture of the devastation of Berlin and other German cities after the end of the War, and during the Nuremberg trials.  I followed this up with Rebecca West’s near-contemporary first-hand account, A Train of Powder (1955).  Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016) covered this period too, but from the perspective of those who were developing the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed.  What makes his account particularly powerful is that he weaves his own family history into that of the architects of the legislation.  He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer. Adding to this coincidence, I found myself reading in quick succession two other family histories, that of Eva Hoffman, born in Cracow at the end of the war but whose parents survived the war in the Ukraine, near Lwów (aka L’viv or Lemberg), emigrating post-war from Poland to Vancouver (Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language), and then that of Lisa Appignanesi (Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir), an account of how her parents passed for Aryan in occupied Poland before relocating to Quebec.

Still in WWII but behind the Eastern Front, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) lets us hear the voices of the women who fought in the Red Army. Rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by Soviet propaganda or the opposing Western propaganda, we meet real women who did extraordinary things, who confronted not only opposing armies but prejudice from their comrades in arms and commanding officers, and from their families at home. And personal conflicts too – these often very young women fell in love, and mourned the loss of their femininity, and feared whether they would find husbands when the fighting was done.  Alexievich’s book first came out in 1985 but has been expanded to bring in more recent interviews, and material from earlier interviews which could not be published previously.


And another remarkable and compelling history from David Olusoga – Black & British: a forgotten history (2016).  Alongside bits of history that I was familiar with there’s so much that was new, and ran counter to assumptions that I might have previously made.  It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s How not to be a Boy, clearly a response to Caitlin Moran’s wonderful How to be a Woman/How to Build a Girl.   It is extremely funny, and – as with Moran’s books – often very moving as well.

webb boy

Other outstanding non-fiction titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003); Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012); David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017).  

When it comes to fiction I resent categorisations by genre, which always somehow end up marking some things as ‘literature’ and others as ‘crime’ or whatever.  However, given the sheer number of crime/thriller/detective novels that I read, it makes sense to group them together.

New discoveries this year include Ben Aaronovitch’s somewhat bonkers urban fantasy detective novel,  Rivers of London (2011).  This is the start of a series, which I have yet to follow up.


I came across Helen Cadbury’s Sean Denton police procedurals, To Catch a Rabbit (2013) and Bones in the Nest (2015) set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping.  I’d only just read them when I heard that she’d died,  an awful loss.  There’s one more Sean Denton novel just out, which I haven’t read yet.


I’ve been binging on various series featuring women detectives and as a result I’ve run out of  several of my current favourites:  Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan (Let the Dead Speak, 2017), Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw (latest one is Persons Unknown, 2017),  Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome (Quieter than Killing, 2017), and Valentina Giambanco’s Alice Madison (Sweet after Death, 2017). They all feature central women characters who are complicated and interesting, tight plotting, intriguing peripheral characters, and an overall plot arc which, whilst it doesn’t prevent each novel from being freestanding, gives a depth to the series if you read them consecutively.

Fortunately, whilst I wait for Casey, Steiner, Giambanco and Hilary to come up with new titles (no pressure, but do hurry up!), I’ve got lots to read by Elly Griffiths, whose The Crossing Places (2009) and The Janus Stone (2010) features not a woman cop but a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway.  I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

Noah Hawley was new to me as a novelist, but I’d loved his writing for three TV series of Fargo, full of wit and heart and surprises.  His 2016 novel, Before the Fall lived up to the expectations that Fargo had raised.  It’s a thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality.


And a writer new to me but channelling (very convincingly) one of my all-time favourite detective novelists, Dorothy L Sayers.  Four new Lord Peter Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, a delightful chance to reacquaint myself with Peter and Harriet and Bunter and (oh joy!) the Dowager Duchess, and to see them in the context of world events and radical changes in society.  (Thrones, Dominations (1998)/A Presumption of Death (2002)/The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)/The Late Scholar (2013))

paton walsh

And some fantastic 2017 titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Sam Bourne – To Kill the PresidentJo Furniss – All the Little ChildrenLesley GlaisterThe Squeeze , Jane Harper – The Dry .

Another terribly sad loss this year was that of Helen Dunmore.  I’ve read most of her work over the years, this year alone I read three (The Lie (2014)/Exposure (2016)/The Betrayal (2010)).  I’m grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me, and that there are a few more for me to look forward to reading, including her final novel, Birdcage Walk.

This was the year I finally finished a ten-year project – to read all of Proust.  In French.  Le Temps retrouvé bit the dust in April, and I blogged about it here. 

temps retrouve

Prompted by my University of Sheffield Book Group, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015).


I suspect I’m not the only person with a deep fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tendency to idolise Atticus Finch, who’d kind of been putting this off, having read some of the reviews (and the controversy about whether Lee genuinely wanted this to be published and/or had the capacity to  make that decision).  I’m glad I did read it, but it’s complicated, and I will be pondering more about this separately, because reading it sent me off on so many different trains of thought.

And finally, after reading another alt. US history (Philip Roth’s The Plot against America) I got round to Sinclair Lewis’s account of a demagogue, ‘vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic’, who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and then the Presidency.  He wins support despite the vulgarity and the lies and the lack of content in his speeches by addressing the people as if ‘he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.’  And he attacks the Press in very familiar terms:

I know the Press only too well.  Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.

It is impossible to read It Can’t Happen Here (1935) without seeing the current incumbent of the White House in the place of Buzz Windrip.  In the run-up to his election, the Guardian analysed the similarities, and the Washington Post compared Trump not only to Windrip but to Philip Roth’s Charles Lindbergh.  We are forewarned.

As part of the 60 books challenge, I read more from long-term favourite writers Stevie Davies (Awakening, 2013), Patrick Gale (The Whole Day Through, 2009), Rose Tremain (The Gustav Sonata, 2016) and Livi Michael (Succession, 2014). I’ve already followed up Livi Michael’s excellent Wars of the Roses historical novel with the rest of the trilogy (Rebellion, and Accession).  I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Garden of the Finzi Continis.  I discovered new writers: Sarah Moss, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Per Petterson, and Andrew Michael Hurley,  amongst others.

This represents only a fraction of what I’ve read in 2017. The 60 books are fully documented, and outside of that project I’ve tried to keep a note as I go along, but I know I’ve forgotten some things (maybe justly, maybe not).  And of course this list represents the best of what I’ve read, the stuff that, as I said earlier, I’ve been evangelical about getting other people to read, and have followed up or plan to follow up with more by the same writer.  I have a policy of not mentioning the books I’ve read (completed or abandoned) which I’ve found tedious, or badly written, or just profoundly mediocre (although if I found something I was reading to be pernicious, dangerous, defamatory or whatever, I reserve the right to make a noise about that).  Generally, though, let other pens dwell on clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and so forth – the world is full of books that give pleasure and enlightenment, that inform and move and delight, and I’d rather talk about them.

Meantime, my ‘to read’ pile never seems to diminish, no matter how much and how fast I read.  Priorities include finishing Anthony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, which I put to one side during my 60 books challenge, and have not yet resumed, and others which I have still to acquire, Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I am, I am, I am (as well as any of her novels I haven’t read yet), and lots more Ali Smith.  Right, better get back to the books…





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What I Read in 2015 – the best bits

Once again I have been denied the chance to share with the readership of the quality newspapers my pick of this year’s reading. Ah well, the discerning audience that appreciates my blog will, I am sure, be grateful that I share it with them instead. You’re so very welcome.

Because my default response to a challenge (unless it involves serious physical activity) is ‘challenge accepted’, I aimed to read 80 books this year (as set by Penguin Books for some reason). That’s 80 properly read, cover to cover or the electronic equivalent, not mined for relevant info for the PhD. Of course I exceeded this arbitrary target, and enjoyed doing so. I’ve picked out some of the books that meant the most to me in 2015.


The Bear Comes Home – Ravi Zabor. Hard to explain this book – it sounds bonkers and indeed it is, but gloriously so, and it is some of the best writing about music I’ve come across, so vivid that, as Annie Proulx, who was on the panel of judges that gave it the PEN/Faulkner award said, ”Rafi Zabor somehow makes the reader hear music”. Yes, there is a bear. He plays alto sax. That’s all I can say really – as one of Zabor’s editors said, ‘you have to read it to get it’.

The City and the City – China Mieville.  I should have read Mieville earlier, but having loved this one, I am looking forward to Perdido Street Station. It’s a detective novel, but with a kind of sci-fi premise, which I won’t explain in case anyone hasn’t read it and would like to. It’s a fiercely intelligent novel which works brilliantly as crime fiction as well as sci fi.

Two novels dealing with Alzheimer’s gripped, in different ways. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a tour de force by a young debut novelist, with a protagonist who is in the grip of dementia and gradually losing touch with the world around her. Because of her condition, her conviction that her friend Elizabeth is missing is dismissed by everyone – meanwhile another mystery from much longer ago keeps on surfacing and demanding answers. We see things from Maud’s perspective, so we share her confusion. This is quite exceptionally skilled writing. Elizabeth… manages to be funny, without one ever laughing at Maud’s confusion and muddle, because even without a functioning memory, she is a fully rounded character with a sometimes acerbic and sometimes bizarre take on people and events. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice was a heart-breaking read – again our perspective is that of the person with dementia although in this case when we first hear Alice’s voice she is still very much herself, before the first ambiguous signs of the disease occur. Whereas in Healey’s novel the dementia is context and sub-text, here it is the text itself, the narrative following the process of the disease as it robs Alice of so much more than her memory.

Memory was a theme too in Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Many Lives of John Stone. Again, it would be unfair to give too much away – it’s 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.

john stone

Other highlights:

Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s time in Suffolk during WWI (reminiscent of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness, about D H Lawrence in Cornwall)

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, a hugely ambitious historical novel with an utterly compelling central character, 19th century botanist Alma Whittaker. It’s completely absorbing.

Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.

Steven Alcock’s Blood Relatives evoked very different and more recent années noires, in the city of Leeds during the Yorkshire Ripper years. But the Ripper is not the subject, but part of the background. He’s what people are talking about, but the protagonist is more concerned, as most teenagers would be, with himself and Alcock exuberantly captures the tensions and the textures of this life in full on Yorkshire.

And Cath Staincliffe, primarily known as a crime writer (the Sal Kilkenny series, Blue Murder, and novelisations of Scott & Bailey) made me sob my socks off with Trio, which follows the lives of three young women who give up babies for adoption in the 1960s, the families who took those babies in, and the children themselves as they grow to adulthood.

I also enjoyed a heap of Laura Lippmann’s terrific novels featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, discovered a new series by Sarah Hilary with DI Marnie Rome, J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels, and Peter May’s Lewis trilogy.


Viv Albertine’s fab memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was fascinating and heart-breaking and funny. Peter Piot’s life battling Ebola, AIDs and the bureaucracy and politics which gets in the way of tackling those challenges was an inspiration. And – to return to the theme of Alzheimer’s – Andrea Gillies’ Keeper told the story of caring for her mother-in-law whilst attempting to run a B&B, and how the dementia gradually took over all of their lives and thoughts. It’s honest, sometimes brutally so, but there’s black humour too, and poignancy.

Oh, and I finally finished Proust’s La Prisonnière. Two more to go…

I also read and recommend:

Fiction: Iain Banks – Whit, Ann Cleeves – various Shetland and Vera crime novels, Teju Cole – Open City, Michel Faber – Under the Skin, Will Ferguson – 419, Richard Flanagan – Wanting, Andre Gide – Thesee, Paula Hawkins – Girl on the Train, Anne Holt – The Blind Goddess, Kazuo Ishiguro – Nocturnes, Susanna Jones – When Nights were Cold, Han Kang – The Vegetarian, Philip Kerr – Berlin Noir trilogy, Stephen King – Finders Keepers, Tiffany Murray – Happy Accidents, Catherine O’Flynn – What was Lost, Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind, Jim Shephard – The Book of Aron, Louise Welsh – Plague Times vols 1 and 2 (hurry up with 3!!), Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

Non-fiction: John Bayley – Iris, Alan Bennett – The Lady in the Van, Charles Dickens – Selected Letters, Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows, Iain Hacking – Mad Travelers, Sarah Helm – If This is a Woman, Caroline Moorhead – A Train in Winter, Vladimir Nabokov – Speak Memory, Wladyslaw Szpilman – The Pianist

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