Book reviews

Read in 2020:

  1. Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas (Adam Kay). Clearly designed as a seasonal gift for those who had enjoyed his earlier and considerably longer book, this contains further anecdotes from the author’s years over a decade ago as a hospital doctor. He manages to bring humour to almost every situation, while never underplaying the pain and tragedy that also haunt these pages. His criticism of the lack of resourcing and funding for the National Health Service – something that has only worsened in the years since he changed career – is a constant thread but it comes as no surprise to find that he retains deep affection for and loyalty to the profession.
  2. The Dust That Falls From Dreams (Louis de Bernières). This lengthy read is the start of a trilogy following neighbouring Kent-based families from the death of Queen Victoria onwards, a saga that therefore has the potential to review much of the twentieth century. The characters in this volume are varied and believable, flawed and likeably human. In the aftermath of the First World War, their lives highlight the immense changes and challenges of the period and, interestingly, they also reflect on the failings of colonialism and empire-building. I look forward to future volumes.
  3. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Casey Cep). This is a really fascinating book, part dual biography, part mystery with a dash of crime thriller thrown in. It goes a long way to explaining the fact that Harper Lee never published another book after the runaway success of To Kill a Mockingbird, although the book that she had written earlier was eventually published shortly before her death. It is packed with detailed research and provides a really vivid picture of aspects of life in Alabama in the second half of the twentieth century. I found that I kept having to remind myself that the events described early on in the book took place in the 1970s and not a century earlier.
  4. Say No to Plastic: 101 Easy Ways to Use Less Plastic (Harriet Dyer). A really handy little guide that would be especially useful for anyone just beginning to look at how to reduce their use of plastic in response to concerns about the chemicals and particles it produces when degrading. It is now well known that these contaminate our oceans and that there is a huge volume of waste plastic being shipped across the globe where it potentially has even more damaging effects than it would in our own landfill sites. Only a small proportion is effectively recycled and we urgently need to reduce our use by finding, or reverting to, good sustainable alternatives. There are a few rather outlandish ideas – to make up the count? – but on the whole this little book contains is sensible and practical advice.
  5. Somebody I Used to Know (Wendy Mitchell). This is an incredible book and is probably one of the most important ones I shall read this year. Given its subject – dementia – there are some sad moments, but the overwhelming feeling of Wendy’s story is that of hope. Her honest and straightforward account of how her life has developed since a diagnosis of early-onset dementia at the age of just fifty-eight is truly inspirational and this book is an antidote to fear and an encouragement to anyone who ever contemplates this otherwise very frightening condition, either as a potential sufferer or as a relative. One of the key messages that came across was the fact that those with dementia may forget things – events, people, places, etc – but they do remember the feelings associated with those things. Everyone should read this!
  6. The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts (Gillian Tindall). It was purely coincidental that this next book was also very much about memories. I had read a couple of Tindall’s earlier books and enjoyed the detailed research about particular places and the people associated with them (The House by the Thames; Three Houses, Many Lives) but this is much more of a personal memoir in which the reader finds out a great deal about the author’s family. As my own family’s self-appointed archivist, I related enthusiastically to her descriptions of how cherished objects have come to be passed down through various ancestors to find their way into her collection. There were some passages that seemed to be rather a digression into commentary on twenty-first-century life, but perhaps an octogenarian writer can be excused the occasional ‘rant’.
  7. A Life of My Own (Claire Tomalin). This is a fascinating autobiography, made all the more interesting because I had the privilege of hearing Tomalin speak recently and was immediately astonished to realise that this attractive woman – who, seen across a room, would easily pass as being in her fifties – will be eighty-seven this year! She reflected that whereas she had always felt that she had been pretty independent and self-determining, she now looks back and sees how much was actually shaped by the age in which she was living and the people around her. She was a young woman in the fifties and sixties and has had a full life with more than her fair share of family tragedy and heartbreak but comes across as remarkably resilient, and a very hard worker; she is currently writing a further literary biography.
  8. On Fire (Naomi Klein). In her most recent book Klein uses lectures and addresses that she has given since 2010 to chart the climate crisis and to reinforce her case that what is needed is a Green New Deal. Her arguments are very persuasive and I only briefly lost sympathy when she criticised Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth for its analysis that a major problem in tackling climate change is ‘human nature’. Klein prefers to see big corporations and governments as the problem – and she is not wrong to do so – but they are run by people and while their greed, power-hunger and desire to dominate are hugely problematical they are surely aspects of human nature, and perhaps an exaggeration of traits that many of us possess? However, both authors agree that part of what is needed is to recognise the ‘villains’ and to take action if climate catastrophe is to be averted.
  9. The Second Sleep (Robert Harris). This is very clever but I found it an ultimately rather unsatisfying novel. Set against the backdrop of an unexplained apocalyptic global event occurring in 2022, which brought about the end of the technological age as we know it, by eight hundred years later the world is still in a situation resembling the Middle Ages. The descriptive writing is excellent and conveys very well the atmosphere and feel of what is going on, while the central characters are also very convincing. Nevertheless, despite a resolution of part of the novel’s main storyline, none of my own questions were answered and I was left wanting to know whether Harris had a fully developed ‘history’ behind the setting of this book.
  10. Time To Act. This is a really good little book and would be a particularly good read for anyone who is unsure about exactly what Extinction Rebellion and their faith-based members stand for, and why they do what they do. But for someone who has followed XR’s story, both in the media and talking to friends who are involved, there was nevertheless a lot here that was new and interesting. The book is a compilation of contributions from a range of different people – some are sympathetic onlookers, some seasoned activists and a few are among the ‘arrestables’; these are testimonies of concern, compassion and hope and I highly recommend their stories.
  11. The King and the Catholics (Antonia Fraser). I enjoy historical fiction but every so often it is really good to read some straightforward history, and this book covers a fifty-year period in British history about which I was relatively ignorant. There can surely be no historian better placed than Antonia Fraser to record the struggle for the lifting of restrictions on Catholics in both England and Ireland: a descendant of a ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ family who has made England her home and whose parents both converted to Catholicism, the denomination she eventually chose for herself as well. She is completely impartial and even-handed in her praise for those with liberal and generous values – and her criticism of the mean-spirited and prejudiced – on both sides of the religious divide, and one senses that she welcomes every small step in reconciling the differences and hurts that have persisted over the last two hundred years. A fascinating book.
  12. Life After Life (Kate Atkinson). This was a real surprise: I like a good story that leaves you with a sense of completion and without too many unanswered questions – and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this very clever novel. Spanning just over half a century and two world wars, the life of Ursula, born in 1910, unfolds in multiple ways and yet the author manages to maintain an element of suspense throughout. Much more complex and satisfying than Sliding Doors, this is a fascinating exploration of a life punctuated by ‘what if’s and the nature of déjà vu.
  13. The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood). This is pretty dark and, in places, downright disturbing but Atwood is so good at creating believable dystopian worlds and some at least partially sympathetic characters that I persevered right to the end. With echoes of the unpleasant future as portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale, but without the ‘religious’ element, this story centres around the exploitation of the poor for commercial gain. There is a lot of satirical commentary on the least uplifting aspects of American culture and values and in places this is really quite funny. However, I think my overall conclusion has to be that I would really not want to live in Atwood’s imagination.
  14. The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump (Rob Sears). This is absolutely not literature! It is, however, a brilliant illustration of the power of ‘cut and paste’ and an object lesson in why no one in the public eye should ever make statements that will be recorded and archived without extremely careful scripting. Intended to be a humorous read, I actually found it just yet more confirmation, and rather sad, that someone who is meant to be among the leaders of the free world is capable of such self-centred, rude and unpleasant language whether in speeches or through social media.
  15. Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Kate Atkinson). I didn’t recognise this to begin with but gradually realised that I had read it some years ago. There are always so many new books to read that I have rarely if ever re-read anything, but I was quickly drawn in and despite recognising particular scenes I remembered sufficiently little to want to continue right through to the end. I was struck – as I suspect I was before – by the clever way in which the novel is constructed like a family memoir with frequent flashbacks to tell the story of previous generations. I loved the use of old photographs as a thread running through the story, and the discovery towards the end of an often hinted at ancestral home.
  16. War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line (David Nott). I have read a number of medical autobiographies but because this also deals with conflict situations it is rather different. It makes for harrowing reading in places but is incredibly inspiring. Nott is honest and open about what can attract someone to the sort of work he has been doing now for decades: the excitement of risk-taking and the adrenaline rush that comes with being in a war zone. He is also clear about the anguish and the fear and sometimes the overwhelming sadness of failing to save every life. He has undoubtedly been extraordinarily heroic, but perhaps his greatest achievement has been developing ways of passing on his skills to others. Highly recommended.
  17. Saying Yes to Life (Ruth Valerio). This was written as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2020 Lent book. Its theme is caring for creation and it uses the beginning of the book of Genesis as an outline, with a chapter dedicated to each of the ‘days’ of creation. Both extremely practical and also prayerful, it provides a wide-ranging overview of environmental and ethical issues in relation to light, water, land, seasons, creatures and human beings. Passages describing situations and responses from all around the globe make this a very informative book that expands horizons, and it is thought-provoking and challenging. Well worth re-reading every Lent I would think.
  18. Love is Blind (William Boyd). I was sure I would enjoy Boyd’s novel, having seen the television adaptation of his earlier book, Any Human Heart, and I was not disappointed in this historical novel set in the late 1800s and early years of the twentieth century. Against the backdrop of Edinburgh, Paris, St Petersburg and a number of other European cities, and with music as a thread running throughout the story, a young man with a very specific talent escapes an unhappy home and finds success and love abroad. The course of his life is, however, marked by various challenges and disasters. Wonderful descriptive writing draws the reader in to a very different world. The title is hugely important: there were a couple of instances when I thought the hero surely must realise something but then I read the title again and that explained it.
  19. Biblio-Style: How We Live at Home with Books (Nina Freudenberger). This is a gorgeous book with enough text to be read in one long sitting and/or dipped into. A small minority of the many locations featured from around the world are bookshops or public libraries but most are lived-in, working spaces that happen to accommodate the libraries of their owners. The lovely photographs do not have the artificial level of tidiness seen in glossy magazine shoots of desirable homes; indeed, there were instances that had this bibliophile wincing at volumes left casually on floors or, in one distressing case, in a study that included the occupant’s collection of mugs filled with cigarette butts. The overwhelming impression is of how books enhance people’s lives – and that it is not possible to have too many. Reassuring reading.
  20. Charles Dickens: A Life (Claire Tomalin). This was a mammoth read but well worth the effort. Having only ever really thought of Charles Dickens as one of our ‘great writers’, and never having come across any literary or other criticism of his work, let alone of his character and actions, it was also quite a revelation. I knew only vaguely that there was a shady aspect to his later life and a long-hidden relationship with a former actress, but Tomalin’s scholarship and research paints a complex picture of a hugely talented man capable both of great generosity and kindness – to friends and strangers – but also of cruelty, thoughtlessness and neglect when it came to members of his own close family. He was a workaholic with a keen social conscience whose family life and later his descendants were blighted by the lack of any system of social care.
  21. Dare to be Great (Polly Higgins). I really wanted to like this book but in fact I struggled with most of it. I think that was largely because I was expecting something very different and I probably should have been reading one of Polly’s previous books, Eradicating Ecocide (2010) or Earth is our Business (2012). This was much more of a motivational text and I didn’t relate to the style at all, until over halfway through when there was specific information about the hugely important and valuable work that the author initiated to get ecocide enshrined as an international crime within the Rome Statute. As someone who has signed up as an ‘Earth Protector’ having learned about this a couple of years ago, this was what I wanted to read more about and so, unusually, I found the Afterwords and Appendices to be almost the best sections.
  22. The Bell in the Lake (Lars Mytting). I really enjoyed Mytting’s first novel and was very pleased to get hold of this, his second, which is the first in a trilogy. It is a beautiful story, in which the relationships between three central characters are set against a much greater tale of love – love of place, of culture and of belonging in the landscape. The descriptions of harsh Norwegian winters in a remote village in the late nineteenth century are so good they made me shiver, and the novel also touches on how difficult it is for even the most well-meaning ‘outsider’ to be sensitive to traditional beliefs and practices. Brilliantly translated and raising lots of issues about valuing heritage; I really recommend this book.
  23. The Case for the Green New Deal (Ann Pettifor). I confess that much of the detail of this book went over my head – I can scarcely begin to understand the intricacies of high-level economics or global finance. However, the central message – which I heard direct from Pettifor at a talk last year – is that system change is possible and is absolutely necessary if the world is going to succeed in tackling climate change. As the book’s title suggests, Pettifor makes the case for the Green New Deal as being proposed in both the UK and the USA and there are a number of places in the text – written, of course, before this year’s pandemic began – where what she says comes across as prophetic.
  24. Thicker than Water (Cal Flyn). This is an astonishing debut book from a young author who has moved from journalism into books. Prompted by an interest in finding out more concerning an ancestor, Flyn ends up on an arduous and emotionally draining journey taking her from the history of the Highland clearances to the early settling of Australia. Part travel story, part memoir and with a lot of social history and sensitive commentary on colonialism, she cleverly weaves the different elements together, interspersing her own story of discovery with that of her forebear, Angus McMillan. She is honest enough to realise that there are no simple answers to the difficult questions raised by her findings, but does find that in the meeting of minds between individuals from two cultures, some reconciliation can be found.
  25. Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell). I thoroughly enjoyed this book and really recommend it to anyone who enjoys fact-based historical fiction. Drawing on details from the lives of William Shakespeare and his family, O’Farrell has put flesh on the bones of the known facts and brought to life the daily routines, relationships, surroundings and feelings of these people. In a surprisingly relevant move for a book published in March 2020, she also charts the progress around the world of the infection leading to outbreaks of plague in the sixteenth century, having decided that in her story this would be the likeliest cause of death. She also does a brilliant job of debunking the notion that just because child mortality rates were high, parents would be less affected by the loss of children.
  26. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (Greta Thunberg). It is less than ten months since I read the first small paperback edition of this little book but having been given a copy of the updated and fully illustrated hardback I decided to read it again. I think perhaps it is something we should all read at least every year, as a salutary reminder of how much has still not been done to tackle the climate crisis; and it was especially interesting to be reminded that Greta’s repeated call is for global action to respond to what is a global emergency. We now see just what is possible in terms of political action and financial commitment to deal with a worldwide existential threat, so how much more disappointing is it that urgent action is still not being taken to deal with a threat we have known about for decades.
  27. The Future We Choose: Surviving the climate crisis (Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac). I think this is a really important book. Co-authored by the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who was the driving force behind the Paris Agreement, it is in almost equal measure terrifying and hopeful. With a clear description of the probable consequences if we fail to reach net zero global carbon emissions by 2050, balanced by the possible scenario if we can succeed in reaching that goal, this book should surely be read by everyone in positions of influence and power in the world. The prospects are not great at present but the authors nevertheless champion optimism and action as the way forward – and they reiterate the message of Greta Thunberg and others, that everyone can make a difference.
  28. …. [to be continued]

Read in 2019:

2019 books collage

  1. Lockerbie: The Truth (Douglas Boyd). I finished this fascinating and sometimes harrowing book with the feeling that it might better have been entitled, Lockerbie: The Untruth. Boyd’s detailed analysis of the events leading up to and following on from the blowing up of the PanAm flight in December 1988 provides a very convincing case that al-Megrahi could not have been responsible for the tragic loss of life and should never have been convicted. However, the truth behind Lockerbie – a place name that stands alongside Aberfan, Dunblane and Hungerford in British memory – is far less clear. That it was a revenge attack prompted by Iran seems far more probable than that Libya was behind it, but with all the major suspects now dead the full truth may never be known.
  2. What Are We Doing Here? (Marilynne Robinson). The latest collection of essays, this one spanning the election of Donald Trump in America and including a good deal of reflection on the character of the United States and on some of the ways in which its history has been distorted. Robinson’s essay writing is pretty dense and academic in parts but what comes through very clearly is her defence of Puritanism – not as it has been misrepresented as something sombre and restrictive but rather in its adherence to the more merciful and compassionate aspects of the biblical law. As elsewhere, she holds up the human mind as being of immense value, and education – in the arts, as much as and in addition to science and technology – as something to be treasured.
  3. Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson). I am glad that I had already read Robinson’s trilogy of novels before this, her earliest published fiction. Housekeeping is much less straightforward in some ways, and tells a somewhat bleak story about a family of women who seem to lack all real connectedness, in marked contrast to the characters in Gilead, Home and Lila, who are rooted in and supported by a community and friendships. However, the story is full of such believable and poignant description, and the characters elicit sympathy for the way in which their inability to fit in impacts all aspects of their lives, that despite the cold, the abandonment and the deaths, it was a really good read.
  4. Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (Alan Rusbridger). I really enjoyed this very readable book about the challenges that have faced – and continue to face – journalists over the past twenty years or more. The author includes a good deal of background information about how we have ended up with the print media we currently have, and the differing international responses to the threats posed by digital and social media. There are also very useful potted histories of some of the major news stories of recent decades – the press phone-hacking scandal; WikiLeaks; the Edward Snowden revelations; the Cambridge Analytica issues. This book was informative and a good read – although, coming as it does from the pen of the former editor of the Guardian it is perhaps no surprise that there were some errors that had escaped the proof-reader’s attention.
  5. The Cat Sanctuary (Patrick Gale). First published almost thirty years ago, this novel contains many of Gale’s hallmark characteristics: unconventional relationships; dysfunctional family backgrounds; Cornish countryside; references to musical and literary figures – and even a barley-sugar, which I gather he has recently realised is a recurring feature of his books. Most striking, however, are his portrayals of complex female protagonists and their changing moods and emotions. In a story that has both humorous and tragic moments, it is the weaving together of the lives of three very different but intimately connected women that holds the attention all the way through.
  6. Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). I would probably not have read this – not being in the target audience for a ‘young adult’ novel – except that it appeared on a list of ‘Top 100’ books and happened to be on our shelves. What a very clever book: for the first few chapters I confess I spent time repeatedly trying to work out the skin colour of each narrator – until I realised how ridiculous and utterly irrelevant this was, and also what it so uncomfortably revealed about me rather than about the story. This was no anodyne children’s book, but was a challenging read, conveying vividly many of the evils of apartheid societies and how easily oppression can lead to violence.
  7. Beatrice and Virgil (Yann Martel). This is a very strange – and ultimately quite disturbing – book, which starts off very gently and lulls the reader into a false sense that all is well. Initially I suspected that it was a semi-autobiographical novel, with the central character being an author who has written a very successful book largely about animals (Life of Pi). I struggled – as did this fictional author, I think – with trying to understand what was going on with the book’s other main protagonist but all becomes clear towards the end of the book and in the meantime there are some rather wonderful passages in which Beatrice and Virgil – animal characters in a play script – discuss all manner of things, including what a pear is like if you have never come across one before.
  8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré). Another novel from the ‘Top 100’ books, and a classic late-Cold-War double agent story. The author is a master of suspense and I kept on expecting that at any moment a particular turn of events was around the corner, only to find out that something completely different was happening instead. And perhaps I need to read more of his other books, because the enduring mystery for me is how George Smiley came to be married to his wife; apart from the fact that he clearly loves her, they seem such an unlikely couple. As I finished this book I was still uncertain about whether I had read it before, seen it on television or simply recognised many of the characters’ names from another Le Carré story.
  9. The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry). I loved this book; it is a perfect blending of fictional story with well-integrated and carefully researched historical fact, creating a tale that is wholly believable and has a cast of flawed but likeable characters. The pace is slow and measured, with the entire book spanning just eleven months, and yet somehow the detail and descriptive depth enable the reader to get to know these people really well and develop an understanding of and sympathy for how they feel and react. The book ends perfectly, not with every storyline resolved but with a sense of rightness, that enough has been said and done to set each person on the path that their lives should take.
  10. Undivided (Vicky Beeching). I think this is a very important book; it is also well written and really comes from both the head and the heart. I related to much of Beeching’s spiritual journey, having come to faith in a fairly conservative evangelical context and only having gradually, and increasingly over the last two decades, found a Christianity that is both much richer and more open. As with the author, this has come through academic theological study, wider reading and meeting new people. I find it perplexing and sad that there are still so many who profess a deep love for God and yet are prejudiced against or intolerant of those who do not fit with their own, sometimes rather narrow, belief system. Undivided illustrates aspects of both the very best and the very worst of the Christian church but ultimately it is about courage, conviction and authenticity.
  11. I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith). This was yet another title included in the ‘Top 100’, which I found on our shelves and had not read. Like The Essex Serpent, all the action takes place within a single year and is in the form of a very detailed journal written by a teenage girl during the 1930s. Despite the fact that it is far more literary than any writing by a teenager is likely to be, this nevertheless works because the honest emotions, contradictory feelings, adolescent rebellion, first painful love and gradual weakening of early loyalties all really do ring true. Or at least they do for someone who had a sheltered upbringing in the fifties and sixties; I suspect that in parts this book would feel extremely outdated to a modern teenager but then perhaps it is good for us all to be reminded sometimes that attitudes and accepted standards of behaviour do change over time – some for the better and some not.
  12. Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders). This is a very unusual book, and quite unlike anything I have ever read before. If it hadn’t been highly recommended and then found in the local charity bookshop I might not have read it, and I almost didn’t get beyond the first few confusing pages. However, the dustjacket blurb was very helpful and so I persevered, and I am glad I did. Historical snippets surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son add depth and interest to an extremely clever musing on the nature of a mythical post-death limbo or purgatory state. Disturbing and thought-provoking.
  13. The Ruby in the Smoke (Philip Pullman). The first of Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy, this has all the late-nineteenth-century feel of a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which the hero is replaced by an independent-minded, sixteen-year-old orphaned girl. It is a gripping story and a good read but what struck me most forcibly were the underlying reminders, throughout the book, of the dreadful consequences arising out of the British promotion of the opium trade, and the corruption it wrought within China, which has echoes both there and around the world today.
  14. True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey). It didn’t take much knowledge of Australian history to know that this story was not going to end well; however, the name ‘Ned Kelly’ was a childhood memory without any associated detail, so this book was a fascinating read. Written in the first person, with only very light punctuation and with a real feel of having come from the pen of the infamous gang leader himself, it paints a detailed picture of a desperately downtrodden and persecuted community struggling to survive in extremely harsh conditions. Not a comfortable read, but undoubtedly much more realistic than the sanitised tales of Robin Hood and his merry men – black-and-white television starring Richard Greene – with which I grew up.
  15. Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire (Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson). ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ or, in this case, possibly even by its title! I have heard a couple of Professor Danny Dorling’s lectures and so knew that this book would not be an enthusiastic endorsement of the UK’s referendum decision to quit the EU. As expected, it presents some fascinating analysis of the voting patterns that led to the unexpected result and some very convincing explanations of why we may have ended up in this position. So far, so good, and there is a great deal here that I agree with, including the critique of our educational system that has for decades failed to teach in a balanced way about British imperialism. However, in producing a dense and lengthy book in time for publication before the supposed March 2019 exit date – and despite acknowledging that it will take many years to adequately review the whole Brexit situation – these two academics have not really done themselves justice in my opinion. The book lacks a coherent structure and there is a lot of repetition; some of the character assassinations, invariably of Conservative politicians and supporters, while possibly factually accurate, come across as spiteful; and there are some real errors. If the majority of a group of people respond positively when asked how satisfied they are with their lives it does not follow that they are either smug or self-satisfied, and to suggest that it does is just sloppy.
  16. The Librarian (Salley Vickers). With its late-1950s village setting this book reminded me in some ways of the very many Miss Read books that I read in my mid to late teens. There were similar local ‘characters’ and the well-observed social scale that seemed to be rather typical of that time and such places. However, there are some darker undertones to Vickers’ story of a young librarian finding her way in a Wiltshire village. Her dealings with her neighbours and work colleagues – and her passion for giving all youngsters the opportunities to achieve their best – are very believable, but I was rather less convinced by the way in which she abandoned so readily the expectations associated with her upbringing. The second part was clever, but I nevertheless finished this book feeling slightly as if I had been lectured about the importance of public libraries. A good read, but not my favourite Vickers’ novel.
  17. Notwithstanding (Louis de Bernières). Although I have a tendency to be something of a ‘completist’ when I find an author whose books I enjoy, this didn’t happen with de Bernières and, after loving Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, I didn’t get around to reading any of his other books until now. Coincidentally, after the Vickers’ novel, this is also based entirely in a fairly small English village. The book is ostensibly a collection of short stories, many of them published individually over the course of a decade or so around the turn of the millennium; however, taken together they read more like a novel in which each chapter happens to be a complete tale. The same people pop up again and again and, with each story, the character of the village and its occupants becomes clearer: they are an eccentric bunch and there is a lot of humour. There are also some quite painful reflections on the loss of community as a place like Notwithstanding begins to become home to commuters, and as some of the lifelong inhabitants pass away. I was left wanting another chapter – about the ubiquitous hedging and ditching man.
  18. Painter to the King (Amy Sackville). This was an impulse buy having read a review, and is a work of historical fiction quite unlike anything I have read before. In some respects it was well outside my comfort zone – with frequent passages of freeflowing text employing minimal punctuation (one sentence spanned almost a whole page) and the author introducing her own twenty-first-century reflections into the narrative – and yet it really worked: the piling of word upon word evoked the layering of paint on canvas; the staccato rhythms built tension; and there is a real feeling that Sackville has got to know the painter as a living human being. Most impressive of all, the rich description meant that within a couple of chapters I just had to look up images of Velasquez paintings.
  19. Friendly Fire (Patrick Gale). Up there among the best of Gale’s novels, I think. He has an extraordinary ability to write in a gripping way about the ordinary circumstances of life that everyone experiences – in this instance, the anxieties and excitements of adolescence. All the more remarkable is the way in which he can inhabit the life story of a teenage girl as she goes through puberty. I loved the setting for this novel, and although based on his own schooldays at Winchester, the descriptions – especially when combined with the scene of high drama towards the end of the novel – reminded me of watching an episode of Morse, although there is no actual murder.
  20. Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey). I really enjoyed this book, which is a wide-ranging historical novel set largely in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Australia. However, it also has a family background setting in rural England featuring the sad and divisive nature of inter-denominational rivalry and intolerance in the Christian church. The central protagonists are multi-layered; they have very human flaws and display both selfish and much finer characteristics but they are also both unusually self-reflective, recognising their faults and their own motives and desperately seeking to be better human beings. This is a story about pioneers, friendship and love, and also about people who were prepared to be different and to stand apart from the accepted norms of their day. Highly recommended.
  21. Enriching our Vision of Reality (Alister McGrath). A really well-reasoned and accessible book arguing that study of natural sciences and theology are both necessary for a complete and rich worldview. Not only does the author use his own story, of a journey from atheist scientist to leading theologian who continues to engage widely with science, but he includes the stories of three scientists, among world leaders in their respective fields, who have had similar faith journeys. There are convincing arguments for religious belief as well as honest reflections on those areas that continue to pose problems for many people of faith. McGrath clearly demonstrates the considerable shortcomings of ‘scientism’ at the same time as celebrating science. A really excellent read.
  22. The Patient Assassin (Anita Anand). This is a fascinating account of events surrounding and resulting from a particularly dark moment in the history of India, the massacre at Amritsar in April 1919. I really enjoyed this author’s earlier book, Sophia, charting the involvement of a member of Indian royalty in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain, and this latest work also ties British and Indian history closely together. In following the story of one particular man, Anand draws out important themes about imperialism and its long-lasting effects, and the damage that harbouring bitterness and seeking revenge can cause.
  23. A Sweet Obscurity (Patrick Gale). I really enjoyed this novel, and it has easily gone into my top four or five favourite Gale books, alongside Notes From an Exhibition and A Place Called Winter. At pushing five hundred pages, this is much longer than some of his other novels but there is nothing about it that feels like padding; all the detail and the interwoven plotlines are absolutely necessary to the story, which revolves around four central characters and their relationships. It is a love story, but much more than that – it celebrates music, rural life and scholarship and is a believable and satisfying read.
  24. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Philip Pullman). It took me a long time to get around to reading this book – in hardback it is not something you can pop into your holiday luggage. The first part of a new trilogy set in the years before Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the majority of the action in this story centres around a devastating flood that submerges most of Oxford and the whole Thames valley area down to London. As with his Oxford predecessors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, Pullman’s fantasy fiction has enough of the tangible and recognisable to ground the story in the almost familiar, and enough that is totally unusual to slightly take the edge off the darkest and most terrifying aspects of his stories. His books are also ultimately about the triumph of good over evil and are a satisfying and entertaining read.
  25. The Labyrinth of the Spirits (Carlos Ruiz Zafon). This is a monster of a book, at just over eight hundred pages, the final instalment of a four-part story that began with The Shadow of the Wind. Compelling, if sometimes confusing, reading – at its heart this is a family saga but it ducks and weaves elements of detective fiction, history and love story, with dashes of political commentary thrown in. In places, as with the other three books, it is almost unbearably dark, but there is nevertheless a golden thread of human goodness, touches of delightful humour and an underlying celebration of the enduring value of books that make this a really good read.
  26. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng). An interesting story set in 1990s’ America during the Clinton presidency and based very specifically in an area of the suburban mid-West where the author grew up. However, the issues this book touches on almost incidentally – access to medical care for the less-well-off; middle-class complacency; the cost of higher education; and the difficulty of making a living as an artist – are just as relevant today. But what gives the story of two contrasting families its overarching theme is the question of motherhood and, specifically, the bond between mothers and daughters. Whether this bond is strongest only through birth, or can be nurtured and forged through love and attention is a question left hanging in the air as the story closes – with the suggestion that the answer may well be the former if you are the mother but sometimes the latter if you are the child.
  27. The Cut Out Girl (Bart van Es). This is a wonderful book, from which I learned a lot about the Netherlands during the Second World War. Through the life history of one woman, researched by and told to a relative, the reality of life as a Jew in Holland during the 1940s really came to life – along with the scars that separation, bereavement and a childhood lived out in secrecy. Perhaps even more than the writing of Corrie ten Boom, or the diary of Anne Frank, this story gave a very rounded picture both of those who spent time in hiding and those – both the very good and the deeply flawed – who concealed them at great personal risk. I am really looking forward to hearing the author lecturing about his book next month.
  28. Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (Serhii Plokhy). This was a challenging read, and not only because of the huge number of rather lengthy and complicated surnames. I remember the news coverage of the explosion at Chernobyl and how increased levels of radioactivity were later detected in northern areas of the British Isles, with some concerns about meat and milk from our livestock. However, the relatively limited reporting certainly didn’t cause any great fear even for a pregnant mother with a young child; it all just seemed so far away. This book, however, makes all too clear that a devastating disaster for the whole of Europe was only narrowly avoided; had the other three reactors on the site also exploded we might not be here to read this book. It was no surprise to read that politics, secrecy, poor communication and inadequate monitoring were all factors behind the disaster, and that the inhabitants of much of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus will continue to be affected for many years to come. What I had not appreciated, however, was the central role of this disaster in bringing about the fall of communism and the disintegration of the USSR.
  29. Semicolon (Cecelia Watson). This was actually a rather fascinating little book, with a good deal of historical detail. As someone whose job often entails applying the ‘rules’ that the author is in places quite critical of, I was prepared to disagree with her, but then found much of her case compelling. It was also encouraging to see from her own writing that she is far from advocating that authors should throw out the accepted norms of grammar and punctuation; instead, she encourages a thoughtful acceptance of writing that use the semi-colon in very specific and unusual ways in order to create a particular feel or sound. However, what will probably stay with me longest is huge relief that I have never had to check anything by Mark Twain, who apparently threatened to shoot any proofreader who dared to interfere with his punctuation.
  30. Falter: Has the human game begun to play itself out? (Bill McKibben). This is a fairly terrifying book as it tells it like it is with regard to the effect that we are having on the climate of our planet. What I wasn’t expecting was the inclusion of a section detailing what McKibben sees as the other major threat to the ‘human game’: the further development and implementation of artificial intelligence (AI). None of this makes for comfortable reading and yet there is an underlying hope that seeps through – a belief in the ability of humanity to make sufficient changes and turn things around if only we can keep alive a vision of what it really means to be human. The rapid growth in the use of sustainable and renewable energy, and the rousing of public opinion displayed in non-violent direct action are the two threads that give the author some optimism in what would otherwise be a bleak future.
  31. Peterloo: The story of the Manchester massacre (Jacqueline Riding). Having heard the author speak, and having seen the Mike Leigh film for which this book provides a wealth of background detail, I was less ignorant of the episode in British history that marked a turning point in the road towards universal suffrage than I had been before this summer. However, the book added a lot, making it clear just how much has changed in two hundred years but also how much remains the same: the inability of many of the wealthiest and most privileged to understand the reality of life for the mass of working people; the sometimes questionable practices of the authorities, including intercepting mail and planting agents within the reform organisations; and the failures of communication between different branches of law enforcement, leading to chaos and tragedy.
  32. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (Greta Thunberg). This slim volume, an easy read in a single sitting, contains the texts of Greta’s addresses given in the course of less than a year to some of the most powerful people in the world, s well as to mass gatherings of concerned citizens. This diminutive Swedish schoolgirl goes straight to the heart of the climate crisis and to the flawed economic systems that are reacting too little and too slowly in addressing the damage that we in the privileged and wealthy countries of the global north are inflicting on the planet that supports all life. She is saying what we should have been saying for decades.
  33. Quichotte (Salman Rushdie). This is the first Rushdie book I have read and I have no idea whether it was a good place to start. However, having heard the author talk about it, I knew that it would be unlike almost anything else I have read and I was intrigued. Quichotte is an extremely clever book, and in places it is also both funny or immensely sad; it covers a vast range of contemporary topics, from the opioid crisis in America, through environmental destruction and racial prejudice to the breakdown of family life. A story within a story, it is initially confusing and the use of extended lists to reinforce a point is occasionally tiresome. Nevertheless, I think I enjoyed it – at least enough to explore some more of his writing.
  34. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood). Having watched all three series of The Handmaid’s Tale on television, and in anticipation of the long-awaited sequel, I decided to read the original book. It was difficult sometimes not to be distracted by the ways in which the adaptation for the screen – in which the second and third series develop the story beyond Atwood’s book – had not been entirely faithful to her work, but setting that aside it was nevertheless possible to see how well her descriptive passages had been translated for viewers and how the strong voice of the narrator comes through. It is sobering to reflect that all the author’s ‘ideas’ presented in this dystopian work of fiction are based on aspects of reality in various parts of the world, and quite startling to realise that something which comes across as very modern was written over thirty years ago.
  35. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky). This is not a quick read and for someone who generally likes a clear idea of right and wrong, good and bad, it was also pretty challenging. I last read other Dostoyevsky, along with a range of classic Russian literature, as a student and perhaps that is significant: despite what I might like to think I may have become somewhat set in my ways after all. As a result, the ambiguity and the blurring of moral values was often quite disturbing. However, the deep insights into the nature of guilt, the tearing apart of a person’s very humanity in the wake of a dreadful crime and the impact on their ability to love or accept love is brilliantly done and is probably what will stay with me.
  36. Jamilia (Chingiz Aïtmatov). This is a really delightful short book by an author from Kyrgystan. It is both a love story and a coming-of-age story, conveying really vividly both the joy of first young love, the anguish of it not being reciprocated and the heartbreak of parting. The descriptions of the countryside and the rural life are wonderfully done and the story ends on a really positive and uplifting note.
  37. The Fire Starters (Jan Carson). What an intriguing and wonderful story: the second novel and fourth book by talented Belfast-based writer, Jan Carson, this is a work of fiction in the magic realism genre. However, it illustrates beautifully how fiction can convey truth, with descriptions of Belfast and its people that shimmer with authenticity. I have never been to Belfast but it is very clear that the writer has walked these streets, knows these men and women and has a deep affection for the place that has nurtured her career in the arts. The turbulent twentieth-century history of the city and the annual traditions that still disturb its fragile peace are the backdrop to a story of two fathers challenged by their offspring in surprising ways.
  38. The Cupboard (Rose Tremain). Having previously really enjoyed Tremain’s historical novels, Restoration and Music and Silence I struggled a bit with this contemporary story and at the end was left having enjoyed it but feeling that I needed to know more about what was going to happen to one of the book’s main storytellers, Ralph. The life story of a now-elderly English writer, Erica, as related over a month to American journalist, Ralph, was wonderful – it became clear how the many and varied experiences of a full lifetime had influenced both her own story and her writing. However, I found the extracts from her strange and confusing fiction rather perplexing and was left with the conviction – which at the end perhaps she and Ralph shared? – that her own life and her loves were more affecting and important than her writing.
  39. My Name is Lucy Barton and
  40. Anything is Possible (Elizabeth Strout). Purely coincidentally, after reading one book featuring an author I turned next to these wonderful novels by a writer I had not come across before (many thanks for the recommendation, Jan), in which a central character is also an author. These are really beautifully written, totally believable and very atmospheric, with mother-daughter relationships a particular theme of the first book. In the sequel there are many linked stories elaborating on the lives of characters met in the first book. The awfulness of poverty in the context of a wealthy country – or rather, not poverty itself but the shame and stigma associated with it – is portrayed especially well, as are the damaging effects of both war and lack of parental love. Highly recommended, and I am looking forward to reading more Strout.
  41. This is Going to Hurt (Adam Kay). Picking this up just ten days after my daughter gave birth to our first grandchild may not have been the best timing, but I am nevertheless very pleased to have read it. In the same genre as The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story, the book is a frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious but also deeply sad and disturbing memoir – a diary of a junior doctor from qualifying through to time spent as a senior registrar. It is a huge loss to the NHS that Adam Kay’s immense compassion and expertise as a doctor specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology have been lost: he is now a full-time writer and comedian. I was not surprised to read of horrendously long shifts, unsupportive superiors, understaffing and poor pay, but what really shocked me was the discovery that doctors could be spending so much time either treating entirely avoidable medical emergencies that have arisen because of bizarre and dangerous sexual practices or advising people whose basic scientific education seems to have been far from adequate. How many valuable hospital hours could be saved if certain aspects of health education were more effective?
  42. The Testaments (Margaret Atwood). I really enjoyed this, although I do agree to a certain extent with the critics who reckoned that it wasn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale. But then, what sequel could be, after such an amazing story and especially over three decades on. In this new book, the ‘Tale’ is taken up, not by June/Offred, the previous narrator, but by three other female voices whose ‘testaments’ document what happens from around a dozen or more years following the events shown in the second and third television series of The Handmaid’s Tale. Knowing, from The Testaments, much of how Gilead’s later history plays out, it will be especially interesting to see how the fourth television series, due out next year, fills in some of the blanks.
  43. A Long Way From Home (Peter Carey). This is another really enjoyable book by master Australian novelist, Peter Carey. In this story he combines the parallel memoirs of neighbours Irene and William while setting the core of the book against the 1954 round-Australia car rally, in which Irene and her husband are co-drivers with William as navigator. But most significantly this becomes a journey of discovery – discovery of identity for William, who believes himself to have German ancestry. That involved stigma enough, so soon after the war, but he uncovers a far more dramatic truth and, as he does so, he both learns from and teaches an Aboriginal community very far away from his adult home. Disturbing accounts of eighteenth-century and more contemporary abuse, oppression and racism meted out against the native people of Australia leave the reader better informed without taking anything away from a thoroughly good story.
  44. The Lost Message of Paul (Steve Chalke). Just wonderful. For anyone who still believes that the apostle Paul was a woman-hating, legalistic and rather authoritarian follower of Jesus, this book will be a real eye-opener. Full of scholarship, and with respectful and considered references to a range of theologians, not all of whom would be in agreement with Chalke’s conclusions, this is both easy to read and learned. I fully acknowledge that I loved it because it chimed so well with what I believe, but it is also well-argued and convincing – painting a picture of a God who truly is all-loving and a Saviour whose life and death was for everyone, not just those who happen to be fortunate enough to enjoy knowing him here and now.
  45. Bodily Harm (Margaret Atwood). This was a good read, totally unlike the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, but with a lot of reflection about the chaos into which a small Caribbean island state can descend when corruption, drugs and guns hold sway. The underlying story is of single female ‘lifestyle’ journalist, Rennie, seeking escape from a failed relationship and recovery following cancer surgery. She gets much more than she bargained for when she flees to the Caribbean sun and elements of romance and thriller mingle together in this book, which was published in 1981.
  46. A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Short Guide to Einstein, Relativity and the Future of Faith (Alister McGrath). Marking the centenary, in November 2019, of the proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, this book charts the career of the extraordinary scientist and also looks at how he approached the world and what he thought about religious matters. Born Jewish, he appears never to have attended religious ceremonies and he has often been misrepresented as an atheist. Although not acknowledging a ‘personal’ God, he nevertheless spoke often about a great intelligence, mind or force lying behind the universe and was happy to designate this transcendent reality ‘God’. McGrath uses Einstein to demonstrate, as he does in many of his works, the value of studying both science and theology in order to gain the richest possible insight into the world.
  47. Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames (Lara Maiklem). As someone fascinated by many aspects of history, I found this a really interesting book. The practice of mudlarking, and specifically of finding treasures along the shoreline of the River Thames, is centuries old and the author is just one of its many modern-day exponents. What makes this account so readable is the way in which Maiklem has included elements of personal memoir alongside the descriptive writing, which is about both the geography of the river and surrounding areas and also what she has found along the river’s edge. I was particularly drawn to the passages in which she also relates aspects of the lives of some of the individuals whose lost possessions she has come across.
  48. The Book of Dust 2: The Secret Commonwealth (Philip Pullman). What a very clever book, and a gripping and absorbing story. The first volume of Pullman’s new trilogy was a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, revealing the very early history of the heroine, Lyra. In this second part, however, all of this is in the past and Lyra is now an adult. Well known for his criticism of organised religion, Pullman here brings his fictional world very much in line with twenty-first-century concerns: the refugee crisis, persecution of minorities and the unbridled greed and power of multinational corporations with a global reach, all feature. There also seems to be a much greater sympathy for the peaceful who have a religious faith, and a harsh critique of what appears to be a thinly disguised ‘New Atheism’. I am really looking forward to seeing where things go in the final volume.
  49. The Pigeon Tunnel (John le Carré). It is very impressive that someone who claims not to have kept a diary, but only occasional notes of events, has been able to write such a detailed and fascinating memoir-cum-autobiography. What becomes clear, however, is the meticulous and painstaking research that has accompanied the writing of twenty-five novels over almost sixty years, and an incredible ability to store up information, impressions and conversation. This book gives a wonderful insight into the life of the author, whose own brief career with the British Secret Service, alongside his reputation as an author of very credible spy stories, resulted in many instances of life being just as strange as fiction. As a result, this stands alongside his novels as a really good read.
  50. When I Was a Child, I Read Books (Marilynne Robinson). Unlike Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built, which talks about the particular books that shaped the author’s reading habits and interests during childhood, this book is a collection of essays taking its title from just one of the ten contributions, which happens to start with this sentence and goes on to give broad background about Robinson’s novels. As with her other essay collections, there are reflections on aspects of American higher education, religious thought and politics – and some of the writing is dense and verging on the impenetrable. However, her love for all that is best about her country, and her deep desire that the arts, literature and wide-ranging thought should be available to all, come across clearly and she is extremely perceptive on the potentially corrosive influence on democracy of media seeking to market rancour and excite divisions.
  51. Frost Fair (Carol Ann Duffy). This beautiful little gem of a book has prevented me from having a year of poetry-less reading and is something I shall enjoy reading winter by winter for years to come. The poet takes a walk through seventeenth-century London, describing the sights, sounds and smells of a city that has seen its main thoroughfare transformed from a waterway into solid – if frozen – ground. Young and old alike are seen taking advantage of the ice as somewhere to play, to trade, to meet, to eat and even to spend the night.
  52. Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (Nathaniel Rich). I have no reason to doubt the details in this book, charting the progress or otherwise of climate change awareness and action between 1979 and 1989 in the USA – and I suspect that there were similar scenarios being played out to at least some extent in other countries across the developed world, where we are all so dependent upon energy from fossil fuels. It is a salutary tale, and in many ways a deeply depressing read, but a really important one. However, the Afterword is crucial and does contain some tiny germs of hope, with its recognition that despite all the corporate lobbying, the activities of environmentalists, and the politics, this global existential problem is actually an issue of morality and of recognising our responsibility to our fellow human beings – and to those yet to be born. That the younger generation are doing much better at this is at least some cause for hope.

Read in 2018:

2018 books collage


  1. The Last Tudor (Philippa Gregory). I have now read all of Gregory’s Tudor books and I think this is among the very best. I knew only of Jane Grey and her brief reign as queen for nine days before Henry VIII’s two daughters took the throne as Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth I; I had no idea that Jane had two younger sisters who also had a potential claim to the throne of England. Their stories – available in snapshot from history websites but related in first-person narrative in this historical fiction – are tragic and moving. Hidden away and separated from those they loved, while political manoeuvring went on year after year, both Katherine and Mary Grey suffered longer imprisonments than their older sister Jane. None of the three Grey girls sought the throne and all were punished because of their ancestry; they should surely have equal status in British history – and this book makes a good case for that.
  2. A Legacy of Spies (John Le Carré). A really good read and with a thread of something like nostalgia running through it, perhaps because much of the ‘action’ is related in flashback and many of the characters who have appeared in earlier books are clearly now retired or deceased. Nevertheless, tension is built and only at the very end is there any sort of resolution. Some of the final passages seemed to me to have been shaped, or perhaps reshaped, following the EU referendum result, with some very telling lines on motivation or patriotism. It will be interesting to see if Le Carré has more yet to say about ‘the Service’ and its activities in the twentieth century.
  3. Measuring the World (Daniel Kehlmann). A scamper through an extremely significant era of scientific research in the Western world, related in fictionalised form through the interconnecting life stories of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. I had heard of both but to me the name ‘Humboldt’ conjured up visions of penguins or, more recently, the huge building project in Berlin, where the former Berlin Palace is being rebuilt as Humboldt-Forum, due to open in 2019 after ten years under construction. Described as somewhere that will ‘invite people to find out how things in our world are related to one another, discovering the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange’, this – with added humour – could also sum up the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
  4. Flesh and Blood (Stephen McGann). Described as a book of family history, and charting as it does the lives and times of some of the author’s ancestors over a century and a half, a good deal of this book was nevertheless more directly autobiographical. Best known as the actor who plays Doctor Turner in the popular BBC series Call The Midwife, what many viewers may not know is that McGann has an academic interest in medicine and that he is married to the series’ writer; indeed, his being a perfect fit for this particular role comes through in much of what he writes here. He also illustrates, in a style that in places only just avoids tipping over into ‘purple prose’, the maxim that everyone can find family links to world-shaping events if they just look hard enough. From the Irish potato famine through the sinking of the Titanic and to the disasters of Hillsborough and the Alder Hey organs scandal, this family – whose name has become familiar over the last three decades through stage and screen – has long been involved the nation’s history.
  5. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (J K Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne). The last time I read a play was when studying for O Level English Literature, and that was a very long time ago. Inevitably, having read all of the Harry Potter books and seen the films, it was possible to visualise the settings of the innumerable scenes that take place both in flashback, in the present day and as a result of time travel, and this really helped; I would certainly not recommend this book to anyone not familiar with all the background. The story itself is not quite as complex as those in the books, and really centres much more on family relationships than on the underlying theme of good versus evil. I would now be intrigued to see this performed, if only because the frequent and complex shifting of time and place must surely present challenges on stage.
  6. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi). It is only February but I suspect that this will be the most significant book I read this year. A book about death that is also very much about life; about dying but about living – and living well. It also raises questions about the tremendous burdens that can be placed upon the medical profession and illustrates how those with a calling to one of the most challenging fields of medical practice – neurosurgery – need to be very special people indeed if they are to provide the best care and attention to patients and their families at extremely challenging times. I can only be tremendously thankful for the dedication of people like the author, and for those who extended the same care to him. A book for anyone who has ever had questions about the meaning of life.
  7. A Very British Murder (Lucy Worsley). This was a fascinating rattle through the history of British murders, going back to the 1700s and explaining just why the public developed a fascination with such crimes. Alongside detailing the most notorious cases in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Worsley also charts the development of the early police force – initially viewed with great suspicion by law-abiding citizens, as representing an unwarranted intrusion into people’s private lives – and the addition of detectives to their numbers. It was really interesting to read about how fiction writers reflected the differing types of killings that were being reported in the press and that people seemed eager to read about at different periods in history. Popular television series of today now demonstrate all of these differing tastes, from what Worsley describes as the ‘cuddlesome’ Foyle of Foyle’s War to the gritty realism of Broadchurch and the historical Ripper Street. Sadly, she omitted to mention Colin Dexter’s wonderful creation, Inspector Morse!
  8. Admissions (Henry Marsh). I already had both of Marsh’s books on my ‘to read’ list but was spurred on to get them having read the excellent When Breath Becomes Air and discovering that Henry Marsh will be speaking at an event I am due to attend soon. I have, however, read the second book first, which may perhaps turn out to have been a mistake! There are many huge contrasts between this and Kalanithi’s uplifting account of life as a neurosurgeon and although I did not warm to Marsh in the same way I recognise that this is in part because he has had a longer and more varied life and a more diverse professional experience; he has been granted the time to become more critical, both of himself and of the health care systems in which he has worked. The title of this book is both clever and telling: it is, of course, about a number of the medical admissions with which he has dealt, but much more revealingly it is the author’s admissions of his failings as a surgeon, as a son and as a teacher. Sadly, Marsh believes that his knowledge as a neurosurgeon makes it impossible for him to believe in any sort of afterlife (he should read Kalanithi!), but he nevertheless reflects that the human brain appears to have been hardwired for hope. I am looking forward to reading his other book.
  9. The Book of Happy Endings (Elise Valmorbida). This is a really delightful little book, packed with the real-life stories of people who have found their soulmates – or perhaps they haven’t all quite managed it yet? Interspersed with atmospheric black and white photographic double-page spreads, this is an ideal book to be devoured in a single sitting during a long solitary train journey, or dipped into, a story at a time. The author has managed to compile and augment these wonderful tales without ever becoming an intrusive extra voice; they hold together with a cohesiveness of style but manage to maintain the personalities of the various contributing characters; very clever indeed.
  10. At the Edge of the Orchard (Tracy Chevalier). I have enjoyed Chevalier’s books since first reading Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I loved this book – much as I did her previous book, The Last Runaway, also set in America. It had everything I really enjoy about historical fiction: an engrossing story, with at least some characters whose fate you can really care about; elements of ‘real’ history that leave you feeling that you have learned something new about the past; and a setting that is so well described you can imagine having been there. I was reminded – in a really good way – of elements of Philippa Gregory’s Tradescant novels, and also of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries with the latter’s setting at a time when settlers were seeking their fortunes in a rush to find gold.
  11. Different Class (Joanne Harris). A good long read, with so many twists and turns that I am not entirely sure I could say at the end that I fully understand everything that happened in this story, set between 1981 and 2005. Joanne Harris’s many novels cover a variety of styles and settings and this was very different from, for example, Chocolat or her other books set in France. But she is a master story-teller and the use of different narrators, although occasionally confusing, adds to the suspense and the drama here, combining with her vivid descriptions of life in a boys’ grammar school to create an almost Agatha Christie-like unfolding of crime and secrecy. A sad tale in many ways, and one that leaves a number of unanswered questions in the mind of this reader.
  12. Julia Margaret Cameron (Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry). I picked this up at a visit to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Victorian Giants: the birth of art photography’, having realised that Julia Cameron features in a distant branch of our family tree. It is a small book, largely of photographs but with fascinating essays about how this woman became such a key figure in early photographic portraiture after her daughter gave her a camera thinking that it might amuse her. Huge patience and perseverance were involved in using a camera in the 1860s and 1870s, when every exposure involved subjects remaining motionless for minutes and this was followed by the lengthy processing of a glass plate before the result could be assessed. How very different from today’s instant and digitally editable photography, and yet her pictures are wonderful, strikingly evocative of the period, with her subjects sometimes posed as characters from poetry or mythology.
  13. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). This is one of those books that I always felt I ought to have read but never got around to; sometimes that is a good thing, because there is just so much else out there, but in this case I am very glad indeed that I have now read this classic story. I have not seen the film and had only the very outline of an idea of what it was about, that is that it was set in the American south and dealt with issues of racial discrimination in the 1930s and is told from a child’s perspective. But there is so much more to it – the gentle humour of everyday life; the so-real ups and downs of living with a sibling; the attempt to understand the world of adults; and the testing of boundaries imposed by childhood. Most of all, what will stay with me from this book is how sad it is that as adults we lose the simple wisdom of children, who can see far more clearly that what matters is not the colour of a person’s skin but the way they treat others. That this book, written when I was a young child, was so important and powerful – but that its lessons have not yet been fully learned – is a reflection on much that is still wrong with the world today.
  14. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee). I am really glad that I read these two books back to back and in the order in which they were published (and set) rather than the order in which they were written. It was easy to see how Lee had taken sections from this then-unpublished book and used them when writing To Kill a Mockingbird, a much more subtle and satisfying book altogether. Although Go Set a Watchman gives an even stronger message against racial segregation, it is an altogether more ‘shouty’ text and, focusing as it does almost exclusively on the relationship between Jean Louise (Scout) and her father – who stands as a representative of the Maycomb society in which she grew up, it lacks the descriptive depth and the detail of her much more successful work. What comes across very clearly, however, is how difficult it was to be ‘colour blind’ in 1950s America.
  15. Do No Harm (Henry Marsh). I am really glad that I have now read both of Marsh’s books. This first one is organised around particular medical conditions that he has encountered in his long career as a brain surgeon and would not be an easy read for anyone at all squeamish about the details of hospital procedures. Marsh’s frustration with the increasingly bureaucratic aspects of modern medicine stand alongside his enthusiasm for modern technological developments that now sometimes make the surgeon’s task slightly easier and less time-consuming, although very lengthy operations still occur. The author does not shy away from demonstrating a number of different aspects of his personality: bad temper, rudeness and petulance are all in evidence, but invariably not with patients. With advancing age he is more understanding of the fears and concerns of those on whom he has operated, and of their families. That he is a highly skilled and compassionate, but sometimes difficult, man is what comes across.
  16. The Madonna of the Mountains (Elise Valmorbida). A great read about a time and place I know very little about. As I have found before with good historical fiction, it made me want to know more but also left me feeling that I had learned a good deal. The portrayal of the characters was wonderful and alongside the sense of place and community that Elise has managed to convey, she has also created a central female figure for whom this reader felt a real sympathy. This is a story of endurance, inner strength, triumph over adversity and the overwhelming love for one’s children that can be a motivator for all sorts of previously unimagined actions. That this book has no tidy ‘happy ending’ makes it all the more true to life – but also makes me wonder whether a sequel could one day be on the cards.
  17. Sophia (Anita Anand). A wonderful book; I really enjoyed this and have great admiration for the wealth of research that must have gone into it. Although ostensibly a biography of one woman, a wide sweep of British and Indian history is crammed into these almost 400 pages and it is real mixture of tragedy and triumph, taking in the origins of the Sikh faith, the story of the suffragette movement in Britain, the rise and fall of the Raj in India and much else. Sophia and her siblings were all born and brought up effectively as English nobility – princes and princesses under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria – but as they connected with their heritage the effects on them were varied and extreme. That some rebelled fiercely against British imperialism is perhaps not surprising, and yet their own ancestry was similarly one of imperial ambition within the Indian subcontinent. The acquisition of power and wealth and the desperate attempts to retrieve what had been taken away were perhaps bound to result in dysfunctional family relationships but Sophia, adopting one cause after another in which to invest her energies, comes through as a complex but ultimately lonely and rather lost figure, whose significance as a campaigner has nevertheless been rightly celebrated in this book.
  18. God’s Fingerprints (John Samways). This is a great little book, which can be read straight through or dipped into. It offers a catalogue of those little ‘God coincidences’ that have occurred in the life of the author and his friends, and which when taken together serve to clearly illustrate that there is more to life than what we see, hear and feel on the surface of things. And as if to reinforce the message of the book, as I read the closing chapter it included a quotation that was mentioned at a study day I attended just three days ago and that will form the basis for a reflection I need to present at a meeting today!
  19. The Sparsholt Affair (Alan Hollinghurst). This has not encouraged me to read more of Hollinghurst’s novels. I had enjoyed The Stranger’s Child some time ago and so, when I spotted this latest title in a charity bookshop, I decided to give it a go. There are some really good descriptive passages, with the feel and atmosphere inside buildings being particularly well portrayed. However, I did not find any of the characters particularly likeable. I ended up being most interested in the daughter of one of the central characters but only scant details of her story appear; yet ultimately she is the person carrying forward the effects and probable damage from all that unfolds over the span of around seventy years. The eponymous ‘affair’ hovers on the edge of the narrative – but the many other affairs, along with the various family relationships, appear for the most part to lack real love. Rather disappointing.
  20. No Is Not Enough (Naomi Klein). If you have wondered about how Donald Trump managed to gain the US presidency; if you are concerned about the rise of far-right politics in places all around the globe; if you feel powerless in the face of consumerism, climate change or imposed ‘austerity’ – then read this book! Klein manages to pull together what must surely be all the major themes of international economics and politics in an accessible, readable and impassioned book that is at the same time intensely human and encouraging. With a balance of dire warnings about what could and yet may still go very wrong, alongside signs of encouragement and hope, she calls on everyone to look to their own actions, to get engaged in whatever way possible and to join with others in making the real voice of the people heard at the local, corporate, national and international level.
  21. Keshab: Bengal’s Forgotten Prophet (John Stevens). I knew absolutely nothing about the subject of this book but in the process of reading it I learned all sorts of fascinating things about British and Indian history. Having so recently read Sophia, with its insights into the Sikh faith and the history of the Punjab, here there is information about Hinduism, Brahmoism – which began as a monotheistic reformist movement of Hinduism – and ideas around universalism that were being put forward in both Britain and India in the late nineteenth century. This is a seriously scholarly work by an academic expert, with almost a quarter of the page count taken up by notes and bibliography, so not a light bedtime read – but most enjoyable nonetheless.
  22. Gilead (Marilynne Robinson). Set aside any thoughts of the dystopian setting for The Handmaid’s Tale – this is something very different. I was given a clue about the unique quality of this story at a recent event in London where the author responded to audience questions and was asked about her creation of a ‘perfectly good man’ in the narrator of this book. That risks making it sound dull and worthy, and nothing could be further from the truth. The prose is beautiful, absorbing and contains remarkable truths about the human condition, about what people feel and how they cope with life and the passage of time. The most astonishing thing to me is how a female writer so utterly convincingly seems to inhabit the life and mind of an elderly man and unfolds to the reader, through writing to his young son, a story of family, friendship, loyalty and love spanning almost a century.
  23. Home (Marilynne Robinson). Although written some four years after Gilead, this is not exactly a sequel but takes other key people from the first book and expands on their stories, providing a different perspective on lives seen previously only through the eyes of the narrator of the earlier book. In many ways the review quote from the cover sums it up: it is tremendously sad, full of the anguish of things unsaid, of family relationships that cannot quite settle into real comfort. At the centre is a ‘prodigal’ son, returned home after twenty years – years about which we learn very little, except that he carries them heavily, full of regret and of a kind of inevitability reaching back into his restless childhood. He is a man only too aware that he cannot be completely trusted and yet he comes across as having great integrity and a capacity for love and familial sharing that he seems intent on fleeing from. Haunting and heart-wrenching.
  24. The Language of Kindness: A nurse’s story (Christie Watson). It was purely coincidental that I was reading this book during the week when the 70th anniversary of the NHS was being celebrated and reflected on across the British media – and there were ongoing discussions about its funding and resourcing – but this coverage certainly served to highlight and reinforce all that Watson writes about. It is often the nurses whom patients and their families remember – whether after a stay in hospital or following the death of a family member, and it is often the nurses who take time to explain what is happening and who administer daily care, sometimes at great personal cost in terms of exhaustion, relationships and emotional burnout. This memoir – hugely uplifting but at times also distressing – is not only timely but should be read by all those who have influence over the funding of our national health service, which is under threat of creeping privatisation.
  25. First Confession: A sort of memoir (Chris Patten). If I had needed any convincing that there are some good, principled, fair-minded and very intelligent people in the Conservative Party, then this book would have done it. However, I have heard Chris Patten speak and already suspected that he was an exemplar of the good that can be found across the spectrum of British politics. It was really interesting to read more about his background, about the variety of roles he has filled and the clearly very genuine interest and dedication he has brought to them all. It was also fascinating to read his impressions of the people he has worked with over the years – on all sides of the house and in other contexts as well: that he values integrity, good manners and peace-making and that he seeks to live out his Christian beliefs is very clear. I cannot agree with everything he says, particularly with regard to economic growth, but above all he comes across as a dedicated family man and I will long remember – and relate to – his observation that he is ‘only ever as happy as his least happy child’.
  26. Lila (Marilynne Robinson). I absolutely loved this book, a window onto mid-twentieth-century rural America and onto the unlikely but beautiful marriage of an elderly widowed preacher and a young nameless orphaned woman. It could be read as a standalone story of the triumph of goodness over the pain and ignorance of the past, but is probably best appreciated as the third in Robinson’s series of novels about John Ames. It is also a wonderful apologetic for an inclusive and liberal understanding of Christian faith and beautifully illustrates how the daily living out of patience, kindness, forgiveness and love can be more effective in teaching deep spiritual truths than any sermon could ever be. I do so hope that there will eventually be another book about these endearing people.
  27. The Old King in his Exile (Arno Geiger). I had never come across this German author but thoroughly enjoyed this sensitive memoir about how Geiger’s father and his family came to terms with the ravages of Alzheimer’s and how much they learned about August Geiger’s history during this difficult time. The book is realistic in acknowledging that the circumstances can vary widely for families in this situation, but the strategies that the author learned – broadly, always acting and speaking in a way that affirmed his father and that served to allay fears and keep things peaceful – seem eminently sensible and clearly made life easier for everyone. I was left wondering, however, how much the stability of the Geiger family life – generations living in the same place, and most of the family settled nearby – had helped to make this a time of deepened rather than damaged relationships.
  28. The Givenness of Things (Marilynne Robinson). I shall probably need to read this again before I can really get my head around some of it – and I now understand why, despite the apparently very straightforward and beautiful simplicity of her fictional prose, I found it difficult to really engage with how Robinson responded in a public interview I attended. She just has a phenomenal brain (and speaks quite quietly and quickly) and reading these essays, based on some of her lectures, has left me feeling both that I have learned a good deal about how America is seen from the inside but also that there is just so much more to know about all the subjects that engage her: literature, theology and education are just the ones at the top of what is probably her very long list. As a taster, the final essay is a transcript of a conversation with Barack Obama in the closing months of his presidency and is very good.
  29. Ease, and
  30. Kansas in August (Patrick Gale). Catching up on some ‘vintage’ Gale as I look forward to his latest novel, just released. These two quite short books both focus on people attempting to take on another identity, with varying success and generally disastrous consequences. I completely failed to identify the source of the titles in both cases and in the second book, where two of the main characters adopt aliases, and where a brother and sister are called Hilary and Henry respectively, I did end up rather surprised – given the levels of alcohol consumed – that they could ever remember who they really were, let alone who they were meant to be! As in his later books, the author is brilliant at describing the thoughts and feelings of flawed human beings, their deceits and selfishness alongside moments of tenderness and real kindness.
  31. Beyond Human (John Bryant). A really interesting and very accessible book that manages to incorporate a precis of human history – with an acknowledged emphasis on the Western world – from the arrival of Homo sapiens through to the second decade of the twenty-first century. Not only has the author summarised history, he has helpfully described the systems of ethics and the philosophies and laws against which the developments in science, which are the focus of the book, need to be assessed. I found this both informative and balanced and was particularly struck by the way in which an enthusiasm for the incredible benefits that are being, or could in the future be made available, especially in the field of medicine, is tempered by an acknowledgement that such advances may largely be available only to those who can afford them and that they therefore have the potential to exacerbate the divisions between rich and poor.
  32. Take Nothing With You (Patrick Gale). The latest novel from a master storyteller who almost always includes autobiographical references. There are lots of them here, many based around learning the cello as a child and the dawning of sexual awareness at what to me seemed a very young age. This book made me realise again that different worlds can exist alongside each other even within the same location: that while my early and mid-teens were still a time of childlike leisure activities and Swallows & Amazons literature there were surely those alongside me in the classroom who were experimenting and exploring in very different ways indeed; those rumours of under-age sex and fears of fourteen-year-old pregnancy may not have all been hormone-fuelled make-believe after all. Gale draws you in to the lives of his characters and to caring about how things work out for them, and does so in such a subtle and effective way that some hours after finishing this book I had to go back and flick through to confirm my sudden realisation that we are never told the surname of his main protagonist, but that it doesn’t matter.
  33. Sea Prayer (Khaled Hosseini and Dan Williams). A beautiful and heart-rending book telling in prose-poem form the story of a refugee family and the fears of the father for his young son. The superb illustrations are moving and poignant and tell as powerfully as the words of the tragic changes of environment and circumstances brought about by war. As well as being a reminder of the terrible destruction that has occurred they also show what we do not see on our screens: the tranquil beauty of what was has been lost.
  34. The Boy Who Could See Death (Salley Vickers). Ten short stories from the author of Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Miss Garnet’s Angel. This collection is varied, intriguing and an easy read to dip into and read a story in a sitting. Perhaps just because there isn’t space in a short story to develop the characters and the backstory with quite the depth that a full-length novel allows, I didn’t find these quite as enthralling as Vickers’ longer works, in which you really get a chance to understand and sympathise with her protagonists. Nevertheless, there are some likeable people here, as well as some very strange tales with the sort of supernatural element that the author often employs to very good effect.
  35. Cocoa (Kristy Leissle). This is a fascinating and very informative book. I love chocolate but don’t eat a great deal of it, and on environmental grounds I already favour Fairtrade and try and avoid chocolate brands that contain palm oil. But I now know how incredibly complicated it is if you really want to buy chocolate or other cocoa-containing products wisely. Fairtrade certainly scores highly but there is a whole range of other issues because of the many other players who usually intervene between the cocoa farmers and the chocolate brand retailers. As an internationally traded commodity with a futures market and with just a small number of major corporations doing the majority of the processing of cocoa beans, this is one of those crops that is subject to an enormous amount of political and economic pressure. It isn’t straightforward, but I do recommend this book for some hints.
  36. The Century Girls (Tessa Dunlop). I loved this book, and I almost think it should be required reading for anyone born after about 1950, but especially for ‘millennials’ and younger. Not only is it a wonderful celebration of the lives of six amazing but very diverse British women, it also reinforces the fact that anyone born in or before 1918 – as were all the subjects of this book – has experienced immense change to many aspects of everyday life. These courageous, clever and engaging women have between them coped with war, loss, poverty, discrimination and much more, but have demonstrated resilience and resourcefulness and their long lives have thankfully left them all with a good deal of remembered and current joy. I so enjoyed reading this that I can even forgive the smattering of misplaced apostrophes and the occasional errors not spotted by a copy-editor or proof-reader, the most stunning of which was in a caption showing a short-sleeved woollen top, which the subject had apparently ‘croqueted’ herself!
  37. Bridge of Clay (Markus Zusak). This is an astonishing novel from the author of The Book Thief; it grabs you slowly and bit by bit becomes utterly absorbing. I struggled initially with the style of writing and the hopping back and forwards from recent past to more distant past – and I was more than half way through before I had worked out where the story was set. But none of that mattered a bit once the emotion of the unfolding family saga had taken hold. Somehow Zusak has managed to combine the experiences of solitary emigration, coming-of-age love, sibling loyalty and rivalry, loss, redemption, grief and hope into a wonderful and coherent whole. I wept on and off through much of the last fifty or sixty pages but could not put it down – highly recommended!
  38. Facing the Tank and
  39. Tree Surgery for Beginners (Patrick Gale). Completely by chance I read these two ‘vintage’ Gale novels one immediately after the other, although I believe they were written around a decade apart and with a number of other books produced in between. However, they both feature his fictional small cathedral city of Barrowcester (pronounced Brooster), based on Winchester, as a backdrop. Possibly because I am not very good at picking up on the humour in novels and also do not generally read fantasy fiction – and there were some very fantastical happenings in the first of these two books – I vastly preferred Tree Surgery. While the first book had a huge array of people and could almost have been a series of interlocking short stories, the second had a smaller cast and followed one man’s story throughout. As a result, I found it more coherent and engaging. Nevertheless, while I shall continue to read any of Patrick Gale’s early books that I had missed, I am more convinced than ever that it is his more recent novels – particularly those since Notes from an Exhibition – that will remain my favourites.
  40. The Day the Revolution Began (Tom Wright). I am really glad to have read this; it helped to bring a scholarly perspective that I had not really come across before to debates around the nature of atonement and the meaning of the crucifixion. Although written for a non-academic readership, Wright has realised that the deep way in which he engages with the material inevitably provides a lot to ‘plough’ through – and in this volume he is excellent at repeatedly reminding the reader of both where his argument is heading and also the central conclusions that he is coming to. He manages to counter the extremely unattractive (and for me wholly unconvincing) presentation of Jesus’ death as ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ and instead paints a picture that fits much more coherently within both the Old and New Testament framework of covenant and sacrificial love. We are called to a vocation as believers, to help to bring into being the kingdom of God; Jesus has gained the once-and-for-all victory but there is still much to be done, and what was done for us on the cross should spur us to action and especially to serve others.
  41. Dangerous Pleasures (Patrick Gale). A collection of entertaining short stories written between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, some of which are very complete tales and others that leave you wanting to know, ‘What next?’ I liked some more than others but what came through quite strongly were the aspects of Gale’s writing that have gone on to feature prominently in his more recent full-length novels: his ability to get inside the head of his main protagonists, both male and female; the importance of relationships, and their influence on how people behave; and the portrayal of particular communities within whatever setting he uses.
  42. Unsheltered (Barbara Kingsolver). I absolutely loved this book – and am torn between this and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as my favourite read of this year. Since being recommended The Poisonwood Bible some years ago, I have read all of Kingsolver’s books and have enjoyed them all. This latest novel is just so clever, marrying historical and partially fact-based material with a story set in exactly the same place but in 2016, as the US primaries were taking place. Both strands – and they alternate without any feeling of disconnection – speak powerfully about very contemporary issues: nationalism; the false division between science and faith; social inequality; inter-generational tensions; and much more. But at their hearts, both stories are about people the reader can identify with and really care about. I didn’t want this book to end.
  43. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (J. K. Rowling). I made the mistake of reading this book before either reading or seeing the film of the previous story, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Where reading the book before seeing the plays had been no problem at all with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child because all the characters were very familiar from the Harry Potter books and films, in the present case it was a huge disadvantage not to know who the various witches, wizards or beasts were. I am still not entirely convinced that I know what was going on or whose ‘side’ I should have been rooting for as I read, but there is no doubting Rowling’s ability to conjure up fascinating personalities and to give them an existence that is sufficiently interesting that you want to keep reading.

Read in 2017:

2017 collage

  1. The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton). This is one very big book! Really enjoyable saga of life across just a couple of years in South Island, New Zealand, during the gold rush. With a sizeable cast of characters, lots of twists and turns and a clever way of incorporating flashbacks and background information. I really enjoyed this book, although it did take me the best part of six weeks to read, and I suspect that a second reading might be needed to make more sense of exactly what might have happened at the end!
  2. The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria (Janine di Giovanni). Having seen Janine’s film about the war in Syria, this book filled in a lot of detail. The story is so much more complicated than the television news coverage can convey and attaching the drama to real people, with friends and families, makes it come alive. How Janine and her colleagues manage to return again and again to situations like this is hard to fathom, but thank goodness that they do because as well as telling it like it is to the outside world they also convey to those suffering that there are people who care.
  3. The Midnight Palace (Carlos Ruiz Zafon). I came across this lesser-known and earlier book by the author of the wonderful Shadow of the Wind and thought I would give it a try. It is the second of three books he wrote in the 1990s for younger readers and there are strong hints of the evocative and engaging descriptive writing that made his later adult books such compelling reads. Bravely, there is no happy ending: the story is really only a snapshot into a fleeting time in the lives of the main characters, a time in 1932 when the past shapes their futures. It didn’t make me want to read his other ‘young adult’ novels but I am nevertheless looking forward to his forthcoming book.
  4. The Virago Book of Women Travellers (ed. Mary Morris). This book is as heavily laden with a variety of good things as a returning gap-year student’s rucksack or, perhaps more accurately, their memory, because this collection of fifty-two pieces of travel writing by women spanning almost three centuries is a literary version of a vast collection of holiday photographs from all over the globe. While some of the writing is detailed description that can give the reader a real sense of place, other extracts are more about the feelings and emotions experienced by the traveller – and this variety adds to the richness of the collection. Most of these women would be astounded – and possibly appalled – at the way in which modern tourists drop into a foreign country from the air, see it only for a week or two and may never speak to someone who has always lived there.
  5. Three Sisters, Three Queens (Philippa Gregory). I have been a big fan of Gregory’s fact-based historical novels since reading her books about John Tradescant, the royal gardener, and have gone on to read every one of her ‘Tudor Court’ and ‘Cousins’ War’ novels. My only regret is that I have an untidy mixture of paperbacks and hardbacks and cannot have them all on the same bookshelf! This was a period of history I had studied at school but all I really remember from those days was what a Tudor table-leg looks like, and that Henry VIII had six wives. Now the era has come alive and I have learned a great deal more from the pen of this historian and writer than I did in the classroom. I look forward to the publication later this year of The Last Tudor.
  6. A Change of Climate (Hilary Mantel). Intrigued by the title and interested to read more from the author of Wolf Hall, I chose this as a way into some of Hilary Mantel’s other work – and I am glad I did. With vague hints of The Poisonwood Bible, but with a very different slant on the work of ‘missionaries’ in Africa, and set in the much more recent past, this is a really good read. It carries warnings for all who risk getting caught up in ‘good works’ to escape their own personal demons, and brings out the dangers associated with keeping secrets even where the motives appear to be good. I think – I hope – the ending carried hints of restored relationships and a family able to move forward, but not without collateral damage.
  7. The Child that Books Built (Francis Spufford). I had really enjoyed Spufford’s Unapologetic (2012) and was intrigued to come across his ‘memoir of childhood and reading’. Although he is nine years younger than I am it is clear that there was nevertheless a certain amount of overlap in our early reading, although his tastes rapidly became much wider and he seems to have read some of the same books but at a rather younger age. While reflecting on his childhood and on the books he enjoyed – or didn’t enjoy – this book is structured around the underlying themes on which children’s fiction is apparently based and much of this information was new to me. And while I thought I had a fairly good recollection of the books I had read as a child, it came as a jolt to be reminded that alongside Arthur Ransome’s dozen titles I too read My Friend Flicka many years ago!
  8. Postcard Stories (Jan Carson). This is a gem of a book, a rapid cover-to-cover read or something to be dipped into for a one-minute story that will bring a smile. Having been the delighted recipient of two postcard stories from Jan during the year in which she wrote and dispatched one of these tales every day, and having read a number when they appeared on her blog posts during 2015, these still read as fresh and new. The collection of 52, one for each week of the year, centres firmly on Belfast, and in all the quirks and characteristics of the city that Jan draws out in these stories, the overwhelming sense is of her familiarity with this place and its people. Belfast should be very proud of her.
  9. On Liberty (Shami Chakrabarti). I bought this book, very newly published, shortly after hearing Shami speak as guest reader on a life writing course in late 2014. I have only now got around to reading it and, my goodness, everything she says not only makes complete sense but is even more relevant today in the aftermath of further terrorist atrocities both in the UK and elsewhere. She conveys wisdom and common sense on very big global issues but within the context of her own essentially personal story. Along the way she is refreshingly even-handed when it comes to the many politicians with whom she has had dealings – praise and criticism are levelled at members of both the parties who have been in power over the last thirty years and, indeed, in some instances individuals come in for a measure of each. Highly recommended and should be essential reading for any Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary or Justice Minister.
  10. Golden Hill (Francis Spufford). I really enjoyed this book, which had echoes for me of The Luminaries, with its historical setting and somewhat enigmatic ending. Great storytelling and some really good character pictures – all the main personalities came across as believable and there were some very dramatic passages. I shall certainly be looking out for other fiction from this author in the future, and meanwhile seeking out some of his other non-fiction titles.
  11. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes). I wouldn’t usually read a book so soon after seeing the film but this is a slim volume and thanks to some long train journeys I was able to read it in just a few days. There were a few changes made for the film but if anything they only served to enhance the storyline and to add to the evocation of the period being looked back on by the narrator; there was also perhaps a more forward-looking conclusion on screen. However, both book and film are really good and if I had read this first I would have been very far from disappointed with what the film-makers achieved.
  12. Blood Sisters (Sarah Gristwood). This very readable history was a great follow-on after reading, earlier in the year, Philippa Gregory’s, Three Sisters, Three Queens. Without the dialogue and possible thoughts and feelings of the royal women, it was nevertheless a very readable and informative non-fiction account of an overlapping period in Tudor history and provided yet more insight into the lives of some of the less well-known female protagonists. A very absorbing read.
  13. Black Water (Louise Doughty). I don’t usually succumb to the big display at the door of the bookshop, or the hype surrounding a ‘great new novel by…’ but this grabbed my attention when I was caught without a book to read and with a couple of spare hours away from home. I had really enjoyed the clever and gripping storyline to the BBC drama Apple Tree Yard and this is from the same writer, so I decided to give it a go. The cover blurbs that liken Doughty’s writing to John Le Carré, and the consistent praise for all her books from Hilary Mantel, had to be a good sign and I wasn’t disappointed. My only slight gripe: please, will someone who knows tell me what happens after the last line – I really want to know whether there is meant to be a happy or tragic outcome.
  14. The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer). I really wanted to like this book. I am sure it is very ‘clever’ and I did appreciate the way in which the narrative wove recollection, reflection and present action together in an almost seamless way, but I found the use of em rules to designate both direct speech and spaced clauses within running text really quite irritating and sometimes confusing. From about half way through there were some excellent descriptive passages but in the end my overwhelming feeling was that I really did not know or like the central character enough to engage with the story properly. Perhaps, for me, nothing will beat the writings of Laurens van der Post, which really made me care about both place and people.
  15. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (Joshua Hammer). I think this book did more to illustrate the complexities of the Islamic world than all of the news coverage in recent years. Centred on the West African country of Mali, it also vividly demonstrates how catastrophically wrong the Western world was – and in some quarters continues to be – about Africa and the African peoples. In Timbuktu their culture and scholarship going back thousands of years has come into very direct conflict with the latest resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and with potentially disastrous results for the heritage of Mali, and for scholars around the world. Sadly, this is an unfinished story, so that in some ways this book is a non-fiction cliffhanger.
  16. Honourable Friends? (Caroline Lucas). I enjoyed this account of Caroline’s first term of office as an MP; it exposes both the best and the worst of parliamentary practice in a calm and not sensationalised way. All the criticism is constructive and there are many pointers towards changes that could be made, and that would benefit the cause of true democracy. While there are at least some MPs with the integrity and public-spiritedness that is displayed here, there must be hope.
  17. A Georgian House on the Brink (Diane Calton Smith). A brief but nevertheless wide-ranging history of Wisbech and especially of the house now known, since its donation to the National Trust, as Peckover House. Having very recently stayed in the neighbouring, also NT-owned, property which is a similar but smaller Georgian listed building, it was interesting to read more about the background to these houses. The book also tells something of the Peckovers, the family who were the last inhabitants of Peckover House, and their position as early bankers in the town.
  18. The Watch House (Bernie McGill). This was a delightful read and exactly the sort of book I thoroughly enjoy, with a mixture of historical fact and great story. From the very beginning I cared about the main characters, and the descriptions of the place were evocative. I confess to having had no idea where Rathlin Island was until I read this book and neither had I ever really appreciated just how close the north coast of Northern Ireland is to the Scottish mainland (geography has never been a strong point!). I look forward to visiting this part of the world before too long and to reading more from Bernie McGill.
  19. Toward the Sea of Freedom (Sarah Lark). By one of those very strange coincidences, I picked this book up to follow on from The Watch House as a good read for a long journey. Given to me as an example of New Zealand literature I was therefore surprised when it started in Ireland and in a not dissimilar sort of setting to my last read. It turns out that although particularly popular in NZ, Lark is a German writer, living now in Spain and with her work translated by an American. Nevertheless, she must have done a tremendous amount of research into the early days of European settlement in New Zealand and I enjoyed this story, with all its twists and turns, immensely. I can easily see it as a television series in the style of Poldark!
  20. Arthur & George (Julian Barnes). A wonderful book – I do inadvertently seem to have been reading all fact-based historical novels recently – this reminded me in some respects of the books by Jed Rubenfeld, except that Barnes has not needed to superimpose a fictional story on top of the history. In the tale of Arthur and George he has brought to life a fictionalised account of a dramatic tale from the life of the writer Arthur Conan Doyle that to some extent demonstrates how truth can be stranger than fiction.
  21. Magister Tadeusz Pankiewicz, A Biography (Anna Pioro). Having recognised the name of the pharmacist – who is listed in the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem – on a recent trip to Krakow, and having been to his pharmacy in what was the ghetto during the 1940s, I was interested to read more about him. Unfortunately this little book was disappointing in parts: the translation isn’t great and for someone wanting to find out about what he actually did during the war it was also very light on relevant detail. Much of the text related to the post-war period and it left me slightly confused; however, that may be a reflection on the situation of a country liberated from German occupation only to be oppressed by the Russian regime.
  22. Wideacre (Philippa Gregory). This was the first time I had read Gregory’s first published novel, released again this year to mark its 30th anniversary. On the one hand it is a remarkable achievement for a young writer and I can quite see how she has gone on to be so successful as an author of historical fiction; on the other hand, there were clear signs – to me at least – of a need to write something attention-grabbing and rather daring. The result was that I could not bring myself to care for, or about, the heroine, who in characteristic Gregory style narrates the story. She is a selfish, greedy and wholly unprincipled young woman who only fleetingly feels the slightest twinge of remorse for the pain and havoc she wreaks in other people’s lives. However, when it comes to the historical aspects of the story, these were very well described and informative; I was sharply reminded, since reading it, that the sort of desperate seeking after profit by those who are already among the ‘haves’ of this world – set here in the Georgian era – is by no means a thing of the past: exploitation of agricultural workers is happening today at the hands of multinational corporations just as it did by some members of the landed gentry centuries ago.
  23. The Housekeeper’s Tale (Tessa Boase). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which charted the very differing fortunes of a selection of women who ran large country houses during the last two hundred years. Having come across a number of women in my own family’s ancestry whose occupation, on census returns, was recorded as ‘housekeeper’, albeit not in establishments nearly as grand as those featured here, it was illuminating to realise just how much this role entailed. The conventions surrounding the post of housekeeper, and how these have changed down through time, were also revealed and the author described the household politics and the workplace tensions that formed part of what these housekeepers grappled with. A fascinating read.
  24. The Solitary Spy (Douglas Boyd). I bought this book following a recent trip to Berlin and because its subject matter recalled a family trip there in 1968, when we stayed with friends at RAF Gatow, visited Treptower Park and crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. A very great deal changed between those two visits, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. What I had perhaps understandably not fully appreciated as a 14-year-old, on my fist visit, was the vicious and repressive nature of the regime in the GDR in the period between the end of the Second World War and its overthrow at the end of the Cold War. The personal account in this book, which details both the author’s particular experience of UK National Service and his time in Berlin, was very informative.
  25. Kick (Paula Byrne). This is a moving biography of a tragically short life, but it is also a great deal more than that. It manages to paint a vivid picture of the social mores – particularly among Irish-American Catholic families and the English Anglican aristocracy – of the mid-twentieth century, with much that is reminiscent of stereotypical Victorian attitudes. It also conveys a good deal about the politics and public personalities on both sides of the Atlantic at this pivotal point in history. Paula Byrne manages to write with great feeling about these people and their time, without ever straying into judgementalism or trying to project backwards today’s much more permissive views. This reader’s sympathy was wholly with her subject – with some surprise that such a likeable and sympathetic young woman could have been nurtured within such a dysfunctional family.
  26. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme (Lars Mytting). A wonderful book, and full marks to the translator who has brought this Norwegian novel into English. A family story that touches on at least three generations and criss-crosses the North Sea, it brings out the similarities and differences between rural communities in the Shetland Islands and Scandinavia. However, a main theme – and the book covers so much that it is hard to isolate the main one: the effects of war, the dislocation of families, loyalty and sense of belonging – is about the need to connect with one’s own heritage, to be able to identify your own part in the story of your family. I very much hope that Lars Mytting writes another novel.