Books in the Time of Covid.

29 Dec

A new variant on living has beset us all. Much that has been unsettling and plain bad may have masked some positives in the way we are seeing things through and altering priorities. Unsurprisingly reading has been an even greater pleasure. I offer my varied list for 2020. Happy New Year.

BOOKS 2020.

The year  begins with the Donald ordering the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the UK due to exit the EU on Jan. 31st. Coincidentally I am reading American Psycho. Of course as the year ends our world has been changed forever by Covid – and now the vaccines are nigh. Trump is out, Biden is in. And we have an eleventh hour Brexit deal for 31st December. How many false dawns might there be in 2021?

  1. American Psycho. 1991. Brett Easton Ellis. A dark and savage satire on the state of western capitalist society. Patrick Bateman is a stinking rich psychopath. He is a yuppie with a chain saw. Obsessed by everything that money can buy we tour round his Wall Street playground as he gorges himself on clothes, fine dining, foxy women (hardbodies) and nauseous, sex-murders and dismemberings of disposable women. We’ve seen his type before in literature. Martin Amis (Money and London Fields) covers the insanely amoral territory of the modern man who has become psychopathic in his greed and murderous excess. It’s a highly stylised novel with long passages examining the designer clothing of the Wall Street elite – or whole chapters analysing the back catalogues of legendary rock artists. There is little attempt to solve the mystery of the Yuppie murder man. He has everything and he has nothing. Not for the faint-hearted but a must-read for the Thatcher zeitgeist brigade. 4+
  2. Enlightenment- Oliver’s Quest. 2019. Mark Tidey. A buddy of mine who had threatened to write a novel…and here it is. It’s a great yarn with more than a touch of Captain Corelli about it. Set, mostly in Crete, we follow Oliver’s search for his Greek roots after the death of his father who had discovered, late in life that he had been adopted and his natural mother was Cretan. We journey back to a WWII love affair between an English captain and the sister of a resistance fighter in the torrid time of German occupation. It’s filmic and the yarn rattles along, the plot driven by the search for answers to questions about the past that have lain dormant for 50 years. Bloody well done I’d say. An entertaining read. 3+
  3. Zennor in Darkness. 1993. Helen Dunmore. A library pick-up because the blurb indicated that D.H. Lawrence and lover Frieda were going to feature. What a beguiling read! The Coyne and Treveal families are bound together in a tight Cornish village during the 1st WW. The young men have gone to war. Francis Coyne has raised his talented daughter Clare after her mother’s death. Clare has grown up with her Treveal cousins and has a special relationship with John William. Into the mix come D.H. and his German wife Frieda. They are Bohemian and foreign and made to feel uncomfortable in this closed but enchanting setting. Clare forms a bond with the interlopers but the tragedy of war affects the lives of all. Dunmore manages to mimic the intense, sexually charged style of Lawrence while telling a convincing tale of the comfort of strangers and the bitter tragedies of both war and the lives of most of us. Excellent.4+
  4. Go Set a Watchman. 2015. Harper Lee. The long-awaited follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved it. Jean Louse (Scout) is now a mid-twenties city girl, returned to visit her father Atticus in rural Maycomb. 1950s small town America. She finds that her certainties about life – the ultimate integrity of her father – are seriously challenged. Having been a champion of justice and set on a moral pedestal, he seems to have slipped and sided with the tawdry forces of prejudice. Harper Lee has managed an even greater scope in this novel than in Mockingbird- if that is possible. Captivating, 5.
  5. Tender is the Night. 1925. F. Scott Fitzgerald. A fine and intense novel bristling with the sexual tension and deep personal troubles which afflict damaged but moneyed Americans in the post 1st WW years. The Drivers seem an enchanting rich couple with whom actress Rosemary can spend an opulent summer on the Cote D’Azur, a healthy distance from the realities of New York. But they, and their acolytes have secrets and neuroses which money can’t mend. Fitzgerald’s narrative is detailed, clever, penetrating. His close observation of American high society is clinical, funny and savage. Like Evelyn Waugh he looks upon his class harshly; like D.H. Lawrence he exposes the tensions, longings and unspoken irritations which inhabit most social interaction. I found little sympathy for the protagonists in the (mostly) ménage a trios tale. And yet they each carry the baggage of their pasts. And tragedy seems to lurk on each page. 4
  6. Worthless Men. 2013. Andrew Cowan. AC is Director of Creative Writing at UEA, so this novel has an academic pedigree! Despite the sometimes tortuous and overly compounded sentences – many being paragraphs littered with commas and dashes – so that, when the blessed full-stop allows a breath, this reader’s mind is a turmoil of clause analysis, searching for what the bloody paragraph meant; the general flow is intriguing and poignant. It is a story of the 1st World War. We are in a market town of England. It is 1916.  Lowly Walter and high born Montague have returned much damaged mentally, from the front. Both love Gertie Dobson, the pharmacist’s daughter. The torture of war is retold in the memories of these lads. The world to which they have returned has changed: the role of women; the nature of work; the decay of the class system; the flight from innocence. The plot unravels from the differing perspectives of the several characters from the damaged to the downtrodden. All has changed. Really interesting. 4
  7. Factfulness. 2018. Hans Rosling’s eye-opening long lecture on how all of us have the capacity to misread and misunderstand our world. From fake news to the much more profound errors of perception and understanding, Rosling and his collaborators, Ana and Ola, expose our vulnerability to pre-judgement on all manner of things. The world is a better place than we think; we are more stupid than we allow. A handbook for all of our futures. 4
  8. The Glass Palace. 2000. Amitav Ghosh. A wonderful family saga/modern history of Burma. Ghosh’s story takes us from the King Thebaw’s exile in 1885, when the British Empire was at its height, through the World Wars to independence in 1948, military coup in 1962 and the hope for the future that political activists such as Aung San Suu Kyi, despite house arrest, seemed to portend. The treatment of ethnic minorities remains very much a grievous sore which is far from being healed. The scope of the novel is huge and some parts of the saga are raced through. However I learned a great deal about the view of Indians, Burmese and other ethnic groups about their place in the world and their somewhat illusory loyalty to the Empire. Seen through the eyes of a couple of extended families, we follow their fortunes as inter-marriage and political and economic complexities drive wedges through the sub continental communities. Absorbing. 4
  9. The Bottle of Tears. 2016. Nick Alexander. Kitchen sink drama about the lives of two sisters, Vicky (rich, OCD) and Penny(poor, psychotherapist) whose brother dies in an awful childhood accident. This shapes their relationship and their lives. NA’s clunky plots amble along comfortably and he covers a stack of life’s dark problems. Sexual abuse, mental health, sibling rivalry, sexuality, work-life balance, love, hate, parents. OK. 2+
  10. Past Mortem. 2004. An early Ben Elton crime novel. A serial killer targets bullies who terrorised their victims, mostly at school. The murders are gruesomely appropriate to their ‘crimes’, such as multiple puncturing with a school compass…and far worse. DI Ed Newson and Sergeant Natasha Wilkie, themselves rather damaged coppers, struggle to track down the vigilante. Despite the savage killings, the novel has a teen flavour to it. A quick read – and important issues of bullying, revenge, self-harm, abusive relationships etc – but ultimately thin. 2+
  11. The Winds of War. 1971. Herman Wouk.I am indebted to my buddy John Trotman for recommending this brilliant American take on the early years of WW2. We follow Victor ‘Pug’ Henry’s story. A naval captain, he becomes Roosevelt’s eyes and ears as an American attache in Berlin, Paris and London assessing and advising on Hitler’s plans. Pug’s family story anchors the plot which takes us through the terrorising of Jews in Poland, wartime love affairs and a captivating assessment of Roosevelt’s strategy. The German perspective is provided by Pug’s critique of von Roon’s historical analysis, neatly inserted lest the narrative becomes too much of a family wartime saga…which is what it is. Excellent 4+
  12. Big Sky. 2018. Kate Atkinson. The new Jackson Brodie, damaged ex-cop, now private investigator tale. It’s a fast-paced, black and surreal vice-ring-cracking caper. Brodie stumbles into a sex-trafficking ‘magic circle’ which has been going on for years – and implicates the highest of the high to the lowest..Brodie’s own tangled, tragic history merges  with that of the poor girls and others caught up in the dark web of exploitation. Each page has a savage laugh, a comic twist and a grisly implication. ¾
  13. The Last Runaway. 2013. Tracy Chevalier. I missed out on Pearl Earring, so I thought that I would give this a go. I never thought that a story about a Quaker girl who emigrates from Dorset to Ohio and whose big passion is quiltmaking would capture my attention so fully! We follow Honor Bright, recently jilted and seeking a new life with her engaged sister Grace who is set to join her betrothed in America. Honor’s journey is one of hardship and tragedy with friends and enemies in strange places. Through it all her faith and fortitude –and quilting – sustain her as she comes to terms with being a woman alone in a country trying to establish itself, caught between economic progress and the demons of slavery. The clear, fresh prose makes the reading easy. An accomplished novel. 4
  14. The Man in the Red Coat. 2019. Julian Barnes’s homage to the Belle Epoque era of the turn of the 20th century. A gift from my darling daughter. Set mostly in Paris, JB traces the adult lives of three of the social  luminaries of the time. Samuel Pozzi is the man in the red coat, painted by Singer-Sargent. He is a celebrity surgeon, a ground-breaking gynaecologist whose work and play ethic is prodigious. Barnes tours us round the eminent figures of the time as he tries to join up the dots of his various researches to make sense – and a story – out of what he has discovered and, just as importantly, what he can infer from educated speculation. We meet Sarah Berhardt, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Lister, Edward Degas and a whole host of others in arty salons, in adulterous beds, duelling in the Bois de Boulogne, carving up bodies in unsanitary theatres, enjoying grand tours in Europe and America, and generally living a high life before the realities of a World War begin to bite. JB bounces around in time as he follows his thought-rabbit down burrows. As a writer best known for fiction, his musings on what cannot be established as fact make this a more compelling biography than the dry one it might have been. JB challenges the very notion of truth in history as only dealing in fact can give a patchy and, therefore, distorted picture. It reads as all Barnes does, so well but comes across as an intellectual indulgence. One that I was happy to give in to. 4.
  15. You Then, Me Now. 2019. Nick Alexander. Another neatly told, if dark, Shirley Valentine tale of Laura whose holiday romance in Santorini turns nasty and, yet positively life-changing. Nick Alexander tells a fast story and doesn’t need to research much as he concentrates on a simple plot, simple characters but compelling human issues. In this case we have a drunken rapist/abuser whose life has been scarred by an abusive care-home upbringing; a single mother whose holiday fling left her pregnant and bereft of the man she truly loved; a grown up daughter who thought her father was dead; a death from drink driving. It’s a redemption story. It’s ok. A fast holiday read. I turn to NA when I need a fix of a book in a day. 2++
  16. A 1960s Childhood. 2012. Paul Feeny. Apart from the memory triggers of a whole host of things from TV programmes to pop music music to old money and childhood sweets, this is a rather prosaic list of the social environment of the decade. Engaging for someone who was a teenager then but a little dull for a younger reader. The 60s weren’t quite as exciting as their reputation! I enjoyed the reliving however. 2+
  17. A Suitable Boy. 1993. Vickram Seth. At nearly 1500 pages long, I had put off the inevitable. With lockdown in place, no more excuses. A marathon indeed but it has been worth it. India, 1951 after the watersheds of independence and partition. We follow a year in the life of four  families joined by marriage, politics, religion or the past. At the centre is Lata, a Hindu girl studying English Literature at Bramphur University but under pressure to find a suitable boy to marry after her graduation. There are three contenders and their lives and families provide the glue for this extraordinary saga. The political and religious upheavals of the time play a huge role; so too the strictures of the caste system, the hypocrisies of social and professional status and the emotion, control and demands exercised by mothers over daughters and fathers over sons. Of course, none of the three boys are ‘suitable’ although they are good young men. There is the constant and brilliant voice that Indians give to the English language. They seem to revel, more than we do, in the idioms, sayings and lilt of our language. Music, poetry and the luxury of persuasive conversation are part of the beguiling landscape of this fine book. But it is a story and the plot has murder, bribery, endless political chicanery, the funny idiocies of Indian manners and the beauty and strangeness and power of Hindu and Muslim rites and ceremonies. There is love and death, ambition and hate, corruption and probity. All human life and the backdrop of history. I am the better informed. And just who is a suitable boy? 4++
  18. Sweet Sorrow. 2019. David. Nicholls. The One Day man reprising a somewhat similar theme but doing so very well indeed. This is a bitter/sweet love story based on Romeo and Juliet (aren’t they all?). Charlie, a feckless youth with dysfunctional but loving parents leaves school at 16 with nothing to show. Fate throws in him at Fran’s feet by way of an am-dram summer school production of the bard’s tragic tale. The awkwardnesses and intoxications of first love mingle with Nicholls’s acute and poignant observations of education, class, parenthood, growing up, finding ourselves – the realisation that we are all special but also very ordinary. The star-crossed lovers meet again. All will be well. Charming and affecting. 4+
  19. Mother Ship. 2019. Francesca Segal. She, the daughter of Erich, who penned Love Story. The lovely Judith Morrall recommended this for a lockdown read. This is a very different tale but similar for the wrenched emotions. It’s the day by account of a life and death battle for survival. Francesca’s and husband Greg’s twins, were born very prematurely; 30 weeks. This is the big-dipper of a diary of their daily fight for survival in intensive care. More, it is quite a gruelling and emotional account of a mother’s determined slog through the nightmare – a nightmare that, of course has the positives of mother-bonding with ICU parents and staff. The milking shed is the place to express almost everything; the thousand insertions of canulas into the bruised and busted veins of miniscule infants, a savage pinprick to mum and dad, never mind twins A-lette and B-lette. If I’m honest I got a little bored. Each chapter is the next day. The microscopic memory of desperation and drugs is just a little post-prepared and neatly, if emotionally, ordered. And I’m not a member of the mums’ club. I can empathise like a man; once removed. But it is so well-written that it’s easy to turn the page. Well done to Francesca and the two mighty fighters. Well done too, the heroes of the NHS.  And a thought for husband Greg. 3++
  20. A Week is a Long Time. 2020. Chris Grayling. My friend has produced another in the Dr Neil Mackenzie sleuthing series. Neil, aka Slick, is really the writer’s alter ego. He wishes! He has married the millionaires actress Rachel Wallis and now has funds to keep his Tunbridge Wells private investigation business afloat. Along with Rocky and Gere, his badminton playing sidekicks, Calverly Investigations stumble into the murky world of Russian Mafia and sex trafficking. More coincidences and lucky escapes than you could shakes a stick at, the three friends wise-crack their way through an improbable caper which takes them from the fleshpots of Rye to the gruff darkness of Tbilisi, ending with some R and R in Dubai. A romp. Very funny. Not great art but a cracking narrative for poolside pleasure. 3+/4
  21. Riders of the Purple Sage. 1912 Zane Grey. My great friend Fran Morrall’s choice for our lockdown bookathon. This is a strangely compelling story with its echoes of westerns with which I grew up in comics and on TV. We are in the wilds of Utah before the railroad reached out to civilise and regulate. Cottonwoods is a town set in wild cattle and sage contry. A place ruled by polygamous and unforgiving Mormons and unscrupulous rustlers. Jane Withersteen, herself a landowning Mormon wrestles with her devotion to her faith and the hypocrisies of the elder Tull and his bishop. Tull means to ruin her unless she submits to his will and becomes his wife. He frightens off her workers, the riders of the purple sage. Only one or two remain faithful – and they will help her survive. Into this febrile mix comes Lassiter, the gunman. He lives on his wits and by his guns and yet his moral core outshines that of others who hide behind their faith. He has been in search of his sister’s killer these last two decades and revenge is all. The tale is a brutal one of family deaths and child abduction, of fantastic feats of courage and brilliant horsemanship and horses. The evocation of the landscape is thrilling and, despite the melodrama and exclamation marks, the reader is carried along as we follow the parable of good versus evil and the final showdown. 4
  22. The Virgin and the Gipsy. 1926. D.H. Lawrence. Gipsy spelling the original! This neat novella seems to be a warm-up for Lady Chatterley. We are in the home of the Rev. Saywell, a rector who prefers position and status over belief. In his stultifying rectory he rules over his daughters Yvette and Lucille, while his mother (Mater) adds stuffiness and boorish domination of the household. Maiden, embittered Aunt Cissie adds to the constipated scene at home for the two girls. Yvette, the younger coquettish girl has spirit and innocence, feelings which she can’t articulate. She senses that she is trapped. Her suitors seem dull; her destiny wearisome. On a day out with friends their car stops at a gypsy camp. The young man beating out moulds of pots for sale has wild and penetrating eyes. Yvette is captured. Their paths cannot cross, Yvette is forbidden to see new acquaintances, the Major and his Jewess, because of their unconventionality. And then there is a great flood from which she needs rescue..The reader senses the autobiographical hand here and, of course, D.H.’s preoccupation with sex and the senses. Every word is weighed and this writer is one who makes his readers look into their own souls. 4+
  23. Exile and the Kingdom. 1957. Albert Camus. This collection of short stories is a perfect read for those who find Camus’ detached, occasionally difficult psychotext a struggle for extended periods. Beginning with The Adulteress we follow characters who are both ordinary yet trapped, conventional yet anguished. Camus writes about all of us, our alter egos, our inner lives, which so often take second place to dull reality. And yet his emotionless style is chilling. Life for most of us is a pretentious tragedy. And yet we are uplifted. 3++/4
  24. Split Second. 2003. David Baldacci. This is the first in the King and Maxwell series. Two secret service agents, both career damaged by mistakes made while guarding high profile politicians, come together to solve a series of murders and kidnappings which relate back to their apparent ‘mistakes’ when on duty. It’s a Jack Reacher style of caper which I felt I had read before. Improbable. A fast read but not much more than that. 2.
  25. Love from Both Sides. 2011.Nick Spalding. Alternating diaries of two lonely thirty somethings. Black, comic, sex and relationship porn. It’s awful but raises a smile if not my libido. 1.
  26. The Singapore Grip. 1973. J.G. Farrell. This is the consuming tale of Webb and Blackett, a Colonial rubber-producing agency, making good money in Singapore from cheap Chinese, Singaporean, Indian and Japanese labour. It is 1940 and while Europe is embroiled in war, the Japanese have yet to kick off, though the signs are there. Walter Blackett is desperate to hold on to power and wealth for his family and his business. His partner, old man Webb dies and the uncertainty of what his unconventional son Matthew might make of the business seems more worrying than the mayhem which will soon enrap the world. The novel becomes the story of the rag bag of ex pats who are clinging on to money and influence from the rubber traders to the diplomats and the military attaches. We follow Matthew Webb an idealist whose inheritance of his father’s business, exploiting, as it does, local labour, sits uneasily with him. Farrell’s extraordinary researches and his ability to see seismic shifts in the fortunes of nations through the eyes of those caught up in the maelstrom, is remarkable. In particular his focus on Brits abroad, the pursuit of wealth and influence in territories which have been grabbed from a less powerful and sophisticated indigenous people. A satire on empire. With the overwhelming might and will and brutality, at the time, of the Japanese machine, our author points to the capability of many nations to have the fervour for domination. A long but powerful read. 4++
  27. The Apartment. 2020. K.L.Slater. I bought this on a Kindle deal, attracted by the Jack Lemmon film of the same name. Mistake. This is a cranky psycho drama involving a mad female behaviourist who wants to see if Pavlov can work on little children. Freya and Skye are a damaged mother and daughter persuaded by force of circumstances to rent a flat in the spooky Adder House. The residents all seem very odd and a previous mother and child combo came to a tragic end. But no one is talking about it. Freya’s initial joys at having found a new home soon metamorphose into a nightmare. Improbable and silly. 1
  28. Dominion.2012. C.J. Sansom. A long time ago I read and enjoyed Winter in Madrid. Why I haven’t returned to C.J.S I have no idea. The premise of the novel is that, in 1940, Chamberlain handed the reins of power over to a reluctant Lord Halifax, not Churchill – and Hitler was appeased. Lord Beaverbrook then became PM. Germany thus dominated Europe and the far right held the balance of power with the fascist Oswald Moseley prominent in the new Parliament. Not to mention Enoch Powell. Mussolini and Hitler were alive but fading figures as others lined up to grab power. From this the novel flows..Britain has become a fascist state in all but name. Jews are being rounded up and sent to detention centres to await their fates. David is a worried but inert civil servant in the Dominion Office. His wife, Sarah is a pacifist. When David is drawn by his old university friend, Geoffrey Drax, into espionage, he starts on a path that will lead him into a highly dangerous mission to rescue Frank, another friend from the old days, who knows a vital secret which could swing the world balance of power. He must be sprung from an asylum in Birmingham and taken across the Atlantic. With the Gestapo, SS and Special Branch on their trail, the odds are stacked. There is much to this excellently researched speculation. The inter-relationships of the main protagonists and their back-stories are compelling enough but Sansom’s thought process is revealed in an excellent essay which follows the novel’s end. He details his researches and justifies every forbidding plot twist and bleak outcomes. Finally we have hope. The essay is almost as good as the novel. Samson’s style is simple and clear. 4
  29. A Patchwork Planet. 1998. Anne Tyler. Anne Tyler is a beguilingly simple writer who uncovers the extraordinary in the everyday. Here we find black sheep Barnaby Gaitlin born to a family made wealthy by patenting a mannequin. A troubled and delinquent child has turned into a hard working but ambitionless freak of a man. The Gaitlin tradition is that each family member meets an ‘angel’ who sets him/her on a positive life road. Barnaby seems to have missed out on his angel.His offbeat moral core sees him through despite the trail of adolescent damage he has left behind.. He works for Rent-a –Back, an odd job firm from whom he gets minimal pay but maximum satisfaction. Few understand him. His ex wife Natalie doesn’t or his estranged daughter Opal – or most of his family. Then Sophia enters his life and things begin to change. Through the telling of a mundane suburban tale, Anne Tyler extracts some gems of insight into the human condition. Lovely, witty. 4
  30. The Woman in the Window. 2018. A.J. Finn. Dr Anna Fox is a deeply disturbed agoraphobic. She stays in and drinks pints of merlot to sluice down her anti-psychotic drugs. She has a lot to remember – and forget. When she sees a murder through the lens of her Nikon as she scans the world across her street, a world that she daren’t venture out in, no one believes her. Ann narrates her own tragic and page-turning thriller. What happened across the street? What are the strange Russell family – father Alistair, mother Jane and damaged, frighten son, Ethan – up to? Finn navigates us through the real and imagined psycho-thriller with the help of Hitchcockian noir films which are always streaming in Anna’s house. It’s a one-sitting read. Gone Girl, Girl on a Train…type of thing. ¾
  31. The Help. Kathryn Stockett. About time I got around to this. Narrated by Minny, Aibeleen and Skeeter, it is the story of the lives of black maids in the racist and segregated community of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter Phelan, a privileged and liberal-thinking white woman, decides to tell the stories of the black underclass. She gets Minny and Aibeleen to recruit several maids to reveal the stories of their lives. It is a dangerous project. Violent reprisals are at hand. Skeeter is ostracised by the white league of her contemporaries who want maids to cook, clean and bring up their children but not to share a toilet, bus or school. In the current climate of BLM it is particularly prescient, despite the time and location being a distance away. Notwithstanding this, it is an important novel and a compelling read. 4+
  32. What Sport Tells Us About Life. 2008. Ed Smith. Given to me by a dear departed friend, Mike Wilkinson, it has taken me more than a decade to get round to reading this very readable little book. Mike Atherton called it ‘terrific’ and I concur. Chapter titles include Why there will never be another Bradman/Why did Zidane headbutt Materzzi?/When is cheating really cheating? They are enough to pique anyone’s interest. Ed Smith, ex-cricketer, journalist and now chair of selectors for England cricket, is a canny man and an astute observer and historian of sport. Engaging stuff.Seek it out. 3++
  33. Eden Close. 1989. Anita Shreve. I’m a long time admirer of Anita and this, her first novel is a very worthwhile read. Andrew returns to the rural home of his childhood, for his mother’s funeral. His childhood had been happily uneventful until the violent murder and rape at the Close family house next door. Andy moved away, to college then work and a failed marriage. On returning the ghosts from his past emerge. Eden, the damaged girl next door, is a Havisham who he once loved. Does he still? And what was the real truth behind what happened all those years ago? A gothic and page-turning tale. 3++
  34. The Rub of Time. 2018. Martin Amis. Martin Amis’s non fiction is extraordinary in its range and insight. Here a collection of essays and articles: literary criticism, sport, America, politics (Trump!), the Royal family, people and places and moral observations big and small. I started to dip into this tome a year ago and now I am rereading chunks most evenings. Not just what he says but how he says it. A giant of journalism and fact and fiction. Captivating stuff even when you have little knowledge of his subject matter. To read in small, delicious doses. 5
  35. When Will There Be Good News? 2008. Kate Atkinson. A Jackson Brodie crime caper. KA’s plots seem full of coincidence and fate with dashes of damaged protagonists and oddball dialogue. She manages to pull her darkly comic elements together in this tale of a past savage murder coming back to haunt – and link- several newly-connected characters: a doctor, a sixteen year old nanny, a jailbird released after 30years, Jackson Brodie and DCI Louise Monroe. There are more in the mix and KA weaves them together in a manner that is both intricate and sharp. 4
  36. Paul Simon, a Life. 2018. Robert Hilburn. A rather typically American biography, this has the charm of being wholly on the side of this great songwriter. Seeing more meaning than is often there (small incidents raised to the level of seminal moments)… Hilburn charts Simon’s life simply and chronologically. His early struggles before he found his ‘voice’ show his powerful love of music and a doughty perseverance which took him to great heights. A selfish single-mindedness comes through too but, for the most part, I am an uncritical and much admiring fan. I particularly loved the stories of how those big solo albums of the 70s were made; how each song which I could reference to my college days and just after, was crafted. I’m not sure that Robert Hilburn is ever allowed close enough to Simon to get under the skin of this enigmatic troubadour but I’m not that curious about his private life – and fractious relationship with Art –  anyway.  An easy read. 3
  37. Where the Crawdads Sing. 2018. Delia Owens. This is the much celebrated tale of a young feral girl, Kya, deserted by mother and siblings at 7, then by her abusive father at 10 to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina. Her only friend Tate, loves her but leaves for college. Townsfolk shun her; the marsh girl. She finds solace in her love and understanding of the natural world. Kya avoids school after the bullying trauma of just one day; Tate teaches her to read and write. She understands the ways of people – and sex- by observing the rawness and reality of nature. It’s a story of growth and discovery, of love and abuse, of tenderness and murder. A story which reveals the callous ostracism of a society which lacks the intelligence or compassion to understand those who are different. Part coming-of-age, part social observation Delia Owens draws on her own bio=expertise to weave raw nature and human behaviour. Kya finds salvation in her studies and the few people who embrace her and the lessons that she learns from bitter experience. A page turner, indeed. I read it in two sittings. 4
  38. Did He Save Lives? 2019. David Sellu.DS was a surgeon who was imprisoned for manslaughter following the death of a patient. The story of his wrongful conviction is a sorry tale indeed with prejudice and unfairness at the heart of it. Sellu’s account of the court proceedings doesn’t clearly show why he was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter. He makes his case for inconsistencies in evidence gathering, expert witnesses, a jury unable to understand  and a judge who seemed inflexible. But he doesn’t establish why his own defence team couldn’t establish his innocence. What was it that damned him? For all that the life of an innocent man was ruined. A plodding account, however. 2++
  39. The Hypnotist’s Love Story. 2018. Liane Moriarty. An Aussie ménage a trios. Ellen is a hypnotherapist in love with Patrick a widower who had a long relationship with Saskia. When this ended she became a compulsive stalker. It’s a well-plotted pot boiler of a book with Ellen sailing close to the professional wind when hypnotising her clients. Wherever Patrick and Ellen go, Saskiais one step behind. It gets silly and dangerous when she breaks into their bedroom one night….Holiday stuff and diverting for a while. 2++
  40. World Without End. 2007. Ken Follett. The third in the medieval trilogy which started with Pillars of the Earth. We’re back in 14th Century Kingsbridge and Edward III has just acceded at the age of 16. Disappointingly I found it far less interesting than Pillars. More Geoffrey Archer than C.J. Sansom. 2
  41. The Beekeeper’s Promise. 2018. Fiona Valpy. Abi, battered from a brutal marriage and car crash takes a summer job at a French Chateau being restored as a wedding venue. She learns the history of the place, in particular the story of Eliane Martin and the brave resistance efforts of this community in the 1940s. A sugary but sometime dark tale of love on the borders of Vichy France during WWII and the healing of Abi through work and hearing the story of the past. Neatly researched with enough savage historical detail to give realism to an otherwise predictable plot. 2/3
  42. A Passionate Man. 2013. Joanna Trollope. I have not read any of her middle England potboilers but I found this tale of a country GP (Archie) and his dissatisfied wife (Liza) strangely compelling. JT’s mix of local characters, community – the extraordinariness of ordinary people – is recognisable and effective. An enjoyable read. 3+
  43. Fifty Fifty. 2020. Steve Cavanagh. This was a romp. It’s a Chandleresque Eddie Flynn whodunit. Eddie is the lawyer from the wrong side of the tracks who defends only those he is convinced of innocence. When two sisters, Sofia and Alexandra accuse each other of the gruesome murder of their father, who is he to believe? Comic and macabre and a neat, cheap page turner. SC was a lawyer and knows the territoryI found it an enjoyable, wisecracking diversion. Eminently forgettable but a quick fix.3
  44. Black Diamonds. 2008. Catherine Bailey. This is the extraordinary story of the Fitzwilliam dynasty. Their palatial home, Wentworth is now a near-ruin in Yorkshire and this history by CB tells the story, of the vast wealth accumulated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through mining and how internecine warring amongst other things brought about a calamitous decline. CB struggled with the incomplete records of succeeding generations. Documents lost by fire or destroyed to hide the truth hampered her researches but she brilliantly fills in the gaps with the aid of a whole host of contemporary sources. Told in a novelistic style, it captivates. 4
  45. Trio. 2020. William Boyd. Another masterful construction. WB takes us back to 1968 (Vietnam, Paris student riots, homosexuality legalised year earlier) and meshes the stories of a drunken, washed out writer, Elfrida Wing, a young actress Anna Viklund and a film producer, Talbot Kydd. Each is vulnerable to the forces which are shaping the late sixties. We follow the enticing scenes – on a film set in Brighton; in a sleazy London hideaway; vodka-fuelled visits to Virginia Wolff’s suicide scene; a Parisian garret. What links the trio, all financially secure, is their need to escape the lives they are living. The surreal, beguiling nonsense of MacArthur Park (someone left a cake out in the rain…) strangely runs through the narrative. Naturally I loved it. 4++/5
  46. Eye2i. 2020. Paul Sorensen. I had to include my slight little account of the cycling journey that I made with my two old school chums, Chris and Clive. London to Istanbul. Autumn 2019. A three men in a motorhome saga. I reread it time and again, not for entertainment but to reduce the final error-count. Enchanting I’d say. 5
  47. Did You Ever Have a Family? 2016. Bill Clegg. The lives of several people are interlinked by a house fire which tragically kills five people. The ripples which emanate touch on a number of well-trodden paths in American literature. Small-town small mindedness and prejudice is up front and central but Bill Clegg is more subtle with his characterisation. The pain of moving from innocent childhood to the judgemental and fickle world of adults is written into many of the sub plots here. Sexuality, the fragility of friendship, marriage betrayal, racial prejudice, drugs, children who are just, odd; parents who are too. Chapters are named after characters – and there are a lot of them but the narrative drive is strong and intriguing. Clegg masterfully takes us through the pain of life while, somehow, leaving us uplifted. 4
  48. Sleepyhead. 2001 Mark Billingham. The first in the DCI Tom Thorne series. A good plot about a crazy but clever medical murderer who drugs women then tries to induce locked-in-syndrome rather than death, failing mostly. In the case of Alison he succeeds and Thorne (the usual damaged, bright but boozy, broody cop) is determined, despite any evidence, to nail Doctor Jeremy Bishop, who he is certain is the dark destroyer. Throw in an affair with a sexy consultant who is best mates with the main suspect, along with a rookie sidekick in DC Dave Holland, plus plenty of angst-ridden arguments with police top brass about Thorne’s antics – and you have the recipe for quite a good caper. It’s overlong and overworked with the internal monologues of the killer and Alison – and other unwanted italicised Thorne-thoughts  punctuating the already long narrative. I lost momentum but managed it to the end. 2++
  49. Shots in the Dark. 2020. David Kynaston. Another thoughtful birthday gift from my old mate Stuart. Kynaston,the historian, recorded his diary of 2016/7 and wrote, it up with the hindsight of early 2020. Coincidentally I had started my own diary in much the same vein but without the thread of following Aldershot Town, David’s childhood team. Each entry has the excuse of the ‘Shots’ next match as a starting point for Kynaston’s musings on the state of the nation, the world and trawling back through the years to give the whole thing range and an autobiographical feel. It’s simple yet quite profound, unadorned with overly philosophical ramblings. The soccer keeps it down to earth, as it would. Very enjoyable, particularly as Kynaston is of my generation. 4+
  50. Selected Short Stories. Penguin Popular Classics 1998 but most stories first published in the 1880s. Guy de Maupassant. Read these many times but, after a gap, find them as fresh as ever. Seven deadly sins, laced with satire..all human life of the period, of any period. The striking thing is the completeness of each short story. I confess to finding it easy to consume one before I hit the pillow. His short stories were pessimistic and savage, witty and charming. He was a randy young man and died at 43, syphilis-ridden and barmy. Boule de Suif, his celebrated tale about a Rouen prostitute, is clearly from personal experience. Captivating.4
  51. A Keeper. 2018. Graham Norton. Belinda is a devotee of GN and I have a sneaking admiration for him as the witty doyen of the millennial chat show. Not a Parky but an exponent of self promotion whose intelligence and skill betters that of his celebrity guests.I have heard his agony-aunt Radio 2 Saturday show where his advice/analysis of the pathetic problems that people choose to make public is honest and fun. And so I came to this book. It’s a gothic-Irish tale. Elizabeth Keane returns to Ireland after her mother’s death and finds, in a batch of letters a dark tale of a woman imprisoned, forty years earlier, in a remote cottage. Elizabeth has to seek the truth of it all and uncover her mother’s story. Atmospheric and neatly constructed. 3+
  52. The Winner. 1998. David Baldacci. Needing to clear a kindle backlog, I turned to Baldacci. And a stand-alone novel, not one of a series like the Amos Decker set. This is a race-along story about LouAnn, a bright girl who lives a trailer-trash life with her abusive partner and a much loved baby, Lisa. An inscrutable and evil man called Jackson, a master of chameleon-like disguises, tells her that he will provide her with winning lottery numbers and she can escape her crappy life. What will be the price for LouAnn? A tale of multiple murders and fraud on a massive scale ensues – with the gutsy LouAnn and her little child at the centre. She becomes a multimillionaire exile and is warned of dire consequences if she ever returns. She does and it seems nothing can save LouAnn or her daughter from Jackson – not even the President. Of course it’s unbelievable stuff but the narrative races! 3+
  53. A Man Called Ove. 2013. Frederik Backman. Darkly comic story of the ‘Curious Incident’ type. Ove has OCD and a lot more. On the spectrum. Recently widowed, he is rudderless, lost. Friends could never understand why she married this looney in the first place. Cue oddball comedy with our hearts going out to curious Ove. It’s very much feelgood as Ove fights causes for others without realising it. Whether it’s giving his pregnant Iranian neighbour driving lessons while she is pregnant, building a bike for a delinquent lad or baulking the efforts of officialdom in committing his neighbour to a care home – all of which he does grudgingly – he becomes a byword for his uncompromising style and  dignity. The simple prose, born of the translation and Ove’s ‘condition’ is perfect for Ove’s black and white view of life. Perfect too for evoking a sympathetic response from the reader. I was moved.4
  54. Fighting Fires Everywhere. 2020. Celeste Ng. A coming of age novel with small town attitudes getting their come-uppance. As with Jodi Picoult and Anne Tyler (and lots of others) Ng takes a central theme and character and uses them to write a state of America novel. Mia arrives in Shaker Heights (where Ng herself went to school) having traipsed all over America with her now-teenage daughter, Pearl. Mia is an artist and the two have scraped by in dozens of locations since Pearl was born. Their story is a secret and Pearl is desperate to settle somewhere now she has made friends with the seemingly welcoming Richardson family. Sex, abortion, foreigners, dashed ambitions, violence, families and their values and treachery are part of the ensuing mix. It’s a very good read and CN crafts the story excellently. 4
  55. The Mirror and the Light. 2020. Hilary Mantel. A mighty tome and I found it a slog. It’s undoubtedly brilliant – the research, the literary imagination, the modernity of the writing fitting perfectly into a historical context. Politics and power. It stands alone despite being the third in the trilogy. We follow Thomas Cromwell from Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536 to Cromwell’s own in 1540. I still don’t like reading 800+ pages. 4
  56. Getting to Know the General. 1984. Graham Greene. I much enjoyed this strange diary-book – the account of Greene’s unlikely friendship with General Omar Torrijos Herrera, dictator of Panama in the 1970s. Clearly Greene was a trusted sage untouched by the internecine struggles over the Panama Canal which was the political football being kicked around by Panama, Columbia and the US. Greene’s consummate, almost casual prose and his observational eye make for a compelling read, when otherwise interest might be hard to sustain. 4
  57. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I. 2008. Mark Morris. A turbulent Plantagenet tale which takes us from birth to death of this controversial and sometime brutal son of Henry III. MM writes in a novelistic style which I found attractive- and also found Edward I (Longshanks) to be such a mixture of sublime and ridiculous, intelligence and savagery. His devoted wife Eleanor bore him 15 children while he variously went off on Crusades, fought of De Montfort’s rebellion and beat Wales into submission before turning his attentions to Scotland. He also looked towards modernising feudal rights and common law. As I say, a mixture but a very good read. I learnt a lot. 4
  58. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Charles Dickens. I had not read this before and since most dated classics are free on Kindle, I dived in. It is easy to forget how captivating and sonorous Dickens’ voice is. The master raconteur. Of course the modern ear needs adjusting to the Victorian wavelength but when the reader is tuned in, it’s a joy. Dickens is, essentially, a simple storyteller with character and plot to give excitement, tug at heart strings, engage all ages. His observational range is extraordinary. The tale of Doctor Manette, one-time Bastille prisoner, now reunited with his daughter Lucie, in London, catches the wild savagery of Paris during the French revolution. The life stories are at the heart of a dark tale, told with all of Dickens’ wonderful sense of melodrama. 4++
  59. Here to Stay. 2019. Mark Edwards. This is a silly and unintentionally black-comic, gothic thriller. Elliott is a successful TV scientist who falls madly in love with Gemma and marries her in a trice. Little does he realise that she is the elder daughter of a family from hell. Jeff and Lizzie, Gemma’s parents, with mysteriously odd younger sister Chloe,  move in to his lovingly restored house. They never had any intention of moving into their own place. Elliott watches his life and marriage disintegrate and, worse, he realises that his new family have left a trail of unsolved murders wherever they have been. And the murders continue, starting with  his nextdoor neighbours. The only way to rid himself of them might be to commit unspeakable acts himself. Well it rattles along and it was annoyingly easy to read after a few glasses of Christmas cheer. 2


2 Responses to “Books in the Time of Covid.”

  1. rocket1101 December 29, 2020 at 1:17 pm #

    Wow! I thought I’d read these few reviews while I’ve got a couple of minutes but the insight, the analysis, the preferences expressed – and the sheer number of reviews was quite overwhelming. To say I’m impressed is an understatement. I’ll certainly keep, re-read and utilise the list for the few books I’ll get through next year. Thanks Paul.

    • simplysorro December 29, 2020 at 3:21 pm #

      Nice of you to comment Clive, thanks. Most reading is done last thing at night and first thing in the morning- when I often reread what I have forgotten. With the slower pace of lockdown life I have spend a lot of time in the headspaces of different writers.

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