2021. Books of My Year.

6 Jan

I still don’t read enough non fiction but I have had a lot of fun weaving my way in an out of an eclectic bunch of wordsmiths these last twelve months. I read early morning and late at night. These times allow me some fun and stimulation before I turn on the news in the morning and a calming narrative space after I have ingested the late evening bulletins, most of which are stranger than fiction.

January

The year starts with much of the UK in the highest alert tiers for Covid. An eleventh hour deal was done with the EU and so we merely have chaos as opposed to catastrophe. Christmas and New Year were zoom events with virtual cuddling of loved ones. And 2020 was a great year for reading. What else was there to do to avoid Covid?

My reading year starts with two books which are close to my heart. The first was written by a much admired teacher of mine from Kingston Grammar School, the second by an old school friend – his first novel.

  1. Starkeye and Co. 2011. Berwick Coates. The life of a grammar school in the 1940s. It could be any school but it is my alma mater, Kingston Grammar. This is a gently humorous account of those difficult years for education. BC arrived as a single-parented, poor scholarship lad at this quirky but unexceptional school. The backdrop of the war years and the privations which followed allow for the historian to weave context into the life of a small lad trying to become a man.  Several teachers in the sepia staff photograph taught me some twenty years later. It was a school for lifers and Coates found many of them exceptional. This is a story for all readers not just alumni. It is infused with anecdote and detail, schoolboy pranks and matters of huge importance. I liked Berwick’s conclusion which chimed with my own experience. Speaking about illustrious alumni he says, ‘We’re a mite short on celebrities but….it’s the sort of school you’re pleased you went to.’ 3
  2. Rhesus Positive. 2020. Gavin Featherstone. My old friend’s first novel. I helped the edit of it and became wrapped up in this ‘memoir’ novel of two brothers who fall out early in life as the bombs of the Luftwaffe rained down on Blighty. Gavin plots the very differing paths that the brothers take in life: one emigrates to Australia, the other ends up with a darker and more ruthless life, working undercover for special forces. The historical context is very well-researched; the feeling of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and so on being evoked in careful and convincing fashion. We follow the boys and their characterful parents as the boys grown to men and their paths diverge further. Their boyhood enmity is maintained; revenge for childhood grievance lingers, even as the decades pass. The plot is compelling, the narrative is a little uneven and some characterisations can be unconvincing; the overall effect is of a very readable ‘history’, made worthy by its authenticity. 3+
  3. Logging Off. 2020. Nick Spalding. Nick writes comic novels which take a (mostly) 21st century problem and turns it into a series of farcical sketches. Here we follow Andy Burrows, a graphic designer addicted to the digital world. He can’t eat, sleep or poo without an iphone in his hand or an Instagram image in his head. When his doctor tells him to digitally detox his journey back to the real world is filled with bizarre encounters and ridiculous mishaps. Pretty juvenile but less bizarre than Tom Sharpe (and not as good) but, as a zeitgeisty chuckle it is worth a look. 2+/3.
  4. The Catch. 2020. T.M.Logan. Ryan is Abby’s knight in shining armour and when he proposes she can only see a lifetime of bliss ahead. Ed catches a look in Ryan’s eye and has serious misgivings about his daughter’s choice. Ryan is hiding something and Ed is determined to find out what. His daughter is too precious. He has already lost a son in a tragic accident and is damned if his daughter is going to be lost to him too. Trouble is, no one believes him and both his marriage to Claire and his relationship with his daughter are under serious threat. His surveillance mania loses him his job and plenty of money as he pursues the truth about Ryan. One of Richard and Judy’s favourite authors, TML weaves a suspenseful thriller out of an improbable set of circumstances. The longer it goes on, the darker it gets. The power of love, intuition and evil combine to make a readable, if forgettable tale. Enjoyable though. 3
  5. Postcards from a Stranger. 2018. Imogen Clark. Cara is a thirty-something caring for her Dad as Alzheimer’s will shortly end his life. She has always thought that her mother died young but the discovery of postcards in the attic takes her on a journey which will involve the pain of revisiting a very disturbing family past and the possibility of making things worse rather than better. It’s a rather clunky fictionalising of Who Do You Think You Are with a bit of love interest thrown in. Quite well-plotted but I had lost sympathy for Cara half way through. 2+
  6. Mercy. 2018. Martin Godleman. Martin is a friend and having scanned a couple of his fanzine books on West Ham, I decided to tackle some real fiction. Martin was an outstanding English teacher and it was no surprise that his career experiences probably fed into this noir tale of a schoolboy whose disturbing memories of growing up and schooldays resurface when he nears retirement. Then the demons of his past won’t quieten unless he does something about them. He relives teenage trauma and visits those who damaged him. It’s a tale very well told and fertile territory for the knowledgeable Godleman. If you like revenge fiction and a curiously unlikeable but compelling central character, I recommend. 3
  7. Heavy Water. 1998. Martin Amis. I have dipped into this short story collection before but I thought that I would take the whole lot in one go this time. Amis has collected a number of his sharp tales published in the New Yorker or Granta or the like and sewn together a wild and weird patchwork of satire from his omniscient and savage pen. He revels in exposing the grubby secrets of ordinary folk – from the frantic wanking of Vernon in Let Me Count the Times to the futuristic dystopian 2050 vision of The Janitor of Mars. Amis loves the amoral underworld of geezers who speak in cockney slang and are remorseless in their savage hedonism. He lampoons the pretentiousness of the art world and the vacuousness of those who pontificate. He can pan back and give us an unsettling world view. Nihilistic maybe but clever, scintillating prose and unsettling. 4/5
  8. Comparing Natural Immunity with Vaccination. 2009. Trevor Gunn. A small book read as part of my beginning to look at alternative views to accepted theory. My friend Charles, an osteopath, has bombarded me with his thoughts on Covid (and our failed strategies to cope), the misconceptions of mainstream medicine in general and healthy lifestyles. He sent me this little tome and it makes for interesting reading. Gunn questions both the epidemiology and efficacy of vaccination. He, persuasively, shows that almost all vaccines have been introduced when the incidence of a particular disease was waning anyway, due to improved diet and health of succeeding generations. The vaccination model follows the basic philosophy of Louis Pasteur, whereas the ‘alternatives’ in bio science take Dechamps as their guru. Worth a squint. 3
  9. The Gates of Athens. 2020. Conn Iggulden. I have read little of this celebrated historical novelist but my friend Geoff leant me this and so I dipped in. It’s a great saga of ancient Greece, and the struggles with the Imperial ambitions of King Darius of Persia. The defining battles of Marathon and Thermopylae take centre stage in an exciting and bloody  romp which, of course, makes the reader reflect on political tensions today. The Greek struggle, in the early days of democracy, is cleverly described and the tale, told largely through the eyes of Xanthippus, shows how factionalism infects any system. The ambitions of the Persian empire were rampant and Xerxes, son of Darius, exacts revenge for the carnage of Marathon. Iggulden’s skill is his imaginative filling of the gaps where we are deficient of facts. His speculations include collapsing timelines and second-guessing enmities and motives. The evacuation of Athens, to avoid huge slaughter of innocents, ends this part of the saga. More to come. 4
  10. He Said, She Said. 2017. Erin Kelly. The well known journalist who also ‘novelised’ Broadchurch has written an eerily convincing psychological thriller here. Kit and Laura are a young couple whose hobby is travelling the world to see solar eclipses. In 2000, at the Lizard, Cornwall, Laura witnesses Beth’s rape. The subsequent trial of Jamie Balcombe hinges on Laura’s evidence. Can she be sure of what was seen and said? The fallout from this trauma forms the story of the book. The young couple’s lives run on different rails thereafter and both the accused and the accuser manage to dog their every attempt to put the past behind them. The pursuit of the eclipse thrill remains Kit’s main hobby but are the young couple being followed and watched every step of the way? It becomes clear, early on that violence is never far from their door. A good read. 3++
  11. Hamnet. 2020. Maggie O’Farrell. Costa winner. Hilary Mantellish re-imagining the life of Shakespeare’s son. The star of the book is clearly Ann Hathaway (Agnes), cast as a free spirit of the forest who tolerates her husband’s need to get away from the stifling clutches of Stratford and his bankrupt, corrupt father – a dubious glover. Told in bursts of present tense, the story has a vibrant life and, indeed brings to life the story England’s celebrated family through the lens of tragedy as the young twin brother to Judith succumbs to bubonic plague. Excellent. 4
  12. The Biology of Belief. 2015. Bruce Lipton. Thanks for posting it to me Charlie Tisdall! Part of a series of reads to inform myself of the ‘alternative’ biomedical world view. Darwin v Lamarck; religion v science; nature v nurture; genetic determinism v environmental development; antibiotics v essential bacteria…and so on. The tendency of Bruce H. Lipton PhD to hyperbole or citing non-mainstream references to further his arguments, doesn’t always diminish the plausibility of what he says. We know that our GPs are being dissuaded from prescribing antibiotic at the drop of a hat, for example; many bacteria are essential for health. Picking my way through this, I found it readable and I am the better informed, if not totally convinced. 3
  13. A Single Thread. 2019. Tracy Chevalier. A strangely captivating tale of Violet Speedwell, a 38 year old spinster trying to find some purpose in life after the deaths of her brother, George and fiancé Laurence in the First World War. It is now early 1930s and Hitler’s star is in the grisly ascendant. Violet ‘escapes’ the clutches of her widowed mother in Southampton and moves the few miles to Winchester, a typing job and space to breathe. She joins the broderers, a committed group of women who fashion and sew cushions and kneelers for the Cathedral. A world all its own with hierarchy and gossip and judgement. It’s a well-researched small-life drama with contemporary scandals (lesbianism, unmarried mothers and the place of women) to make the humdrum tense, the social dynamic compelling. And Violet is a woman alone with choked desires and society’s disapproval close at hand. And the lustful eyes of a local farmer on her. And the loving attentions of the gentle, married bellringer, Arthur, to feed her dreams. The detail of embroidery and the company of committed women is convincingly and cleverly evoked – so that this ageing male reader with no interest in needles and thread found something to latch on to. There is fact amongst the fiction here and TC is a careful and consummate storyteller with such a sympathy for the period. Excellent. 4+
  14. The Kingdom. Jo Nesbo. Carl and Roy are brothers in their mid thirties with the blood of their father’s beloved dog DOG, on their hands from a teenage shooting accident, twenty years earlier. When Carl returns to the remote village of their upbringing, with a new wife and a plan to build a luxury hotel, the fragile equilibrium of rural relationships seem set to be shattered by the ghosts of the past. This is a grisly Scandi-noir tale of murder, incest and small town jealousies. Nesbo has a Stephen King weirdness but is a master-plotter. The book is a fast read ..but it’s pretty unpleasant. 3
  15. One Summer, America 1927. 2013. Bill Bryson. A wonderful snapshot (albeit 600+ pages) of that year seen through the lens of the big headlines in the US. Bryson however manages much more of a global picture of that summer than his title suggests. Social and political upheaval (prohibition, skyscrapers, immigration ..) blended with Lindbergh and Babe Ruth hysteria and the advent of ‘Talkies’. There were ‘celebrated’ executions by a famous executioner named Elliott and the ‘big four’ bankers of the world met and made the Wall Street crash an inevitability. Al Capone and Al Jolson were riding high as America became the industrial powerhouse of the world. Brilliantly researched, Bryson manages to be historian, raconteur, enthusiast and boyish throughout. An achievement. 4+
  16. Belle du Seigneur (Her Lover). 2005 edition. Albert Cohen. I was encouraged to tackle this huge book by my old friend Fran, who sold it as the equal of Middlemarch. Well, it’s longer, at a thousand pages and it is certainly a tour de force of a novel. Set in Geneva in the 1930s inter war years we find beautiful Adrienne married to a dull bureaucrat (at the League of Nations) Deume. He is a lazy and insufferable sycophant. She is ripe for the mighty Solal, the wandering Jew from Corfu, – and Deume’s boss at the LON – to enslave. Their affair becomes the scandal of the moment. Each page seems to be an examination of the sad motivations of one character or another, narrated at length with a precise and knowing glee. Human nature at whatever strata of this society is examined forensically. There is comedy and tragedy on each page as we laugh and grimace at the sad motivations of  mortals. The message seems to be that death is a blessed relief from the pretensions and corruptions of life. The Valiant, a strange group of Solal’s relatives and compatriots from Corfu, enter the action from time to time as comic relief, somehow to bring commonsense to the bizarreness of what others may call normal life. As each character is assassinated over and over again, I did wonder whether Cohen could have halved the word count. But I found myself returning to it after, say, a cheap kindle read, refreshed and ready to soak up the extraordinary examination of life. It’s Victorian in feel (and length) and yet has the stream of consciousness of a Woolf or Joyce. The satire is as savage as could be. The narcissism of us all is exposed. It’s brilliant (and an extraordinary translation) but set aside some time. 4+
  17. Shuggie Bain. 2020. Douglas Stuart. The grim but uplifting story of Shuggie, a poor gay boy whose upbringing in a 1980s, pit-closing suburb of Glasgow is little short of nightmarish. His absentee father, Shug, an ex-miner, promiscuous taxi driver leaves the dysfunctional family in the appalling care of his wrecked wife, alcoholic Agnes. Catherine, the sane elder daughter, scarpers to South Africa with her sane mining husband Donald.  That leaves Leek (Alexander) a late teenage talented artist who has no money for art school and lazes, aggressively along on a dead-end YTS scheme. And Shuggie a little articulate pansy of a boy who cares for his drink sodden mother before and after each brutal, abusive day at primary school. Somehow, through powerful prose and the spirit of a young boy, there is optimism. 4+
  18. The Assault on Truth. 2021. Peter Oborne. An eviscerating analysis of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as leaders who have taken the UK and USA into a new world of ‘moral barbarism’. It is a step by step account of, principally, Johnson’s systematic lying throughout his political life and how his behaviour has changed the political landscape and affected us all. Oborne, perhaps unusually for  centre- right journalist, exhaustively cites authoritative sources and ‘factchecks’ everything he says. Despite repetitions and a certain delight in telling the tale, it is a sobering and sad take down, not just of Johnson but of our modern political life. Worrying for us all. 4
  19. A Little History of Poetry. 2020. John Carey. My great buddy Roger sent me this and it’s such a readable time-line story of the evolution of poetry. Anyone who has ever felt that the world of poetry has been closed to them ( and those who know a bit anyway) should enjoy this engaging history. If a readable and humorous technical book is wanted, look no further than The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. As for John Carey’s book, Sebastian Faulks called it ‘fizzing and exhilarating’. Nuff said. 4
  20. Double Blind. 2021. Edward St. Aubyn. Although panned by critics, this tale is full of St. Aubyn’s wit and cleverness. Thirty-something univ mates Lucy (in high finance) and Olivia (an academic biologist heavily into genes, possibly because her parents are eminent psychiatrists who adopted her as a ‘project’) reunite in London with the weight of Lucy’s cancer diagnosis, new job and new relationships for both, hovering in predatory fashion over their lives. Olivia has hitched up with a wilding environmentalist, Lucy head-hunted by a coke-snorting billionaire entrepreneur wanting to leave a Bill Gatesian legacy to science. The interweaving of 21st century obsessions: mental health (psychiatry), neuroscience, genomery, heredity, quackery, drug abuse, untold wealth, self-serving  philanthropy…and more – is grist to St Aubyn’s mill and he gets enthused by his clever research and clever language. Viewing humans as pulsing neuro-machines  is a contemporary variation on McEwan (A.I.) and more recently Ishiguro. It works for me though. The stories of people at crossroads, which are the heart of the book, are not lost in the author’s orgasmic prose; rather, their tragedies are normalised. A weird effect. 4+
  21. Klara and the Sun. 2021. Kasuo Ishiguro. A polluted and dystopian future America is the setting for Klara’s story. She is an AF (artificial friend) android chosen by Chrissie a single mum to Josie, a sickly young girl/woman whose elder sister died young. We view human interaction through the clever but naive eyes of Klara. Her clearsightedness lets the reader make what he will of the various relationships and situations which Josie’s life presents. Klara is often left in the corner of a room, ignored but observing all. What does she make of human emotion? Is she capable of learning empathy? Could she become a clone for Josie if the girl dies? The gentle narrative lets the reader collaborate with the writer. We are part of the story. It’s an odd feeling – and oddly compelling. Rick, Josie’s boyfriend, has not had the advantage of genetic modification which would ensure a college place but his intelligence and ability (he makes drones) and understanding of others gives him a moral strength. The story is both uncomfortable and uplifting. Our fragile world and we fragile beings are thrown into a fragile perspective. 4++
  22. The Secret of Cold Hill. 2029. Peter James. A rather silly departure from the Roy Grace ‘Dead’ series. Young couple move on to a new estate controversially built on the site of the old manor in a rural village. The ghosts from past tragedy have not been laid to rest. Things go bump in the night. Silly and unsatisfying, albeit some neo-gothic, macabre tension. 1++
  23. The Third Twin. 1996.  Ken Follett. Ken can be relied upon for detailed research (he has an army of helpers) and fast-paced story-telling. Jeannie is a rather off-beat genetic researcher investigating the nature/nurture differences in identical twins who grow up apart. Her clever and aggressive research is set to expose her boss, Berry, for immoral genetic engineering some twenty years previously – a fraud that, if discovered might scupper a multi-million merger deal and, indeed, stall the political ambitions of his partners. With money and the White House at stake, Jeannie is in serious danger. Her friend Lisa has been raped by a clone (one of eight!) and Jeannie has fallen for another. Love, chaos and danger…and one or two ridiculous stretches of imagination for the reader. Rape, fraud, university politics, due process of law and genetic engineering are but a few of the concerns of this old fashioned romp of a tale. KF is rather a retro read these days. The men and women of his novels seem stereotypically stuck in a 1970s bubble. Nevertheless I am always impressed with his detailed research and, despite the Geoffrey Archer-ish nature of the tale, I learn stuff. 3++
  24. Just Like You. 2020. Nick Hornby. Lucy and Joseph come from different worlds – he a black 22year old part-time butcher serving the moneyed middle classes of London, she one of his customers, a Head of English at a local comprehensive and a separated mother of two. Neither is looking for a relationship. What starts as a babysitting gig for Joseph turns into something else and two worlds collide. The complex navigation of their partnership, amid dinner party Brexit chatter, social and cultural clashes and two families looking at eachother with WTF scepticism, is cleverly handled with Hornby’s light comic touch. While the premise of the story may be a stretch, NH takes a number of today’s taboos and treats them with care, good sense and wry humour. 4+
  25. Nemesis.  2002. Jo Nesbo. Another dip into the murky life of Inspector Harry Hole as he ploughs his Norwegian furrow in the murk of Oslo’s criminal fraternity. Still reeling from the unsolved death of his police partner…….Harry has taken to drink, again. While Rackel (his new love) is fighting for custody of her son, Oleg in Russia, Harry investigates the near unsolvable bank heist and murder by a robber who leaves no clues whatsoever, save for the assumption, by Harry’s bi-polar video genius Beate, that the murderer knew the cashier whom he shot point blank, without needing to. The heist leads Harry down exciting rabbit warrens which often involve his own past history. Anna, an old flame, is shot on the night that Harry visits her. Harry’s drunkenness ensures that he has no memory of the evening. Meanwhile emails from the elusive robber/murderer press Harry’s neurotic buttons. Given that Harry and his immediate boss hate each other and that Harry’s drinking should have seen him dismissed a while ago, there are tensions at work beneath the brittle surface of camaraderie. All in all, another pacy and compelling psycho-crime-scandi-noir drama which I much enjoyed. 3++
  26. Three Hours. 2020. Rosamund Lupton. A well-told tense thriller about a school under siege by deranged gunmen. The dramatic unity of time, place and action is well handled as the reader is moved around the school’s hiding places as students and teachers huddle in undiscovered corners…until they are discovered. Surreally, the youngsters watch on iphones and ipads as TV coverage relays the siege to the watching world. A psychopathic white supremacist  ex student and his radicalised sidekick terrorize the school. Lupton switches the focus of action neatly: parents gathering at a local gym desperate for information; Rose and her police colleagues trying to psychoanalyse the killers’ next moves; Hannah the schoolgirl tending to Matthew, her headteacher who is the first to be shot; Rafi the Syrian refugee (and Hannah’s boyfriend) trying to find his young brother on the campus and reliving the trauma of the brutality of his homeland; the drama group bizarrely rehearsing Macbeth in the theatre, a supposedly safe haven. Meanwhile the killers stalk the campus and the police and anti-terror squads ponder their next moves. A columbine-influenced thriller which has the tone of a teen novel. 3
  27. The Beauty of Broken Things. 2020. Victoria Connelly. A sentimental and mawkish, sub Mills and Boon tripe of a tale. Helen and Orla are keen photographers who strike up a close friendship online. Helen dies in a train crash; Orla has acid thrown over her by a jealous work colleague. Luke, Helen’s devastated husband goes in search of Orla who has become a recluse (there’s a stalker involved too) in a mediaeval castle. The idea is that they help eachother back to sanity after tragedy. Dreadful 1-
  28. Agent Running in the Field. 2020. John Le Carre. Le Carre’s last completed hurrah and another slick and beautifully narrated spy thriller. Nat and his long-suffering lawyer wife Prue, have done their time in Europe’s spy-spots (including Moscow) while Nat ‘handles’ his agents and counter agents. Now as he contemplates being put out to pasture and playing more badminton, he is called to run the Haven – a rather shabby house of low grade spy-liaison in north London. It put me in mind of Mick Herron’s Slough House. The crisp eloquence of MI5/6 coded conversation and gesture interpretation is as delicious as ever. Nat regular young badminton partner, the morally high-minded, Europhile Trump-hating,  Ed Shannon turns out to have sold himself to the Russians (thinking they were Germans). The value of spy secrets seems negligible but the enormous subterfuge of surveillance and coded conversations seems to keep an army of spooks well-paid while they chase eachother for small advantage. Le Carre describes the lives and loves of compromised people, beautifully. 4+
  29. Death on a Cruise. 2021. Chris Grayling. Neil MacKenzie (aka Slick), the sleuth from Tunbridge Wells is back with his partners Gere and Rocky. This time they’re on a cruise as security consultants. This fourth in the series from my mate CG, is another Chandleresque romp for the UK market. It’s easy reading and, at times, laugh out loud stuff as the sometime-hapless private investigators stumble into problems – the problems being murder, romance and international fraud. Exotic locations and the fine fare of the captain’s table contrast nicely with the schoolboy humour of the sleuthing trio. A fast read on your sun lounger. 3+
  30. Long Road to Mercy. 2018. David Baldacci. The first in the Atlee Pine series. Our eponymous FBI heroine, sorry hero, is on the search for a man who has mysteriously disappeared from a remote part of the Arizona national park. Pine, a female Jack Reacher, is – de rigeur – damaged by the abduction and murder of her twin sister in childhood. This, of course gives her the edge in most things combative but a vulnerability in romance. Baldacci, like Lee Child, knows how to spin a yarn. And this yarn involves the FBI’s hierarchy keeping secrets from the underestimated Agent Pine. Despite the formula, B’s characters are well-defined and the narrative races. 3++
  31. Guernica.2014. Dave Boling. Wanting to know more about the Spanish Civil War and the Basque country, I revisited this moving tale of love and loss. Set between 1933 and 1940 we trace the fortunes of two families brought together by love and marriage in Guernica. Picasso’s startling image of the destruction of this small town was part of Boling’s inspiration for the tragedies which unfold – and the human spirit of resistance and resurgence which characterize the resilient group of Basques who survive the awful devastation to their families. If readers are looking for an informative historical document, this is not for you. If you want a compelling story in similar spirit and readability to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, go for it. 3++
  32. Sword of Honour. 1965. Evelyn Waugh. I had always wanted to read Waugh’s trilogy which he intended to be published as one long novel, partly autobiographical, about the Second World War. Men at Arms was published in 1952 with
  33. Officers and Gentlemen and
  34. Unconditional Surrender coming later. I read them in the 900 page combined version (Penguin 2011 edition)prefaced by Waugh and published first in 1965. The three volumes combine to make a delicious and savage satire on both the 2nd World War and the decaying upper class society of the late 1930s. Guy Crouchback is the moral core of the novel and we follow his brave exploits serving his country as a devout Catholic should against the satanic forces of Nazism. No one really matches up to Guy’s integrity and decency and generosity; not his officer friends, his slutty wife (whom he marries twice), nor any members of his club, parliament or friendship circle. His father may have been an exception. We are with him all the way: in the confessional, in Crete and Italy and Yugoslavia. We follow him with admiration and sadness. This is a must-read novel. 4++
  35. Suburbia. 2019. David Randall. My old primary school chum and eminent writer, raconteur and  journalist for, amongst others, the Guardian and Independent, died all too soon in July of this year. I bought his witty and charming evocation of growing up in Worcester Park (as I did) in the 1950s and 1960s. As with so many nostalgic memoirs, it drips with a particular resonance for those who were there at the time. Dave infuses the autobiographical detail with literary, political , social and cultural reference which would inform and entertain anyone. Green Shield Stamps and Bob-a-Jobbing are mixed with shell-shocked teachers and the mundane calm of suburban life. It’s funny and thoughtful and wise. 4++
  36. The Old Wives Tale. Arnold Bennett. Persuaded by my old mate Fran to revisit Arnold Bennett’s near-forgotten tale of sisters Constance and Sophia, middle class girls of the Potteries in Victorian England. I read this for A Level and could only remember not getting further than page 36, so dreadfully bored was I by the tedious tale of the shopkeeping classes. I missed the gentle, satirical humour which played in an Austenesque way although the intrigue of the two girls lay not so much in who they would marry but how they would navigate their lives having made their choices of husbands. We get a gently humorous look at the life of a middle class draper’s store which Sam Povey, with his new wife Constance Baines, takes over from her parents. Sophia, ever the more adventurous sister has eloped to Paris with Gerald Scales, a commercial traveller who has inherited money. The first half of the novel takes us through the undramatic provincial life of Constance and Samuel as they worthily plug away at affluent respectability in the main draper’s shop of Bursley. Along comes son Cyril and their steady life is complete until the drama of a local murder livens the narrative. Then we switch to Sophia’s life in Paris at the time of the siege of 1870. A Tale of Two Cities indeed and Sophia’s story captivates as tales of personal growth, when well told, can. Witty and moving. 4.
  37. Sleeping in the Ground. 2017. Peter Robinson. I felt the need of an Alan Banks Yorkshire police caper and this was a speed read. The mass shooting at a wedding seems an open and shut case when a retired dentist blows his own head off with the sniper rifle used for the killings by his side. But things don’t quite add up and cold cases seem to bring fresh questions. As usual Banks’s own past and love life smoulder around the central fir of crime detection. Much in the mould of the best Brit-Cop traditions of  Morse, Dalgleish, Grace, Rebus and others, this was classically unputdownable. 3++
  38. Where or When. 1993. Anita Shreve. It’s a typically thoughtful/poignant fateful love story. Charles and Sian meet when they are 14 at camp and circumstances contrive a reunion a lifetime later. It’s a sad car crash of a tale (think the Alan Alda This Time Next Year film, with serious tears). AS manages these sob-tales well. Another engrossing, if maudlin read. 3
  39. Contacts. 2020. Mark Watson. The comedian/writer’s best novel yet by all accounts. James Chiltern sets off on the London – Edinburgh train having let his phone contacts know that he is en-route to commit suicide. It’s a good-ish schtick to set the tale off. In the telling there are many sub plots and laughs as well as poignant stuff. It’s a well-writen and engaging observational novel. 3
  40. Billionaire. 1983. Peter James. I was intrigued by how PJ started his writing career – now he churns out the DCI Roy Grace Brighton-based ‘Dead’ crime thriller series. The central character of this first novel is Alex Rocq, child of Thatcher, amoral stockbroker. He is a smug risk taker who gets in over his head with the big players of world arms deals. It’s a Nick Leeson meets Saddam Hussein type of thriller. Fun. Does this sort of thing still go on? Rather average. He’s done much better since. 2
  41. Dead at First Sight. 2019. Peter James. I decided to follow up Billionaire with PJ’s latest and it is a much more satisfying read. I have got to know Roy Grace and his new wife Cleo over the years. The weaving of domestic details into the Dead stories is a well-rehearsed and successful tactic. Each novel brings a catch-up with Roy’s real life behind his work. Here we have a dating app scam. Dozens of mature women and men are being ripped off by a clever identity fraudster. Roy has to liaise with mates in Germany and the USA to track down the criminals. As ever this series is to be read in a few sittings. At 522 pages, PJ’s editors might have used the blue pencil more aggressively. 3
  42. Home Stretch. 2020. Graham Norton. The chat show host tells a good tale. Here he deals with young gay men growing up in rural Ireland – a first for GN and one is tempted to assume that the story is semi-autobiographical. A tragic car crash sets the drama of the story. The trick of a life-changing event to trigger the next 300 pages seems ever more common. Here teenagers die and the blame falls on the innocent Connor who exiles himself (to America) for the coming decades. A village community can’t cope with blame. Meanwhile his parents grieve for their live son, while others grieve for their dead. Connor is able to lead a gay life in New York while the village picks up the pieces. His sister marries the owner of the death-car, Martin – a union which seems sterile despite the production of two children. Norton explores long-held stigmas, the rumour-mill of small communities and the nature of love in this impressive story which has the usual beguiling atmosphere of rural Ireland set in the modern framework of 21st century social mores and the bustle of New York. 4
  43. Life’s Little Ironies. 1894. Thomas Hardy. I turned to this after GN as it has a similar sense of place and the sometime claustrophobia of rural communities. It’s a wonderful series of short stories, each of which have a twist of sorts. Most of the tales are of love and disappointment or fulfilment. The message, as so often with TH, is not to expect too much, don’t overegg your ambition; a good man or woman is better in the long run than someone who can beguile with a smile. There is humour and tragedy in equal measure and each tale is a delicious whole. Lovely. 4
  44. The Modigliani Scandal. 1981 . Ken Follett. KF had his early efforts reprinted. He might not have bothered with this one. It’s an art forgery caper with a bit of sex and Tuscany thrown in. Fluent but forgettable. 1
  45. Islands of Mercy. 2020. Rose Tremain. A different kettle of fish altogether.Rose Tremain puts character and setting together so convincingly and sensitively that any reader would be drawn in. She writes about love and the limits society places on the ambitions and behaviours of us all. Victorian England. Jane Adeane is the striking 6ft. 2in daughter of an eminent Bath doctor, a widow. He falls for Mrs Morrissey, the intriguing Irish owner of a plush tea shop but she has a complicated back story from which she has run away. Jane, meanwhile, rejects the proposal of her father’s practice partner Valentine Ross and ‘finds’ herself in the Bohemian world of her aunt who lives in London. Finding herself means experiencing sex and love with Julietta, a bi-sexual socialite. Valentine’s anger at rejection and his self-banishment to Borneo to trace his lost brother, Edmund, takes the novel across continents and cultures. The action bounces round. London, Dublin, rural Ireland, Paris, Borneo, Bath. Some characters loom larger than others and their stories seem both to complement and jar. But his narrative is always compelling and the odd, angular Jane Adeane remains at the heart of it. Rose Tremain seems to handle a range of character and theme with such skill. Here we have Darwinism, sexuality, jealousy, medicine and its alternatives, varieties of love, power and wealth struggles and roads built to nowhere. Highly recommended. 4
  46. The Last Letter From Your Lover. 2008. Jo Jo Moyes. A friend recommended this and, as I hadn’t ventured into the world of the prolific journalist Jo Jo Moyes, I took the plunge. She is a romantic fiction writer (recently famous for the Me Before You series) and her style is cinematic. You can see a screenplay lurking behind the narrative. Jennifer Stirling’s unhappy 1960s marriage and the loss of the love of her life, Anthony O’Hare, is described in correspondence discovered by Ellie Haworth. Her own modern day love struggle is (rather weakly) set against the anguish of missed opportunity of the older couple. It’s a good story and I might read more of Jo Jo. 3++
  47. Knife. Jo Nesbo. I had read two thirds of this before I realised that I had read it before! Another in the Harry Hole series. This time the convoluted scandi-noir detective tale has an extra edge. Hole is on the trail of the murderer of his estranged wife Rakel, brutally killed, along with others, in a series of perverted knifings. The plot twists and turns and gets confusing but still holds the attention. It’s dark and weird and clever. 3+
  48. The Man Between. 2019. Charles Cumming. A brilliant spy novel which stands up to comparison with both Le Carre and Mick Herron; different from both but out of a similar stable. David ‘Kit’ Carradine is a spy novel author who gets drawn into helping Lisa Bartok, an ex member of a political terrorist group called Resurrection, escape Morrocco. Kit is beguiled by the life of secret agents and gets drawn in over his head. Cumming writes easily and persuasively – and weaves in the current social and political agendas of the western world skilfully. Almost unputdownable. A great read. 4++
  49. The Order of Time. 2018. Carlo Rovelli. Aware of my lack of non fiction reading (again), I plumped for this engaging book on time. Rovelli, an Italian physicist, cleverly explains – rather describes – how time has been seen and analysed through time – and how the literary world has almost as much sense to make of this elusive concept as the world of science. Time is linear, not cyclical; time moves as different speeds depending on whether you are on top of a mountain or underground; time changes memory, perspective, history. I understood most of it. 3++
  50. Snow Country. 2021. The latest from Sebastian Faulks. It’s a follow up to the excellent Human Traces. We follow the stories of Anton Heideck, Austrian journalist in love with the curious Delphine, French,  at the outbreak of WW1. Lena, the village girl with a drunken mother, is spirited away to Vienna by Rudolf a young lawyer. The war takes its toll on all of them and their stories crystallize in the  sanatorium Schloss Seeblick in the 1930s. . Anton has been commissioned to write a magazine piece, Lena is working there and the ghost of Delphine returns. It’s a tale of considerable scope and really compelling. The historical setting of the inter war years with the scars of what has gone before and what is to come, is the catalyst for another of Faulks’ great human dramas. I loved it. 4++
  51. Beautiful world,  Where are You? 2021. Sally Rooney. Her latest rather introspective saga. This time we have 30 somethings, Eileen (a Dublin based impoverished copywriter and her best mate Alice, a Rooney-lookalike successful young novelist. They have a long-winded and implausible email ‘conversation’ where they examine eachother’s navels for long periods: life, love, religion, politics, death. Felix and Simon are their men but the girls are so psychologically messed up, for no apparent reason, that they can’t quite see that just getting on with life is the best option. Despite thinking the whole things was too much of a Rooney indulgence, I enjoyed the read but felt sorry for the male protagonists. Plus ca change. 3
  52. The Thursday Murder Club. 2020. Richard Osman. Well I had to give this a go. Most people seem to know what it’s about –a group of amateur sleuths from an old people’s village gang together to solve a couple of murders. It’s fun, smart and witty and the characters well-drawn. There is a fair pace to it, enhanced by the pleasingly short chapters. Why it outsold everything in 2020 and is now topping the paperback charts is a mystery. Engaging but not life-changing. 3.
  53. Head of State. 2014. Andrew Marr. A blackly comic satire on the Brexit referendum, written 2 years before it happened. The Prime Minister dies on the eve of the big vote and his aides cover up his death – and Rory Bremner mimics him in radio interviews and phone calls. From the bizarre to the ridiculous to the chillingly prophetic, this is both a political and a grisly thriller of cover up, lies and greed. Pretty much what we expect of our senior politicians and their mates. Marr’s insider knowledge gives some authenticity but the whole thing is grotesquely far-fetched, if entertaining. 3
  54. How the Dead Speak. 2019. Val Mcdermid. Her latest in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Now Tony is in prison he has to manage his psychological criminal profiling from a distance. Human remains are discovered in the grounds of an old convent, once a ‘refuge’ for abandoned girls. The grisly discovery of 40+ bodies gets the duo (and others whom we have come to know in the series) searching for clues from the past. It’s a thriller about power and control – as true of the search for the evils of the past to the brutal life which Tony experiences behind bars. Compelling stuff, with each chapter prefaced by a quote from a crime text which Tony is writing during her majesty’s pleasure. 4
  55. The Searcher. 2020. Tana French. This is a rural thriller which won awards in New York, apparently. Cal is a burnt-out, divorced and retired Chicago cop who has emigrated to Ireland just south of the border with Ulster. The rural idyll he craves is thwarted by the suspicions of locals and the disappearance of Brendan, a young man caught up in drug dealing. His feral sister Trey seeks Cal’s help in finding him and then things get dangerous. Tensions rise in the local village, the local pub and his friend Mart may not be what he seems. It’s a thoughtful and suspenseful story which succeeds pretty well in evoking the essence of a remote community while we watch the characters grow and come to terms with the cards that life has dealt them. Just a little slow at times… 3
  56. Silverview. 2021. John Le Carre. His last novel, published posthumously after his son had, as he said, ‘touched it up’. . A birthday pressie from my old friend Stuart. And what a little gem. Julian Lawndsley, tiring of London’s rat race, opens up a small bookshop in a sleepy East Anglian seaside town. He is rather ripe for recruiting for low-level spy-courier work as h is a man of principle. Enter Edward Avon, homburg-wearing grey Polish spook-retiree who visits the shop and announces that he was a schoolfriend of Julian’s father. Further he suggests that Julian develops a section for classic literature. Julian doesn’t know what to make of this curious throwback of a man but we, the reader, soon learn that Edward and his wife were something quite big in the Spooks’ world of the post Cold War years of Bosnia and the Balkan mess of the late 20th century. A spook from head office, Proctor, is tasked with identifying a mole in the murky and confused world of MI6. Edward makes Julian a delivery boy, an exercise which excites the bookseller but complicates matters. Private morality versus public duty, and a grip of the geopolitical state of things are Le Carre’s stock in trade. His last novel perhaps gives us more of a sense of the blind leading the blind in the British spy world. It’s a grand finale. 4+

And that brings my 2021 reading year to an end. My mate Simon has leant me Pete Paphides’ much heralded memoir Broken Greek and this will vie with Mick Herron’s Slough House for my attentions during the current cold snap.  

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