Reading 2014

December 2014

Robin Black - Life Drawing This is really great as all the people whose opinion I respect told me it was, but NOT A CHEERY CHRISTMAS READ. Consider yourselves warned in these grim January days. The unravelling of a relationship, basically. 

Paula Daly - What Kind of Mother Are You? The second of hers I have read - middle class creepy mystery suspense stuff. In the Lake District. 

Celeste Ng - Everything I Never Told You I kept hearing this novel about the death of a Chinese-American 16-year-old in 1976 was beautiful and compelling and it was, but why didn't anyone tell me it would break my heart? WAH. SO SAD. 

Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm And it was as wonderful as ever. 

Sarah Moss - Night Waking An academic deep in the throes of early motherhood moves to her husband's ancestral home - a remote Scottish island - and becomes deeply preoccupied with an infant skeleton they find buried in the garden. This is much less about plot than atmosphere - unforgiving Hebridean landscapes, murky, sleep deprived parenting, isolation... 

Patrick Gale - A Place Called Winter Distantly based on real family history (details here), this is a beautifully evoked story of a lost middle-class English man obliged to emigrate to newly colonised Canada, with more than a touch of Brokeback Mountain about it. Kept me up until 2am. 

Henry Marsh - Do No Harm 
I put off reading this because I thought it would freak me out and it did, a bit, but it's fascinating, especially on his insecurities and anxieties and the crapshoot unknowable weirdness of the brain. 

November 2014

Liane Moriarty - The Last Anniversary LM really knows how to put a story together. This is delightful and satisfying, with a good thread of darkness. 

Eva Dolan - Long Way Home Bleak and well-evoked story of murder and dispossession among Peterborough's economic migrants.   

Viv Albertine - Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys Blimey, this was pretty frank and so interesting. Especially sad and wistful about the freedom and wildness of growing up as a girl in the 60s, I thought. 

Laurie Colwin - Home Cooking Presumably everyone who reads this wants in equal measure to be, and to be invited by LC (yes, I know she's dead)? Sigh. A total delight. 

Denise Mina - The Red Road A palate cleansing dose of Glaswegian gloom. 

Samantha Ellis - How to Be a Heroine Talked about this here. Funny and frank and so so interesting.  

Rick Gekoski - Lost, Stolen and Shredded This fascinating set of essays on lost and destroyed works of art manages to be erudite but also full of personality and opinions and wit. Lovely. 

Lissa Evans - Crooked Heart A complete delight, a sad and funny and delicious story of an unlikely friendship between an odd, bookish evacuee and the chaotic, scrabbling, scheming lady he is billeted with. I miss the characters already and I only finished it an hour ago. 

October 2014 

Sarah Moss - Names for the Sea This is an account of a year in Iceland and I loved it for not being neat or revelatory or full of action - it's about being puzzled and embarrassed and all the other things living somewhere strange is really about. All sorts of interesting insights into Icelandic psyche and that landscape, god, that landscape. Also, best description of Icelandic cinema ever

Caroline Kepnes - You Sophie Hannah recommended this and I love what Sophie Hannah writes, so instantly downloaded, but no. Well done, but not my thing at all. 

James Meek - The Heart Broke In An insistent recommendation from my friend F. This is an accurate review, I think, and "Neo-Victorian" is a good description, it's a sprawling morality tale with science at its heart and a cast of varyingly sympathetic characters. Very absorbing.  

India Knight - In Your Prime See here.

Asa Larsson - The Second Deadly Sin Someone here recommended Asa Larsson a couple of years ago and I am a complete convert. This, the newest Rebecca Martinsson story, is great. Dogs feature heavily as they do in most of the Larsson oeuvre and the kind of Swedish landscapes that make you want to huddle under a cashmere blanket. 

Helen Macdonald - H is for Hawk I have a major problem - in fact two major problems - with this book. First, it is so wonderful I don't want to read anything else, I just want to read it again. And second, it is the most beautiful, restrained, elegiac grief memoir imaginable, so I just want to bin my book, which is in part a grief memoir too. God, but it's exquisite. The descriptions of Mabel, the goshawk, are particularly extraordinary - fierce and accurate and tender all at once (I've just discovered she has a blog, here).

Sabine Durrant - Remember Me This Way Yet another decent psychological thrillery thing (what can I say, I like stories about middle class people unravelling horribly. This one even has Farrow and Ball paint as a plot point). 

September 2014

Another month of things started and abandoned and poor concentration..

David Nicholls - Us - Oh, this was much sadder than I expected. It's an easy, funny, utterly enjoyable read, but there's a sad heart to it. Sniff. 

Paula Daly - Keep Your Friends Close - Basically hokum, but not unenjoyable. Characters and scene-setting much stronger than plot (if I ever wrote thrillers - if only - I know I would have the same problem).

Liz Nugent - Unravelling Oliver A creepy little number in the psychological thriller genus. Pretty good. 

Graeme Simson - The Rosie Project I came to this very late, but absolutely loved: it's completely charming and made me laugh out loud, which I never do. Glad a sequel is on the way. 

Denise Mina - Gods and Beasts I'm bingeing on Denise Mina at the moment having not read her for years, but this one slightly defeated me. I STILL don't know why the guy who got killed in the first chapter got killed. 

Sarah Waters - The Paying Guests Loved this. Middle section particularly. 

Adrian McKinty - The Cold, Cold Ground Several people recommended this and ... eh. I dunno. Didn't really do it for me. It's a thriller about 1980s Belfast and the period detail is exceptional but not exactly done with a light touch. Also, cameo from Gerry Adams is a bit mind-boggling. 


August 2014

Nina Stibbe - Man at the Helm - This is as delightful and dryly funny as all the reviews have said and made me laugh out loud several times. It's sadder than I expected though, too. 

Guy Delisle - Chroniques de Jerusalem - M's recommendation, lovely, sad, illuminating graphic account of the author and his family's year living in Jerusalem (his wife worked for MSF).

Holiday reading here

Liane Moriarty - What Alice Forgot and Little Lies
I didn't necessarily mean to read these one after the other, but the Kindle refused to let me download anything else, and who cares, because LM writes such easy, delicious, absorbing stories. Easy reads, but so well done. 

July 2014

Miriam Toews - All My Puny Sorrows 
What a beautiful book this was, on that sweet spot where funny and desperately sad complement each other.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir - Someone to Watch Over Me One of her best, I thought. Twisty and unsettling. 

MJ Carter - The Strangler Vine I read this on a recommendation. It's a swashbuckling tale of 19th century Indian intrigue, not normally my kind of thing at all (I thought there would be murder but it's more generic 'mystery'), though very enjoyable in a Boy's Own kind of way, with a beautifully researched and evoked period 'feel'. 

Carys Bray - A Song for Issy Bradley Death, Mormonism and casseroles. A gorgeous (funny, down-to-earth, vivid) story of the various strands of a devout Mormon family dealing with the death of its youngest member. 

Elizabeth McCracken - An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination Stayed up far too late reading this beautiful unflinching memoir of McCracken's two pregnancies: her first child was stillborn, her second delivered safely a year later. Lovely about the joy and the humour at the heart of great sadness, the power of friends, the pull of ritual and superstition and the love of a good man. 

Jessie Burton - The Miniaturist This story of 17th century Amsterdam has been massively hyped which did my reading of it a disservice I think, but it has a gorgeous sense of time and place and some of the writing is very lovely indeed. Actually, the bits that worked least well for me were the Miniaturist bits. 

Linda Grant - I Murdered my Library Wah, I found this tale of thinning out a life in books very melancholy. Abridged version available here

Caitlin Moran - How To Build a Girl I was ambivalent about this in prospect, but enjoyed a lot. Made me laugh out loud 3 or 4 times, read in 24 hours. 

Elizabeth Gilbert - The Signature of All Things Who knew moss could be so fascinating? (A: everyone who read this book last year, you fool)

Curtis Sittenfeld - Sisterland This story of psychic - middle-aged, normal, middle American - twins was badly reviewed, but I quite enjoyed. 

June 2014

Brett Anthony Johnston - Remember Me Like This This novel turns the usual narrative of a child abduction on its head: the story kicks off when 15-year-old Justin is returned to his shattered family, 4 years after he disappeared. It's a tense, unsettling story with an intense sense of place (the Texan gulf, hot and sticky and oppressive). 

Emily Rapp - The Still Point of the Turning World Rapp's son was diagnosed with Tay Sachs at 9 months and died two years later. This memoir is bleak and beautiful and a hard read. 

Emma Healey - Elizabeth is Missing Such a clever premise (a woman with dementia trying to unravel two mysteries, one in the present and one in her past) and beautifully put together. Such a tough thing to attempt - narrator with dementia - and so accomplished (and human, and funny). 

Helen Fielding - Mad About the Boy Shut up. I got stuck with nothing to read. Less said about this the better. 

Emma Straub - The Vacationers A funny, warm story about a family in crisis on holiday in Mallorca. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half a Yellow Sun Last person in the world to read this, having loved Americanah. Incredibly gripping, awful, beautifully described, but I found some of the characters a bit .. thin. 

Patrick McGuinness - Other People's Countries - A memoir about childhood, well, childhood holidays, really, in Bouillon in deepest Wallonia. Incredibly well-evoked and funny and touching and the language is just stunning (McGuinness is a poet, and it shows). I'll be reading again in the very near future. 

Ruth Newman - Twisted Wing - A weird, clever, Cambridge-set murder story. 

May 2014
I've mainly reverted to crime. My brain is broken. 

Karen Joy Fowler - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - I loved this. Funny and touching and completely original. 

Nicci French - Thursday's Children I've read and enjoyed all the Frieda Klein series. However. I find Frieda Klein a massively unappealing heroine - cold, always right and joyless. You really wouldn't want to have a pint with her (she'd have tap water, not get your jokes and ask you uncomfortable questions about your childhood). Am I alone in this? 

Sophie Hannah - The Telling Error SH has this peculiar knack of creating a set of circumstances that is so odd and puzzling and impossible to work out that you just HAVE to keep reading. Is the resolution always as brilliant as the set up? No (definitely not here), but it's bloody clever. 

Yrsa Sigurdardottir - My Soul to Take 

Sinead Crowley - Can Anybody Help Me? A sort of 'Kiss Me First' meets Mumsnet. Clever. 

Sharon Bolton - A Dark and Twisted Tide I was so sure I knew who had dunnit halfway through and I was wrong. 

Andrew Solomon - Far From The Tree This book has gathered so many superlatives I don't really need to add to them. Fantastic. Especially the deafness chapter, I thought. 

April 2014
A disastrous month's reading so far - 8 or 9 things started and I can't settle to any of them. 

Jenny Offill - The Department of Speculation I was briefly enraged (the format feels quite mannered, neat little paragraphs of aphorism, like Adam Philips fricking Monogamy which I hated with the heat of a thousand suns) , then completely caught up in this sad, slight story. 

Sarah Hilary - Someone Else's Skin A decent police procedural with a rather unsettling domestic abuse theme. 

Jonathan Conlin Tale of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City - More useful, rather than pleasurable, but fascinating on housing stock, restaurants and entertainers. 

March 2014 

James Scott - The Kept 
This eery story of revenge, obsession and secrets in rural New York State in 1897 was recommended to me with total zealotry and it is strange and beautiful and like nothing else. HOWEVER: it  should also come with a (mental) health warning as is the bleakest thing likely to cross your palms this year. So so bleak. Like a Siberian wind whistling through a tundra of slaughtered baby animals and broken dreams. Otherwise, excellent. 

Saints of the Shadow Bible - Ian Rankin Having loved Rebus hard for years, I didn't love his return (Standing in Another Man's Grave) at all - it was quite unsatisfactory both in plot and motivation. This is an improvement but it doesn't have the punch and the peril of something like Black and Blue (I suppose he's older and marginally wiser now, more's the pity, I liked his dangerously unpredictable side - now everyone still says he's a loose cannon, but he's not, really). Satisfactory amounts of bad food is eaten, however, and visits to the Ox are numerous. Broadly approved. 

Ghosts of the Tsunami - Richard Lloyd Parry - A long LRB essay, beautiful, chilling, gripping. Can't stop thinking about this. 

The Farm - Tom Rob Smith This has such a clever premise (drawn from the author's own experience with his family; I was quite distracted by wondering how you ask your mum if it's ok to fictionalise her psychotic break) - has the narrator's mother actually gone mad, or did something horrible happen in her isolated, insular Swedish community? - but it didn't quite grab me, somehow. I think it's me, not the book. 

Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell Lovely YA love story, I used to be really sniffy about YA, but then I read that amazing second world war female friendship story, so when someone recommended this, I gave it a shot and it was excellent.

*****

February 2014

On growing up with Middlemarch.

Lovely article on WH Auden's secret altruism. 

Ann Patchett - This is the Story of a Happy Marriage A collection of AP's non-fiction, some completely spellbinding, some more pedestrian, all thoughtful. Lots about being a writer. Left me completely fired me up to write. 

Deborah Levy - Things I Don't Want to Know A tiny memoir about writing and becoming a writer, in three parts, this was apparently commissioned as a response to Orwell's Why I Write. It's dark and funny and moving and brilliant. 

Mrs Hemingway - Naomi Wood Just lovely. Holds you in a fascinating bubble of mid-twentieth century atmosphere. Great on obsessive love and loss and the strangeness of the start and the end of things.  

This beautiful James Wood essay on home and not home and exile and homelessness.

Edward St Aubyn - Lost for Words
This was a curious one. It has that dark, acid, terrifyingly accurate St Aubyn observation and humour, but the set up - the judges and contenders for a literary prize during the long list, shortlist and announcement phase - is far lighter than the Patrick Melrose novels, almost farcical. It's very short, too. St Aubyn has lots of wicked fun with the extracts from the short-listed books, from gritty sub-Trainspotting wot u starin at to florid historical romance All The World's A Stage. I love Didier, the ghastly French academic, Penny and her giant kettle, sweetly despairing Alan. Not so keen on the Indian contingent and irresistible Katherine remains a bit of a cypher.

Harriet Lane - Her 
Du Maurier-esque, gripping, unsettling, creepy as hell. Not out until June, but well worth waiting for.



*****

January 2014

The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer
Simple and sad and lovely and also very funny.

The Embassy of Cambodia - Zadie Smith 
Such a slight but wonderful thing. I wanted MORE.

Ashes to Dust - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Not my favourite Thora Gudmundsdottir, but they all do the job. 

Slipstream - Elizabeth Jane Howard
"I saw more of Cyril (Connolly)... Once he brought his ring-tailed lemur to stay. She was an enchanting creature. She roamed the garden eating all the buds off my lilac, but her beauty and agility made up for her depredations")

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent
Amazing, amazing, cannot recommend enough.