Candida McWilliam - What To Look For In Winter This came out a couple of years ago to wonderful reviews and I’ve finally got around to it and was glad I did. It’s a strange and lyrical and despairing account of a messy, at times tragic life, much of it a struggle with booze and of McWilliam losing her sight to an odd neurological condition (she has some of it back now). It’s quite a disturbing read, though beautiful, because she seems so utterly undone at times and it’s raw and full of pain as well as love. The kind of memoir where you have a slightly uncomfortable sense that perhaps the writer has given too much of themselves.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir - Why Did You Lie? Excellent, bleakly lighthouse based Icelandic crime (Four people are dropped on a tiny rock in the ocean for lighthouse repair/photography. Murder ensues. MURDER MOST ICELANDIC). from one of my favourites. She gives very good Twitter too, incidentally (@YrsaSig).
Philip Gourevitch - We Wish to Inform You…
I had never read this - extraordinary - book on the Rwandan genocide and it felt somehow appropriate with the world in a state of absolute fucked-upnesss.
Eleanor Moran - A Daughter’s Secret and Too Close for Comfort - I started reading the latter of these on a Twitter rec and realised that I needed to read the first one, well, first. They are ok. Crime series involving a fairly sympathetic psychologist (not like that mardy Frieda Klein).
Cath Staincliffe - The Silence Between Breaths Another Twitter rec. I was a bit puzzled by this, which is about the hours before and months after a terrorist attack, but not in a bad way. Just, not what I'd normally read.
Zadie Smith - Swing Time One of my favourites of hers, I think - utterly readable (not always the case with ZS), gripping on mothers and daughters and female friendships and I LOVED the dance sections.
Emma Flint - Little Deaths Not out for a few months, but well worth looking out for. A hot summer in 1960s Queens, two kids go missing and their mother doesn't seem to be behaving how a distraught parent should. This will so become a film - it's utterly filmic, beautiful descriptions of clothes and hot streets, a glorious femme fatale (anti) hero and a thoroughly noir cast of characters.
Belinda Bauer - The Beautiful Dead Splashy, slightly schlocky serial killer tale, but BB is a great writer, so it's tight, gripping and funny in the right doses.
Elly Griffiths - The Zig Zag Girl It took me ages to get into this and it still didn't grab me like the Ruth Galloway series, but it's a perfectly pleasant murder set in the immediate post-WW2 period in Brighton. With magicians. If that's your bag.
Daniel Pembrey - The Harbour Master Literally could not finish this which never happens. It sounded promising - Amsterdam detective - but the prose style is flat as a pancake and the plot murky in a bad way. Meh.
Ann Patchett - Commonwealth So many children to remember! I got there in the end. This review is good. My favourite section was the bit with the famous writer and his younger spouse and their obnoxious summer house guests. Release the lobsters!
Sarah Moss - The Tidal Zone I'm in two minds about this one - teenage daugher of Nice Middle Class Family has a sudden medical emergency - uncertainty ensues. On one level I found it monstrously irritating - the househusband narrator is peak Ocado Knob, constantly mithering on about his special fucking muffins - but on the other, it's clearly deliberate and well done and I found myself thinking about it long after the irritation faded.
Tana French - The Trespasser Oh, the arrival of a new Tana French, source of all rejoicing. I read this in a joyful gulp in the Dales with my feet on the Aga and it was true hashtagbliss. Erm, I can’t actually remember much about it now, but it was GREAT. Oh yes, a dead woman and possibly or possibly not bent coppers. She's wonderful at characters and this was a bloody great set.
When in French - Lauren Collins LC is a wonderful writer for the New Yorker and I felt a bit… funny before starting this because it’s so much the same territory as my book (she falls in love with a Frenchman and decides to learn French, though with me it was sort of the other way around) and she’s so evidently a braver, more rigorous and generally classier writer than I am. Even so, I was so glad to have read it: it’s frank and funny (she had me at the bit about iridology on the first page) and full of fascinating snippets about language acquisition and what kind of people we are in different languages and the oddity of making a life with someone when you don’t share a language or associated world view.
Graeme Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project I did quite well on the Booker shortlist this year - better than in most years. This is one of the three I've read so far and I really enjoyed it (it’s the one about a 19th century Highland murder reconstructed through “contemporary” and later documents). Fascinating, clever, wonderfully done. Not by any stretch a whodunnit. Slight feeling of - huh? at the end.
Laura Lippman - Wilde Lake I used to devour each Tess Monaghan book as they appeared, but then I think she stopped writing them for a stretch and kind of fell off my radar. This was wonderful and now I want to find out what else she wrote that I might have missed.
Laurie Colwin - Home Cooking - Yet AGAIN, just because.
Elizabeth Heathcote - Undertow I found the first chapter of this appallingly clunky and thought I might not be able to go on with it, but weirdly, it improved HUGELY thereafter. Decent enough psychological thriller.
David Szalay - All Man Is Great, great, great. Not the women, who are a bit incidental, but beady-eyed and thoughtful and varied and lovely and erudite and also SO AGGRAVATING in parts (deliberately, some of the characters are such bellends). A brief mention for Uccle!
Ragnar Jonasson - Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout I became weirdly addicted to this laconic Icelandic crime series this month, even though (or possibly because) nothing - NOTHING - is more effective at sending me to sleep. I can barely manage three pages without passing out. Don't let this put you off though, if you like the usual kind of Scandinavian gloom, snow, many cups of coffee and a cavalier approach to murdering.
Barbara Comyns - Our Spoons Came From Woolworths A long overdue reread of this lovely, sad, funny story of fucked up young love.
Sarah Hilary - No Other Darkness A strong start for this gloomily atmospheric story of postpartum madness and death, but I thought it slightly lost its way in the second half.
Maria Semple - Today Will Be Different Odd, gently funny, compassionate. A woman of a certain age and with a certain degree of success behind her is trying to be her best self, but her hand surgeon husband goes missing, she steals a mother at her son's school's keys and offends her poetry teacher, plus her past, particularly her very fraught relationship with her sister, keeps intruding. Bad - and funny - things ensue.
Sylvia Patterson - I’m Not With the Band Full Proustian pop eighties and indie nineties rush ensued reading this. Patterson is both wonderfully funny and wildly indiscreet. So much fun. Sad bits too.
Vendela Vida - The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty Someone recommended this on Twitter and it’s quite a slight, odd thing but very entertaining, about a woman getting herself into a series of unlikely scrapes in Morocco.
Sarah Perry - The Essex Serpent I have been hearing about this book for MONTHS on Twitter and it’s done amazingly well with rave reviews, so obviously I was primed not to like it (joke joke I am not a COMPLETE arsehole). Firstly: what a beautiful, beautiful object. The most gorgeous cover I have seen for years. Secondly: a complete original and a complete delight, full of Victorian science, a Beast, wonderful nature writing and the loveliest accounts of friendship of various kinds.
Sabine Durrant - Lie With Me As Farrow and Ball psychological suspense goes, this is bloody brilliant.
William Finnegan - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
Jesus Christ on a surfboard, I have literally no idea why I thought I should read this surfing memoir except that I kept hearing how amazing it was. IT’S AMAZINGLY FULL OF SURFING. ALL THE SURFING ALL THE TIME. I didn’t *hate* it. But holy christ, there was a lot of surfing in it (learning point: surfing memoirs will contain a high level of surfing).
Anne Sebba - Les Parisiennes This is completely captivating on one level - it’s an amazing repository of stories about women in Paris during the occupation - but on another level I found it a little unsatisfying, because there’s no thesis or narrative thrust to it. It’s a wonderful compendium of stories, some followed through several years of the war, some dead ends (whether because of death, all too frequently, or because of lack of documentation), but I kind of wanted an argument too…
Liane Moriarty - Truly Madly Guiltily Liane Moriarty is so clever and her characters feel like proper people. Here, something bad happens at a barbecue and everyone struggles to deal with the fallout.
One of my best reading months for ages. I wonder if it was because I was mainly without children and had more, or better quality, reading time?
Emma Cline - The Girls I did enjoy this super-hyped, mega $$$$$$$$, Manson clan story despite the usual initial prickling of ‘so rich and talented so young’ envy. The Manson angle is misleading really, it’s a hot, dirty, California dream rather than a prurient True Crime tale and atmosphere is more important than story.
Jade Chang - The Wangs v the World Chinese-American family lose everything in the 2008 crisis and patriarch insists they go on a road trip. Gently funny, thoughtful with a John Lanchester kind of ambition in describing the swirling vortex of collective, national and personal financial disaster. Not the romp the cover suggests.
Shari Lapena - The Couple Next Door Their baby goes missing during a dinner party with the neighbours! DID THEY DO IT? Are they evil or just negligent? This kind of thing is usually right up my street, but it felt a bit flat and empty and lacking in real suspense/jeopardy, twists injected mechanically at appropriate intervals.
Noah Hawley - Before the Fall Ooooh, I really enjoyed this. A private plane falls out of the sky, with two unlikely survivors. Rich people, Martha’s Vineyard, artists, suspicion, etc etc. You can imagine it becoming a film (I mean, he wrote Fargo, it’s hardly surprising). The whodunnit element is a lot less important than I was expecting, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all.
Megan Abbott - You Will Know Me Another thoroughly enjoyable, deliciously tense one about intrigue in the world of high level gymnastics. Also, I read something about her writing regime earlier today and on Sundays she goes for a cocktail at 3pm and I APPROVE.
Lucie Whitehouse - Keep You Close Art world (sort of) suspense thingy. Artist woman falls or jumps or is pushed off roof, her friend investigates. Pretty good and clever, with a decent twist, the kind where you think is it this, no, it can’t be because this and this, then BOOM.
Ian McGuire - The North Water Sex. Blubber. Murder. Venereal disease. Starvation. The first chapter has two hideously well-described murders and a rape and it gets NOT AN IOTA MORE CHEERFUL. However I thought this tale of a Hull whaling ship getting into trouble out in the Arctic was bloody brilliant. Expect relentless grimness. I kept laughing as worse and worse things befell the characters, yet somehow it was completely compelling.
I did quite a bit of rereading this month, both for The Books That Built Me and for comfort in these shitweasel times.
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day This remains my gold standard of funny writing. Jesus Shaves still leaves me helpless.
Patrick McGuinness - Other People’s Countries Still my favourite book about Belgium. I got very sucked into a description of the Fête Nationale this time.
“There is a brass band that starts at the Hotel de Ville and parades through the town picking up followers the way a clapped out vacuum cleaner picks up dust: no longer by suction but by dragging its nozzle along the floor and hoping to engage a few tufts. The fire brigade and police are supposed to attend but last year the fire brigade forgot.”
P G Wodehouse - The Code of the Woosters Cow creamer. Spode. Anatole. The Dog Bartholomew. Gussie Fink-Nottle. I can feel my blood pressure dropping as I type these words.
Nina Stibbe - Love Nina This has become my go-to book when the world has gone to shit. Imagine writing something this wonderful! I laughed so much one night I had to stop reading because I was stopping my beloved from getting to sleep.
Lisa McInerney - The Glorious Heresies I'm not sure "enjoy" is exactly the right word here, but I thought this was great: darker than dark, limited redemption, thoroughly accomplished. A hint of Denise Mina (who is underrated and brilliant)? I found it very sad too, but that might have been my mood/the general state of the world.
John Yorke - Into the Woods I feel like I need to “do” fiction (fuck all has happened in my life recently - THANK GOD - and I don't have the discipline for the kind of non-fiction where you have to ask people questions, brrrrr). The problem is, I don’t know how and I hoped this classic on the nuts and bolts of telling stories would help. I don’t really know if it did. It’s fascinating, though I became uncomfortably aware of all the classic films I haven't seen whilst reading it.
Sharon Bolton - Daisy in Chains Hmm. It’s not a twist if you can see it coming approx 4 chapters in. Which is a shame because she’s super-readable and I would still read anything she writes.
Deborah Levy - Hot Milk A mad, hot weird fever dream of a story about a woman and her hypochondriac mother on an expensive Hail Mary trip to a clinic in Spain. I loved it.
Jhumpa Lahiri - In Other Words Whoa, this is bizarre. Interesting, but bizarre. Lahiri’s obsession with Italian becomes so all-consuming she basically gives up on English entirely and moves her family to Rome. This book is a very cerebral, thoughtful account of it, but what I REALLY wanted to know was: “what did your family think about you making them all go and live in Rome to pursue some mad idea of Italianess???” I mean, it’s fascinating and weird, the Italian thing. She’s clear that she isn’t fluent enough to be a Beckett or a Nabokov, so why? What’s the attraction in confining yourself to a straitjacket of a language you haven’t wholly mastered? Odd. Thought-provoking.
Max Porter - Grief is the Thing With Feathers Do you wish to be reduced to a weeping mess by tiny, gorgeous fragments of funny, messy, tragedy? Please proceed. (It is wonderful. If you are strong enough, read it)
Rumer Godden - The Greengage Summer A blog reader recommended this recently - a temporarily parentless family of five children spend a summer in France in the 1920s - and I had never read it so I did. It’s gorgeously written and atmospheric, suffused with first-time France feelings. It’s also quite a gripping story and really quite odd too, isn’t it? Like, what the hell is wrong with their mother? How bad can an infected insect bite get? And isn’t the end really abrupt? I mean, I loved, it, I’m not complaining.
Amy Poehler - Yes Please Book club imposed read, which I would never have chosen. Very funny in parts but tone of relentlessly positive exhortation in others brought out my inner mardy arsehole.
Kate McQuale - What She Never Told Me Another book club read - ok mystery about Irish woman trying to unravel some secret family history after her mother’s death. Liked the characters but not a huge amount of mystery in the story.
Maggie O’Farrell - This Must Be The Place This book does not need me saying how great it was - it’s Maggie O’Farrell. It’s great. She’s a really involving writer, even when not much is perhaps happening in the narrative. You’ve probably all read it already anyway.
Paul Kalanthi - When Breath Becomes Air Would you like to weep some more after Grief is the Thing With Feathers? Proceed. It’s quite coolly, dispassionately told, this dreadful but uplifting memoir about Kalanthi, an absolutely brilliant neurosurgeon and writer finding out he was riddled with cancer and dying but it will get you at some point, sooner or later.
Jeffrey Toobin - The Run of His Life I got completely sucked into The People v OJ series and this was excellent, thoughtful fuel for my obsession even though I felt a bit tawdry reading it.
Nina Stibbe - Paradise Lodge I abased myself to a complete stranger to beg for a proof of this and I have no remorse whatsoever because it was totally worth it. I LOVED it. Loved loved loved loved. I don’t think anyone makes me laugh as much as Nina and this, which is set in an old people’s home in the 1970s and features the same Nina-based family as Man at the Helm, is JUST BRILLIANT, drily hilarious and wonderful. The list of euphemisms (provided by the narrator to a nursing sister from overseas) will continue to cheer me up at dark times for years to come. I might get it laminated.
Decca Aitkenhead - All At Sea This got mountains of publicity and serialisation and I wondered how much more there would be in it I hadn’t already seen, but oh, there is a lot and it’s a powerful, painful, raw read. So much admiration for her and wish her peace and every possible happiness.
Hilary Mantel - A Place of Greater Safety A reread, long overdue. I lived inside this book for a week and it has spoiled me for all other books for quite some time. You become so intimate with the characters that the inexorability of the way events grind towards the dénouement and the final betrayals and tragedies become completely real and personal and immediate. Mother of god, she’s brilliant, I had goosebumps for whole chapters. Oh Camille. Oh Georges.
Garth Greenwell - What Belongs To You This - young American in Bulgaria meets and becomes entangled with a young man he meets cruising in national library lavatory - has had absolute rave reviews. I did enjoy - it's very restrained and elegant in all its longing and desire and the dislocation of being in a strange place.
Tessa Hadley - Clever Girl I think Rachel Cooke - who I worship - recommended this. It’s a haunting domestic sort of story of a life not going the way the person living it expected. Gets under your skin.
Harlan Coben - Fool Me Once I have no idea why I downloaded this (well, I do - the synopsis sounded intriguing). It was Not For Me. Guns. Terse dialogue. Action. Little or nothing in the way of hinterland.
Elizabeth McKenzie - The Portable Veblen - I did not get on with this at all. Degree of whimsy, characters, squirrels… Nope.
James Rebanks - The Shepherd’s Life I read this in the Dales at lambing time which was the absolute perfect time and place. Manages to be both very plainly written and lyrical.
Olivia Laing - The Lonely City This memoir-meditation on loneliness, cities and the artists that document them has been rave reviewed everywhere and I totally agree. Very restrained and lovely.
Betsy Lerner - The Bridge Ladies A lovely gentle memoir of how Lerner’s distant relationship with her ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mother evolves slowly, cautiously, as she gets involved in her mother’s 50 year old bridge game, with a group of women in much the same stoic mould.
Alafair Burke - The Ex A tidy thriller about a woman defending her ex on a wholly out of character murder charge - or is it? Spotted the twist, but not until fairly late on.
Lucie Whitehouse - Keep You Close Hmm, interesting. Art world murdery thing. I thought I had worked it out very early on, then thought I must be wrong for various reasons, and then, quite shockingly it turned out it WAS what I thought. So I feel slightly manipulated, but in an enjoyable way. I did actually gasp.
Christina Hopkinson - The Weekend Wives Her previous novel The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs was a cracker (in a light/enjoyable vein), but this not so much.
Laura Barnett - The Versions of Us As per this post. I really enjoyed this, a love story run along three different Sliding Doors style scenarios. It's quite understated and gently paced and I liked seeing that long spooling out of lives over decades.
Janet Ellis - The Butcher’s Hook I listened to, rather than read this, which made all the sex and murder even more discombobulating because it was read by JANET ELLIS. BLUE PETER JANET ELLIS. TALKING ABOUT MASTURBATION AND BUTCHERY. Listen, it’s a dark, sexy, historical thriller and if Janet Ellis wasn’t part of your childhood, you’ll love it. If she was, well. You might struggle like I did.
Curtis Sittenfeld - Eligible Oh, I so, so enjoyed this, Sittenfield’s version of Pride and Prejudice. Funny, clever, unpretentious and a genuinely pleasurable read.
Ian McEwan - The Children Act (Book club choice). Of course he’s brilliant, but I found this quite cold and dry (I’m sure he would be devastated to hear that, crying into his millions in his Fitzroy Square mansion. His son used to go out with a girl who babysat our children, so I know all about its loveliness).
Nicholas Searle - The Good Liar Very, very clever and chilling.
Elly Griffiths - The Woman in Blue I love Elly Griffiths. This was marvellous, Walsingham, murder, Ruth Galloway, everything it should be.
Charlie Mortimer - Dear Lupin This is extremely funny, a father’s letters to his reprobate son, filled with tales of death, illness, maiming, heavy drinking and complaint. He sort of reminded me of my own father.
Sophie Hannah - The Narrow Bed Am I going off Sophie Hannah? Did I not give this sufficient attention? I dunno, but it didn’t grab me round the throat like her books used to at all. I feel like she’s moved into a slightly more comic, arch register that is less up my street.
Rachel Johnson - Fresh Hell Present from Mrs T. Utter nonsense, but enjoyable and perfect flu-ridden reading.
Jacky Fleming - The Trouble With Women This tiny book is the funniest thing I have read for an AGE, I laughed on nearly every page (eg. this one) and will be buying a stack of copies and handing them out to all the women I love.
Jean Lucey Pratt - A Notable Woman Every bookish female I know (and god knows, that’s a LOT) has adored this, Jean’s diaries from 1925 until her death in 1986. She’s a heavenly diarist - full of mad crushes, beautiful description, period detail (her granular daily account of the war is really fascinating) and occasional heartbreak. I found the cumulative effect quite melancholy - she has such high hopes for herself and they aren’t really realised in her lifetime - but it’s a true delight. My favourite bit:
“Rain again. I am an idle, vain, pea-brained, vacillating, silly wench and have eaten too much sweet cake.”
Alex Marwood - The Darkest Secret Marwood is the queen of the creepily compelling murder story and I read this - a sort of riff on the Madeleine McCann story - in one compulsive gulp on the plane home. I’m a horrendous flier and it wholly took my mind off my impending death.
Nancy Mitford - The Blessing My other plane read, a lovely comfort blanket of a book. Good podcast on it here.
Alan Bennett - The Uncommon Reader For book group. Daft, but entertaining fantasy about the Queen becoming a compulsive reader.
Laura Cumming - The Vanishing Man This is the most beautiful book, part meditation on Velazquez, part investigation of a 19th century bookseller who became obsessed with what he believed to be a Velazquez portrait of Charles I. It’s hard to write about art and LC does it so beautifully - she’s evocative and warm and humane and never dry, even delving into sales catalogues and prolonged law suits. Expect to be booking flights to Madrid within hours of finishing.
Samuel Bjork - I’m Travelling Alone Good solid Scandi-crime. Emma Beddington wonders, however, why every chapter must begin with the full name of a character.
Anthony Quinn - Freya Did you read the wonderful, wonderful Curtain Call last year when I instructed you to do so? This is a sort of follow-up, a generation on and it’s a wonderfully thoughtful, well-observed book about female friendship and the particular challenges of the post-war period, with characters that become entirely real to you.
James Rhodes - Instrumental A £1 Kindle impulse buy, was not sure what I would think, am still not, but there’s no doubt he can write. Very very raw, rough around the edges, but also very engaging and incredibly powerful on the effects of abuse but also about music - I always love musicians writing about the nuts and bolts of music and would have liked more of that.
Fiona Barton - The Widow “This year’s Girl on the Train,” they say (didn’t much like that though). Decently constructed, gripping, but I was always expecting another twist that didn’t come.
Everything I read in 2015