Everything I Read in 2015
Marina Lewycka - The Lubetkin Legacy I sickeningly, shamelessly toadied and offered chocolates for a proof of this because I love her so so much and IT WAS WORTH EVERY REVOLTING ACT OF TOADYING. So so funny (I don't laugh out loud much but I did repeatedly) and also rather sad in parts. The serious parts are about the dismantling and selling off of idealistic and altruistic post-war wonders - affordable housing, the NHS - whilst the funny parts include the wonderful, grotesque Inna and her mad malapropisms (Any Cheese, Turkey Murder, Indunky Smit). There is also a fantastically horrible, hilarious funeral scene. If I could write something a tenth as funny as this I would die happy. BUY THIS BOOK. Out in May.
Helen Simpson - Cockfosters I want to say something like "deceptively simple" but it's horribly corny. I love Helen Simpson's voice - she really knows what people sound like and what makes them tick - and this collection, about ageing, really, is as deft and as humane and tender as ever. "Berlin" was my favourite.
Catherine Lacey - Nobody is Ever Missing Twitter rec. Basically, to summarise, a stream of consciousness narrative about a woman having a nervous breakdown and running away from her NYC home to New Zealand which could be absolutely awful and was not always an easy read, but but but some very beguiling writing.
Michael Wood - For Reasons Unknown Another Twitter rec (I was casting around for reading before we went away). Perfectly OK thriller - policewoman traumatised by investigation gone wrong nad personal tragedy investigates cold case which comes back to life. Guessed whodunnit, but that didn't ruin it.
Joseph Stark - If I Should Die A rare fail for the Twitter book recs, this one. I mean, it's ok (soldier traumatised and severely injured by past events becomes policeman and chases gang who are attacking homeless people), but it seemed to go on FOREVER.
Jonathan Coe - Number 11 Giant spiders, I'm a Celebrity, food banks, NICE... Contemporary life feels horrible, grotesque and ridiculous as rendered by Coe. He's such a clever writer whilst remaining utterly readable, but this wasn't my favourite by a mile.
Alyson Walsh - Style At Any Age Lovely Alyson writes That's Not My Age, which I read religiously in the hope of one day getting an ounce as much style as she has and she has written this equally lovely, no nonsense book on grown-up style. Beautiful illustrations, no vague bollocks, just good advice and excellent mini-interviews with marvellous women.
Lisa Owens - Not Working This is just so funny and clever and and full of perfectly observed tiny bits of brilliance. There's not much of a story - Claire Flannery gives up her job to find out what she REALLY wants to do with her life and then finds it's not actually that simple - and it's written in little episodic snippets, but it's so full of perfect, killingly funny dialogue and affection for its characters, it's just lovely. I'm not a laugher out loud, but I did, multiple times. Not out until April, but pre-order with extreme prejudice.
Julian Barnes - Keeping An Eye Open This is probably my favourite read of the year and nobody is horribly murdered in it. Imagine! Barnes knows so very much but he has the self-confidence not to just vomit all his knowledge onto the page so each of these essays on art - mainly French, mainly 19th and 20th century - is wonderfully, deliciously readable, witty, opinionated and completely evocative. I insist if you do buy this, that you don't succumb to Kindle - you NEED the pictures. You'll want to go off and look at all the other ones he mentions that aren't reproduced in there too. Just gorgeous. Good Christmas present too, since it's a very beautiful object.
Anja De Jager - A Cold Death in Amsterdam I really enjoyed this - does what it says on the tin, really, good and atmospheric on wintry Amsterdam, murder, boxes ticked.
Mrs Trefusis's draft novel Oh man, we are in for a treat when she finishes this. So so funny and elegant and razor sharp.
Laura Wilson - The Wrong Girl Contemporary mystery-slash-crime with a really interesting second setting at the height of British psychedelia in the 1970s. This is such a good context for a crime novel I'm surprised now I haven't seen it more - everyone is taking acid, attitudes are in flux, people are behaving appallingly in various ways and presenting it as counter-cultural or revolutionary...
Sloane Crosley - The Clasp I'm starting to think I might be reading in a bad mood at the moment. I sort of liked this (three drifting apart college friends set out on a slightly bonkers quest for a possibly non-existent necklace in France). The characters are very deftly drawn and it's confident and funny, but I started out feeling a bit chippy about it - like it was for younger, wittier, more urbane readers than I - and got intermittently irritated by some of the French parts and you know, it's a very decent novel and I am just in a shit mood. Someone else read it and tell me what they think. Back to some kind of gloomy Scandicrime for me, for now.
Jonathan Ames - Wake Up Sir! A demented and intermittently hilarious reinventing of Jeeves and Wooster in contemporary New Jersey and its environs. Highly recommended.
Claire Messud - The Woman Upstairs For book club. My friend F who reviews books for a living really disliked this, but with some reservations, I found it quite gripping. Nora, 37, single, elementary school teacher, frustrated artist, dutiful daughter, becomes infatuated with the family of one of her students. You wait for the disaster which never really quite comes and along the way it has some interesting things to say about not quite leading the life you expected for yourself.
Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink I listened to this as an audio book read by the man himself and if you are a fan I vehemently recommend you do the same, because he's the most blissful, funny reader, a gifted mimic and in every way wonderful. The book itself - which has a cavalier disregard for conventional chronography - is an interesting mix of classic rock 'n' roll memoir (I could have done with fewer chapters composed of him being part of some assembly of rock 'n' roll royalty for one show or another, though he tells these anecdotes with plenty of wit and self-deprecation), occasional forays into short story extracts that don't add much and some exquisite, touching and true writing about his own family history and particularly his father.
Carrie Brownstein - Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Sleater Kinney's guitarist Carrie Brownstein is a GOOD writer - this is not news since she's the co-creator of Portlandia - and there is some great material to get her teeth into in this memoir: teen angst, auditioning for band members, navigating riot grrl politics and the glamour-free bathos of touring. She's by turn laconically funny and surprisingly raw - there's a kind of earnestness about her telling of things that's a long way from Portlandia; a sense that music, growing up, falling in and out of love, is serious and real. I was quite interested too in the account of callings-out and spats and controversies in riot grrl, which resonates with the fretfulness and internecine anger of contemporary feminism.
Sophie Hannah - A Game for All the Family I absolutely adore Sophie Hannah as a rule. I fall completely for the way she sets up a seemingly impossible premise and weaves a gripping human drama around it, whilst leaving you still shouting "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE … " until it's miraculously resolved. This, however, left me completely cold. I just .. no. I couldn’t. Too arch.
Lauren Groff - Fates and Furies I still don't know what I think about this. It's the story of a marriage told in the first half from the perspective of the husband, Lotto (Lancelot), rich kid, narcissist, gifted playwright and in the second from the wife, Mathilde, a serene, largely silent and supporting figure in the first half. It's incredibly clever and accomplished in the way that the second half, Furies, both fills in gaps and utterly undermines the first narrative and it's absolutely a gripping read. Even so, it had me grinding my teeth with some of the stylistic twiddles and wordplay and I almost gave up at the start because it was annoying me so much. So .. persist? I think? Or not.
Vivian Gornick - Fierce Attachments This has been reissued by Daunt 28 years after it was first published and I read about it in piece on small press new releases and downloaded instantly (Rachel Cooke wrote about it a few weeks later in her lovely column on forgotten books). It's a portrait of a relationship between an impossible mother and a prickly daughter in Manhattan from the 1940s onwards and it's brutal and unflattering to both parties, and shot through with despair but also lovely in all manner of ways - about life in immigrant filled tenement blocks, about growing up and going to university and above all, it's wonderful, lyrical with a light touch, about the salvations and wonders of city life. Marvellous (but not exactly cheery).
Shirley Barrett - Rush Oh! The best book on Australian whaling before the First World War you may ever read. No, don't go, it's lovely: gentle, funny and wistful. The disastrous 1908 whaling season in one tiny New South Wales whaling station is related by Mary, the Davidson family's eldest and most put-upon daughter, at once sturdily sensible and suffused with adolescent longing. There are rogues, a tartly hilarious sister, a pod of naughty killer whales, murderous plovers, terrible meals and much more. Delightful. Look:
Michel Bussi - Un avion sans elle Holy mother of Pokemon, I want the hours I wasted reading this book back. Atrocious shite (published in En recently as "After the Crash". Unless the translator has transformed the whole fecking book, I counsel against).
Nancy Mitford - Love in a Cold Climate Just because. Still a cashmere blanket of loveliness.
Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread Gentle and compassionate about the myth-making at the heart of families and family history. Tyler has this really cosy reputation but I found this quite unsettling, actually.
Paula Daly - The Mistake I Made I'm getting very fond of Paula Daly's bald view of human nature and Lakeland settings. Protagonist here is a physio and the passages about the hidden mysteries and infirmities of human bodies are really great.
Mhairi McFarlane - You Had Me At Hello 99p Kindle special, witty, warm, light and absorbing, kept me going through another shitty mental health weekend. They're all shitty at the moment.
What does it mean when you hide from your own blog on your Reading page? I don't know. I'm quite confused by life at the moment. Books, though, those are fine. Thank goodness for books (books, Picard spanakopita, the chickens and Fake or Fortune). Especially books with MURDERS. August was (is) mainly murder month.
Susie Steiner - Missing, Presumed The lovely Sterling Books were offering proofs on their Facebook page and I was onto this one like a rat up a drainpipe having heard Nina Stibbe sing its praises. Well-connected, slighty flaky post-grad Edith Hind has gone missing, and from the scene in her flat, it looks like something bad has happened. This is a very, very good psychological thriller type thing set between Cambridgeshire and Hampstead, with an acutely observed pack of neurotic middle Englanders doing bad stuff whilst the totally believable, likeable DS Manon Bradshaw (who is having a realistically awful time internet dating - there's a really excellent subplot around this) tries to work out what is going on. I want her back for a sequel, sharpish.
Denise Mina - Blood, Salt, Water I'm not sure I followed every twist of this missing person drama set in cosy coastal Helenburgh in the run-up to the Scottish Referendum, but Mina writes like a dream, a bleak, bleak dream.
Sharon Bolton - Little Black Lies Bad happenings and dead children on the Falkland Islands. Whose account should you believe? Pleasingly dark.
Christopher Bollen - Orient An amiable young drifter comes to live in a postcard perfect Hamptons-esque coastal town, and people start dying. Pitched in the sort of literary thriller space, with a new community of monied artists and New Yorkers set against the born and bred locals, the pace here is languorously slow. It's not annoyingly so, and the atmosphere of the town is painstakingly built up until you really feel it take shape around you, but the ending felt a bit underpowered for such a lengthy build up.
Nicci French - Friday on my Mind Although I do actually love this well-written, gripping series, Frieda Klein remains one of the fictional characters with whom I would least like to spend a night in the pub. She'd make a good flat share though. Clean and unobtrusive, if somewhat silently judgey. Don't steal her skimmed milk. Don't expect her to watch Xtra Factor with you. Here she ends up on the run after a former lover is found dead. Very little fun ensues.
Ruth Ware - In a Dark, Dark Wood - Hen party noir (Frieda Klein would hate it). Fun, if predictable.
Tom Rachman - The Rise and Fall of Great Powers I initially struggled with this, perhaps because no one died, but persisted because my friend F who has excellent taste had loved it. Tooly runs a failing second-hand bookshop in the Welsh borders, but her life before that is a puzzle that is released in disjointed fragments, from Jakarta to New York, rootless and weird and the more you piece together of her story, the more you get drawn into it. Good review here.
Sarah Waters - Affinity A disgraced society medium and a damaged, grieving prison visitor oppressed by the constraints of her family are on a collision course and strangeness follows. Supernatural happenings? Or just the transformative power of an irresistible attraction?
Sinead Crowley - Are You Watching Me? I like Crowley's Dublin based domestic-ish thrillers and her heroine DS Claire Boyle. Visitors to a men's drop in centre in Dublin start dying. Meanwhile someone is taking an unhealthy interest in centre volunteer and recent social media hero Liz. Very decent.
Gavin Francis - Adventures in Human Being Essays touring the human body from head to foot. Very very good. Warning though: I don't consider myself particularly squeamish but some of the descriptions here are so visceral and evocative I felt a bit faint. Bleurgh, umbilical cord.
Tracey Thorn - Bedsit Disco Queen This gentle, funny, thoughtful memoir made me realise just how much EBTG were part of my adolescence: the lyrics between chapters were a whole Proustian wallow.
George Orwell - Down and Out in Paris and London I started rereading this in the hope of pithy book quotes or title ideas - a total washout - but it's still a great read (Paris more than London).
Bryony Gordon - The Wrong Knickers Ok, this isn't The Magic Mountain but I needed some light relief after A Little Life and this (Kindle summer sale bargain) hit the spot. Also, a fuck of a lot franker than my memoir, which is some kind of comfort.
Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life God, what to say about this 750 page monster, the tale of thirty-odd years of troubled friendship for four New Yorkers, one of whom is profoundly damaged both physically and mentally? It's an extraordinary piece of writing, raw and tender and immersive, but it will not be for everyone. If you can't deal with child abuse and graphic violence in your fiction, this is not a book for you. I loved it, inasmuch as you can love something that deeply upsets and troubles you. Approach with caution.
Louise Candlish - The Sudden Departure of the Frasers More Farrow and Ball intrigue, but of a not very noir nature. I found this very gripping until the last third when the mysteries unravel.
Walter Kirn - Blood Will Out Kirn's memoir of the strange episode in his life that starts with him driving a disabled dog across country to its new owner, Clark Rockefeller, a man who turns out not to be a Rockefeller at all, but a serial conman and murderer. Grimly fascinating - no one comes out of it particularly well.
Anthony Quinn - Curtain Call Oh I loved this SO MUCH. An elegant 1930s thriller that isn't really one, set in Soho and theatreland. Wonderful characters, wonderful evocation of the era. Would make a brilliant TV drama.
Brigid Keenan - Diplomatic Baggage Commenter Anna Maria told me to read this - the adventures of fashion editor and trailing diplomatic spouse Keenan from Nepal to Kazakhstan over twenty years - and she was totally right: it's delightful and funny and slightly wicked in a Mitford-esque way.
Anne Enright - The Green Road Oh Dan, Emmet, Anna, Constance, Rosaleen. No one does real people, awful, touching, true, people like Enright. The New Yorker didn't really believe in the NY bits, but it all worked for me.
Diana Holman-Hunt - My Grandmothers and I A Twitter book rec - I was saying I wanted something funny and delightful to read - and a joy, Twitter never fails me. This is DHH's account of being raised (vaguely) by her two grandmothers, the perpetually disapproving Grandmother Freeman who lives in oppressively conventional rural comfort and Grand, the batshit crazy widow of Holman-Hunt, the pre-Raphaelite painter, who lives in a demented London mausoleum of terrible food, beetles and priceless paintings.
Janet Malcom - The Journalist and the Murderer - Read on the back of This House of Grief (and Serial, actually), this is the true story of a journalist (Joe McGinnis) who is sued for the book he writes about convicted murderer Jeff MacDonald after months embedded in his defence team during his trial. So interesting and a little chilling on the relationship between anyone writing non-fiction and their subjects, but absolutely not a whodunnit in any way.
Cathy Retzenbrink - The Last Act of Love I saved this memoir until I had finished writing my own, then read in one mad gulp. The author's brother is knocked over by a car in his teens and ends up in a persistent vegetative state and this relates how the family cares for him for years, then ultimately applies for a court order to withdraw feeding and hydration to allow him to die. I thought this latter event would be where the book's centre of gravity lies - but actually it's a very small part of the narrative. It's far more about the process of grieving in these circumstances, how prolonged and deranging it was, how and when loss hits. It could be unbearable and it is terribly sad, but the writing is very restrained and clear-sighted and it's a story about love and families more than anything.
Helen Garner - This House of Grief Garner's account of the real life trial - and retrial - of Rob Farquharson, accused of driving his car into a dam and killing his three children is completely haunting, a careful, gripping attempt to untangle the unknowable.
Hannah Rothschild - The Improbability of Love Please, please please someone read this and then we can discuss. NOT IN A GOOD WAY. I have been emailing pages - esp from the chapters narrated BY A PAINTING - to people in amazement.
Honoré de Balzac - La Peau de Chagrin Doux petit bébé Jesus, j'ai struggled avec this reread.
Hugo Hamilton - The Speckled People Hamilton grew up in rural Ireland with a fanatical Irish nationalist father and a German mother. This is the story of that childhood, uneasily balanced between two worlds. Really beguiling on language and belonging, but also on his lovely mother's past in Nazi Germany and his father's disappointments for his nation.
Emile Zola - Pot Bouille One day I will no longer be writing a terrifyingly personal book about France and I will be able to stop reading Zola (other aspirations: buy new clothes, stop giving myself infected sores all over my face, leave the house). That day is not today. Anyway, Pot Bouille, a seedy Parisian Upstairs Downstairs, is quite funny in places, which cannot be said of many Zolas.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir - The Silence of the Sea More Icelandic trauma, Marie Celeste style.
Mhairi McFarlane - It's not me it's you Very funny modern romance.
Simone de Beauvoir - La Force de l'Age It took me an absolute age to finish this and I don't know if it's very long (I was reading on Kindle) or if I was reading slowly, but it's SO SO SO good and so gripping. This volume of de Beauvoir's memoirs runs from 1929 to 1945 and whilst it is dominated by the build up to war, war and occupation, it's also completely fascinating on France under the Popular Front and the 30s in general - state sponsored leisure, travel, politics. Life, love, friendship, the evolution of her philosophy, political engagement, loss.. It's all here. I'm moving onto La Force des Choses soon, after a brief scandi-crime break.
Kate Atkinson - A God in Ruins Beautiful, shiveringly well-written companion volume to wonderful Life After Life, focussing on Ursula's brother Teddy. Major cameo for Betty's, York and Quaker school meant I would have been hooked even if it hadn't been so brilliant. But it was.
Elly Griffiths - The Ghost Fields I find this series of archeology thrillers deeply, comfortingly satisfying. This wasn't my favourite (weirdly, my second WW2 bomber story of the holidays), but still enjoyed.
Polly Samson - The Kindness I can't really improve on the Guardian review of this intensely compelling family drama, since it says all the things I would - that it's brilliantly constructed for suspense and that she writes about the natural world in a way that is so sensually evocative you can feel the dew, trail your hand through the grass. Still thinking about it.
Renée Knight - Disclaimer The psychological thriller du moment. Clever and creepy but not entirely satisfying for me.
Camilla Läckberg - The Stonecutter/The Stranger - These are such a cosy, empty-headed scandicrime read I do enjoy, but I am indignant Erica has been sidelined by motherhood and does not do ANY detecting any more.
Georges Simenon - On ne tue pas les pauvres types/Maigret et l'Inspecteur Malgracieux I am having a Maigret season and it is delicious.
Oliver Harris - Deep Shelter What lies underneath North London. Cold War intrigue, dirty cops, left me deeply confused.
Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary I think this is my third time. The descriptions are so gorgeous (made me think of Tess this time round) but it's so fucking grim.
Tracey Thorn - Naked at the Albert Hall This is a quiet and thoughtful account of the mechanics and psychology and literature of singing. I liked the nuts and bolts bits best, when Thorn talks about her own experiences or talks to other singers about theirs.
Fred Vargas - Temps Glaciaires There is no joy like a new Vargas. Robespierre, a mysterious symbol, a "pierre tiède" in Iceland and a boar called Marc. Pure pleasure.
Colette McBeth - The Life I Left Behind That thing where you guess who did it after first third. Still enjoyable.
Muriel Barbery - L'élégance du hérisson Lovely but the ending is NOT APPROVED. Not approved at all.
Simone de Beauvoir - Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée A book-related reread after 25 years and nothing like I remembered.
Paula Hawkins - The Girl on the Train Ok
Peter Swanson - The Kind Worth Killing Twisty
Christobel Kent - The Crooked House WTF
(Plus some other domestic noir-ish stuff, but my Kindle has just died and I can't remember)
Meghan Daum - The Unspeakable Playing charades with Nicole Kidman, being a shit cook, Joni Mitchell, dogs.. There are some exceptional essays in this collection (Matricide, especially, excerpted here). Some less successful, but overall, thoroughly fascinating.
Christine Rochefort - Les Petits Enfants du Siècle For book purposes because we read this in Quaker school except now I think we can't have read ALL of it, because it's mainly about the sexual awakening of a 12 year old and it is full of eg. oral sex, predatory old men, etc. Not at all what I remembererd.
Sarah Moss - Bodies of Light Late Victorian social reform, the arts and crafts movement, 19th century medicine and feminism and one memorably, shockingly horrible character. Excellent.
Michael Harding - Staring at Lakes The first book in an age I nearly didn't finish (memoir of depression/misery/dabblings in buddhism). Slogged through. Wished I hadn't.
Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days - I took a while to get into this semi-autobiographical story of witnessing the fall of Ceausescu (too much mindless crime in my recent reading and it's not immediately engaging, with its anonymous narrator and laconic start), but by the end it had me completely gripped.
Graeme Simsion - The Rosie Effect Very silly fun, though diminishing returns on the first, which I loved.
Olivia Glazebrook - Never Mind Miss Fox - I picked this up on the recommendation of @SulaDoyle (magnificent tweeter) and it's great, a deliciously written story of family secrets and bad behaviour, full of wit and humanity.
Camilla Läckberg - The Ice Queen/The Preacher - It's Nordic crime time of year. These are deceptively jolly.. SOMETIMES.
Everything I read in 2014