Monday, 15 January 2018

Guest review by Nicola Morgan: A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. None of the former recently but she has been very busy writing non-fiction and speaking about adolescent brains, mental health and modern online life. Her most recent book is The Teenage Guide to Friends and next year sees publication of Positively Teenage and The Teenage Guide to Life Online. For more, see her website.

I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson and I’ve found her books getting better and better, even after the high standard set by Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She’s uncompromising, mind-blowingly inventive, writes whip-tight wry prose, is mistress of conjuring a whole character in a few clever brushstrokes and tells a cracking story. She’s also a very nice woman: I met her when the Society of Authors in Scotland had a research trip to a police station. We made it into her next book; I forget which one but if you come across a group of authors eating pink wafer biscuits in a police station, picture me there.

I don’t know what you call a book which is neither sequel nor prequel but runs alongside another book but let’s say that A God in Ruins is a paralleloquel to Life After Life, the extraordinary novel where Ursula is born and dies again and again and again and again, imagining very different results of a series of tiny events. (I had a similar idea in Wasted – I did it first but Atkinson obviously did it rather better!)

A God in Ruins focuses on the life of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother. Teddy was a bomber pilot in WW2 and I honestly don’t know how Atkinson was able to describe in such visceral detail the physicality of the cockpit. But this is mostly a book about what happens after war ends, the human ruins that it leaves. Or, crucially, that it might leave.

The back cover describes the book as “deliriously funny and emotionally devastating”. It’s certainly the latter but the former? I have a high laughter threshold, admittedly, but even I found my lips twisting with the humour, in the same paragraph as my heart was being ripped to pieces. Atkinson is searingly witty, that’s for sure.

For me, the emotional devastation comes mostly from the wrecked character of Viola, Teddy’s daughter. She behaves appallingly; she’s cold, snide, unpleasant to her children, unlikeable. “What kind of a mother doesn’t see her child for a decade?” she asks of herself. Late in the book she says, “Her excuse…was that she had been exiled from love after her mother died.” As Viola had been six when her mother died of cancer, this would have been entirely plausible if it weren’t that she hadn’t been likeable before her mother died. Much later, she wants to start again, although “there are no second chances”, and then she would “learn to love”. She does have a second chance and may or may not succeed in taking it. Actually, the extraordinary twist at the end gives her simultaneously another chance and yet no chance at all.

Viola has a better excuse for her damaged heart. She knows something about her mother’s appalling death – though not, crucially, the whole story. Neither Teddy nor Viola knows what the other knows, and that lack of knowledge is at the novel’s and Viola’s devastating core.

Not many books are “unputdownable” for me nowadays, with my easily-distracted mind, but this one was. The way Atkinson draws the reader in to a complex and cracking plot and then plays mind-games and emotional croquet is some kind of genius.

A God in Ruins is published by Transworld.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Guest review by Michelle Lovric: THE HISTORY OF CALIPH VATHEK by William Beckford. "Enough Gothic to give ten cathedrals indigestion...'

Michelle Lovric is a novelist for both adults and children, a biographer and a poet, with particular interests in Venice, art and the history of medicine. She has edited numerous anthologies of poetry and prose. Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, was chosen for the TV Book Club; her third, The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. She has served as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at both the Courtauld Institute of Art and Kings College Graduate School, and, with Lucy Coats, teaches a Guardian Masterclass on writing for children. She’s the co-writer of My Sister Milly, by Gemma Dowler. She divides her time between London and Venice.

I bring you The History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford, an eccentric personage who has a habit of haunting my own historical novels. I’m currently very interested in caliphs and gaiours. So was Beckford. And so was Byron, who acknowledged Vathek as his Bible. In fact, I suspect the poet of identifying with the self-indulgent eponymous hero. Other writers with debts to Vathek include H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.

The picture at the foot of this page shows my own treasured copy, printed in 1887. It comes with endpaper advertising for Schweitzer’s Cocoatina and Linen Collars, Cuffs and Shirts by Robinson & Cleaver, Belfast. Before reviewing, I checked that Vathek’s still available in various print editions and on Kindle. Appropriately, my edition lived for ten years in Venice, where Beckford himself suffered some misadventures and enjoyments. My book was recently repatriated to London. So I’ve been rereading it, and finding more of interest than I ever did before.

In today’s context, what do we make of Vathek’s plot, in which the protagonist’s willful rejection of Islam’s core values leads to unspeakable atrocity against the innocent and endless torment in Hell for the protagonist himself? Meanwhile, Vathek’s stark storyline is rigged out in enough Gothic ornament to give ten cathedrals indigestion.

Beckford claimed to have written the work (in French) in a single sleepless sitting of three days and two nights). The year: 1782. Beckford was twenty-two, a febrile individual reputed the richest in England, gripped by the prevailing fashion for Orientalism. The previous Christmas he’d collaborated with the set painter Philip James de Loutherbourg to produce a lavish orientalist entertainment. Vathek was inspired by that work. But the book also shows the influence of the new literary Gothic, as epitomised in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, with its relentless parade of bizarre and sustained fantasy, terror, direful secrets, abominations, decadence, corruption and sacrifice of the young, graveyards, bodies and the full catalogue of gloomy, soaring architecture, from towers to castles (on earth and in hell).

An English edition of Vathek appeared in 1786 as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript. Beckford’s name was not initially attached to it.

Beckford’s narrator adopts a mannered, arch story-telling voice that does not waver, no matter how many mutilations or excesses it describes. The story runs as a continuous narrative, like an all-night tale spun round a fire. Beckford does not attempt much interiority in his characters, preferring to describe their deeds and their effect on others, dwelling with a kind of distanced tongue-in-cheek pleasure on the dark, the ludicrous, the painful and the depraved.

Vathek is young when he becomes the ninth caliph of the Abassides, but his personality is already well formed. He’s greedy and sensual: with a ‘liquorish’ taste for ‘good dishes and young damsels’. He’s also clever, curious about science, particularly astronomy. He builds a tower with 11,000 steps for studying the stars. He creates five extravagant pleasure palaces, one for each of the senses. Vathek tolerates no disagreement. The fury in one of his eyes can – and does – kill. His eunuchs pinch his concubines until they bleed. His mother, Carathis, is one of the great psychopathic grotesques of all literature, a bloodthirsty grave-hungry woman riddled with evil, who facilitates her son’s every hellish act and desire. Her familiars are ‘fifty female negroes, mute and blind of the right eye’ who squint ‘in the most amiable manner from the only eye they had’. The laboratory of Carathis is filled with mummies, the oil of venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns and ‘a thousand other horrible rarities’, procured so that ‘she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers to which she had ever been passionately attached.’ Her camel goes by the name of Alboufaki and can infallibly scent a graveyard.

Curiosity leads Vathek to buy some sabres from an ugly man who purports to be a merchant from India. (He is, in fact a demonic Jinn). The sabres glow with unreadable words. Vathek’s feared evil eye fails to extract their secret from the merchant, who escapes. Scholars struggle interpret the sabres’ text. Eventually it becomes clear that the messages are unstable: the swords yield new words on each reading.

The Jinn, named ‘the Giaour’ (infidel/blasphemer), tempts Vathek to renounce Islam. If he does so, the Giaour promises to lead him to ‘the palace of the subterranean fire’ where Vathek shall become master of unimaginable treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans and the talismans that rule over the world.

It’s no great moral struggle for a spoilt voluptuary like Vathek to give up the Islamic tenets of prayer, fasting and charity. But the Giaour also requires Vathek to sacrifice fifty young boys. The Caliph tricks his nobles into sending him their adored offspring. Once they realize the fate of their children, the nobles revolt. Vathek is rescued only by his mother and his vizier. But the full blood-price is not yet paid. Next Carathis and her son use her armoury of venomous unguents to create an explosion of light at the top of the astronomy tower. Loyal subjects run up the 11,000 steps to save their caliph, only to be sacrificed to the Jinn.

Now there’s dangerous journey to be undertaken to Istakhar by the caliph and his opulent household. After attacks by wild animals, they’re invited to rest in the by mountain-dwelling holy dwarves who try to re-convert Vathek to Islam. The caliph is persuaded to stay by the local Emir, Fakreddin. Not least of the attractions of Islam is the Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar, whom Vathek is easily able to lure away from her effeminate ‘bauble’ of a fiancé with a promise of ‘the Carbuncle of Giamschid’.

Mohammed himself beholds Vathek’s excesses with exasperation. Mohammed receives a request from a good Genie. Can he try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation? Taking the form of a flute-playing shepherd, the Genie offers dire warning about Eblis, ruler of Hell. Vathek may be saved, the shepherd tells him, if he destroys his tower, casts his mother out of power, and becomes once more a continent, respectful Muslim. He refuses.

Vathek and Nouronihar arrive in the underworld. But they soon discover that the palace of flames offers not endless wealth and power but eternal torment. Even Carathis is unable to save them. All three begin to feel the pain of remorse. Their hearts begin to burn, literally, with eternal fire.

It is partly the terminology and its deployment that make this book so interesting. A ‘Caliph’ is the ‘Caliphate’s’ head of state. It can also be the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah, or international Islamic nation/borderless homeland. In this context, Vathek becomes a kind of Everyman. Jinn are also part of Islamic creation mythology, predating the invention of mankind. Allah conjured them out of ‘smokeless fire’. Eblis, or Iblis, is Islam’s first and foremost Jinn, expelled from Paradise for disobedience. In the Qur’an, he more often appears as ‘Shaytan’, similar not just in sound to the Christian and Hebrew ‘Satan’.

How to explain Vathek? I can detect faint threads of autobiography. There’s the feasting, for example. Beckford’s father, twice mayor of London, ‘gave very sumptuous dinners that made epochs in the life of feeding men’, according to the introduction to my 1887 edition, which also suggests, perhaps facetiously, that the hellish torment of perpetual fire in Vathek’s breast might have been inspired by the young Beckford witnessing or experiencing postprandial heartburn. The excesses of his father’s household, might also explain the number of exotic luxuries that sustain Beckford’s caliph – apricots for the Isle of Kirmith, muslin from ‘the Irak of Babylon’, chintz from Masulipatam, flagons of Shiraz wine, amber comfits, porcelain vases of snow.

The scant regard for human life? The deaths reckoned in tens and hundreds? The Beckford wealth derived from slave labour on the family’s Jamaican estates.

The loving descriptions of the delicious bodies of the fifty boys sacrificed? And of the beauty of Nouronihar’s effeminate fiancé? (‘When Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin he seemed to be feminine than even herself …’) Beckford had at least two passions for noble youths, one of which was outed in the British press.

The early ascent of Vathek to the throne? Beckford’s father died when he was just a boy, leaving him ancestral acres at Fonthill, Wiltshire, an income of £100,000 a year and a million in cash.

The Jinn (spirits of smokeless fire)? Beckford himself was described as ‘all air and fire’ by a family friend who uselessly advised his mother to keep the Arabian Nights out of his sight.

The Palaces of the Five Senses? In Fonthill Abbey, Beckford created a Gothic seat for himself and his extraordinary art collection. Beckford’s sense of the exquisite was perhaps the mostly finely honed and most indulged of all his senses. Hearing must have been important too. Beckford, who had been tutored by Mozart, composed music.

The 11,000 step tower? Fonthill’s soaring spire collapsed (in the dead of a winter night, of course). By that time Beckford had moved to Bath, where he built another great folly of a tower.

Vathek’s anti-pilgrimage can find parallel in Beckford’s own extensive Grand Tour, during which he managed some colourful scrapes.

The holy, righteous dwarves? Beckford employed a pair of dwarves, gorgeously garbed, to open the 40-feet-high Gothic doors at Fonthill.

Vathek’s a cautionary tale on the same cruelty scale as Struwwelpeter. But how do we properly account for a decadent young English aristocrat, a bisexual, becoming an apparent apologist for pious Islam?

That, I cannot piece together coherently.

I can only suggest that you take a look.

The History of Caleph Vathek is published by Pinnacle Press. 

Monday, 1 January 2018

Guest review by Jane Harris: THE WIFE by Meg Wolitzer

Jane’s best-selling debut, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen by Richard and Judy as one of 100 Books of the Decade. Her novel, Gillespie & I, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. Jane’s work is published in 20 territories. Sugar Money is her third novel.

This was probably the most enjoyable book I read last year. It was my first Wolitzer novel - but it certainly won’t be the last. 

The Wife is a provocative, satirical account of a marriage – more particularly, the flawed marriage between clever, diffident Joan Castleman and her narcissistic husband Joe, a successful writer. Joan helped Joe to become famous, sacrificing her own career for his. But there are secrets in this marriage. I was hooked from the first paragraph:

“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything right now? Here we were in first-class splendor, tentatively separated from anxiety; there was no turbulence and the sky was bright, and somewhere among us, possibly, sat an air marshal in dull traveler’s disguise, perhaps picking at a little dish of oily nuts or captivated by the zombie prose of the in-flight magazine. Drinks had already been served before take-off, and we were both frankly bombed, our mouths half-open, our heads tipped back. Women in uniform carried baskets up and down the aisles like a sexualized fleet of Red Riding Hoods.”

This opening encapsulates most of what I love about The Wife. Not just the powerful hook – she’s going to leave him – but the stunning prose; the wit and humour; the incisive observations of contemporary life.

Joan and Joe are flying to Helsinki, where Joe is to be awarded a prestigious literary prize. Over the course of the novel - while they are being feted in Finland in the run-up to the ceremony - Joan revisits their lives together. Back in the 50s, she was Joe’s creative-writing student; he was her (married) teacher. He left his first wife for her but it turns out that Joe is fundamentally insecure and self-absorbed, only interested in himself and his writing career. He neglected their children while they were growing up and Joan ended up devoting herself to him, losing her sense of self in the process. However, as we learn, Joan is entirely responsible for her own loss of identity.

There is a secret at the heart of this feminist parable which is revealed only towards the end. I won’t give anything away - although readers may guess the truth at some earlier stage, as I did. However, even if one does figure out what’s going on behind the scenes, this doesn’t really detract from the overall joy of this scintillating novel.

Writing this little review has made me hungry to read more of Wolitzer’s work, so I have just purchased The Ten Year Nap, her 2009 novel about stay-at-home mothers, which I’m now impatient to read. I do hope that this snapshot of The Wife will encourage readers of Writers Review to discover the brilliant Meg Wolitzer for themselves.

The Wife is published by Vintage. 

Monday, 25 December 2017

CHRISTMAS ROUND-UP Part 2: Books of the Year chosen by our contributors and ourselves

Happy Christmas! Here are plenty of recommendations to see you into the New Year, and another chance to thank our excellent contributors for making this blog so full and varied. Do tell us in the comments what you've most enjoyed this year.


I'd like to recommend Riverkeep by Martin Stewart. It's innovative,
evocative and thrilling, full of strange, interesting ideas and characters, a coming-of-age quest fantasy novel that kept me reading all night long.

Another recommendation would be To The Bright Edge of the World  by Eowin Ivey, also a river quest. The title has a double meaning - the story is set in Alaska, and is about exploration and photography, as well as about human endurance and love. Written in several voices as logs, letters and diary entries, it is completely involving.

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Thank God for young people! For many of us, light skinned enough to pass, and/or brought up in a time when we had to be grateful for everything and not shout too loud and also remember to work three times as hard as anyone else (you're not white, you're a woman x2) Eddo-Lodge's book is a breath of fresh air. Read it and understand better how structural racism impacts on all of us.

The Girls by Emma Cline is a not entirely perfect first novel, but a great read which I loved for that absolutely pitch-perfect portrayal of what being 14 feels like. On the edge of a world you don't understand but want to rush headlong into, without understanding anything. That intensity of feeling and that impatience to be someone else. It's so worth your time.


Keeping On Keeping On, the latest volume of Alan Bennett’s diaries and other prose. I find Bennett endlessly funny and moving. The book is enormous, but I read it in a couple of days, constantly struck by the perfection of the writing. In some ways The Art of Failing is my attempt to ‘do’ Alan Bennett.

Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, tells an impossibly sad, indeed tragic, story of family loss, in prose of restrained elegance.

It took me almost a year to finish Peter Frankopan’s magisterial The Silk Roads, but now my head is crammed with unforgettable facts, and I’ll never again think of Western Europe as being the centre of the world. To read the book is to look East, with wonder and admiration.


My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize, this is a powerful, authentic story about a boy desperate to reunite his broken family.

Cove by Cynan Jones (Catapult) is a minimalist story (just 100 pages) of an injured man adrift at sea. Lyrical, visceral and intense.


City of the Mind by Penelope Lively. Architect Matthew Holland is involved in the major reconstruction of the London Docklands. The blend of past and present his work evokes is reflected in his own emotional landscape as he journeys away from loss and loneliness towards a more hopeful future.I read this again for the umpteenth time this year and am still enchanted by the poetic quality of Penelope Lively’s writing and the seamless, circular nature of nature of Time that it evokes.


On holiday in Norfolk earlier this year I fell in love with the coastline and seascape, and came across a series of books that captures all that and also introduces you to a lovely band of friends. They’re by Elly Griffiths: the first is called At the Crossing Places and they are sort-of detective stories - but the people and place are far more important than the crimes. Wonderful.


Amanda Craig’s brilliant The Lie of the Land and Max Porter’s dazzling Grief Is the Thing with Feathers; then there's Lincoln in the Bardo, which I’ve just finished, but I fear that to define this novel for others might well be to corrupt the unusual experience of reading it.

The same goes for The Underground Railway (Colson Whitehead) one of my most admired books of this year and Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, one of my most admired books of any year.


The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross is a piece of crime fiction set on the Caribbean island of Camaho - a fictionalised version of Grenada. A beautifully-written, suspenseful tale.

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer, is a clever and witty novel about a woman who helps her writer husband build a successful career, while neglecting her own ambitions.


The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney. Wow! What a great winter novel! Frozen lakes, all kinds of snow, and a beautifully told story from several points of view. Moving, tense and with some very diverse characters drawn along the same, masterfully created plot. No wonder if was the 2006 Costa book of the year. Best read curled up in front of a warm fire with the wind howling outside and a glass of something delicious to hand.

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis is a delicious satire of surpassing invention, dotty literalism, dry comedy. Portis has the understated shifts of a cunning artist of deft insult. The effect of his comedy is like a slap on the pate with a fish slice, a gliding insertion of the narrow blade, a raised eyebrow before the incredulous sigh.

In her startling book Riot Days, Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot, writes of her brutal time in prison: ‘I would like to live my life in such a way that whatever I leave behind has something to do with freedom and truth and not with the emptiness that these words become as I speak them.’ Reading such a testament of courage and self-knowledge, of withering examination of the cruder instincts of humanity, oppressed by cold, hunger, a brutal regime, absurd regulation, makes me feel inadequate.

The Lost Words… I’m simply lost for words, superlatives, anyway. Outstanding book of this year, or any year. Beautiful and profound - everyone should experience it.

My other book would be The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz, which is a must for all fans of the Yorkshire siblings. From Emily’s writing desk to Branwell’s walking stick, Deborah Lutz manages to bring fresh, new perspectives to the much trammelled world of the Brontës by viewing their lives through their possessions.


Like Alan Hollinghurst's previous novel, The Stranger's Child, The Sparsholt Affair spans  several generations, from Oxford in the Blitz, through the London art world in the seventies and eighties, to the present. It teases us with the affair of the title, which occurs off-page and is never fully explained, though significant to several of the characters. There's an elegant sense of place, period detail and the nuances of behaviour, as you'd expect from Booker-winner Hollinghurst, and a pervading sense of the difficulty of knowing other people.

I also loved Dan Pearson's Natural Selection, (reviewed here on publication in May) - a bringing together of pieces he wrote for the Observer as its weekly garden columnist. Pearson is both an influential garden designer and an accomplished writer, sensitive to place, season, weather and shifts of light. Since hearing him speak at the Oxford Festival this spring I've been enjoying the Saturday treat of his weekly blog, Dig Delve.


Two books I'd like to find under the Christmas tree are -

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. Although I'm not a gardener, I love visiting gardens and also reading and writing about them. I've been a fan of Penelope Lively's work for both adults and children since the seventies, so this is a perfect book: a beautiful, velvet-to-the-touch hardback full of Lively's characteristic good sense and imagination.
Devil's Day by Andrew Michael Hurley. I loved Hurley's first novel, The Loney, and I think that this is even better. I've named this genre SOGGY RURAL NOIR and this is a prime example. No other book has made me more grateful for my suburban comforts! It has a touch of spookiness about it and is wonderfully involving throughout. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

CHRISTMAS ROUND-UP Part 1: contributors' books of the year

What have our guest reviewers most enjoyed this year? Here's the first of two round-up features. Unlike those you see in the broadsheets, ours include books published at any time, not just this year - so selections, over the two posts, range from Marcus Aurelius to Pussy Riot. Big thanks to our impressive line-up of guests (and we have plenty more to come) - WRITERS REVIEW couldn't happen without them. Come back next week for more recommendations!


Reading NW by Zadie Smith was like a masterclass in how to write voice. Four narrators tell an overlapping story of life and death in London, each one utterly distinct and completely convincing, brilliantly understood and observed. If I could write a book a tenth as good as this, I'd be satisfied forever.

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter was my favourite YA book of the year. Like NW it's an account of contemporary London life that feels authentic and real, there's a cast of diverse likeable characters and questions of ethics and family to engage head and heart. I read it once, and then went back to the beginning and read it all over again.


Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics) A harrowing but deeply moving tribute to the Russian women who fought in The Great Patriotic War. ‘Mama waited at the station for several days to see us transported,’ says Tatyana. ‘She saw us going to the train, gave me a pie and a dozen eggs, and fainted…’

Hayley Long’s The Nearest Faraway Place (Hot Key) Despite all the ‘celebrity’ novelist nonsense currently afflicting children’s publishing, it’s heartening to see a YA novel as heartfelt and beautifully written as this still being launched into the world.


Zana Fraillon's The Bone Sparrow: timely, powerful and heartbreaking, this story cuts deep. And in Subhi, the author has created an unforgettable narrator whose voice we must hear. An outstanding story that is rightly acclaimed.

Kit de Waal's My Name Is Leon  is moving, unflinchingly authentic and brilliant. It gives voice to the unheard British underclass, in a poignant story that lays bare the social inequalities of the 1980s. A superb debut novel.


I've chosen two fantastic crime metafictions: Anthony Horowitz's The Word is Murder is crime fiction with a difference, this bold and brilliant tour de force by a master storyteller takes big risks with literary conventions and reader expectations, and pulls it off triumphantly.

My second choice is Sulari Gentill's Crossing the Lines. Known for her popular Rowland Sinclair series of detective mysteries set in 1930's Sydney, Australian author Sulari Gentill has broken new ground with this novel, a haunting exploration, through the lens of a crime story, of creative process.


Pierre Gripari's anarchic and strange fairy tales included The Witch in the Broom Cupboard published by Pushkin Press. The children who lived in his street in Paris' Latin Quarter and hung around the same coffee bar helped him compile this book in the 1960s and it's only recently been translated. 

Also, the autobiographical essays by Bob Smith, Treehab, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, are harrowing and beautiful and hilarious. He talks about life with illness, having children, loving the natural world, and having hot dates in cold Alaska.

My novel of the year must be Rachel Joyce's life-affirming The Music Shop. It's got a lovely ensemble cast and goes in just the directions it bloody-mindedly wants to. Every book of hers I love - each one even more than the last.


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was given this as a beautiful little hardback (only 6” x 4” - Collector’s Library 2011, translated by A. S. L. Farquharson) last Christmas. I’ve been reading it in snippets ever since and have just finished. It’s extraordinary how fresh and modern the thoughts of this Roman emperor are today. Marcus Aurelius urges kindness and attention to duty. He puts you in your place in time and the cosmos, reflects on how brief all human life is and how pointless it is to worry about death, wealth or reputation, since the span of all our lives is infinitesimal.

The Kevin and Sadie stories, by Joan Lingard, were first published in the 1970s by Puffin. Across the Barricades and The Twelfth Day of July can be obtained second-hand or as e-books, and now Kevin and Sadie: the Story Continues is available (in print; no e-book). I came across the second book in this series of five and was instantly gripped by its story of life in Belfast during the Troubles. Then I got the first book on Kindle. Finally I tracked down a bind-up of the last three, and gobbled up the rest of the saga, which is about Kevin and Sadie’s time in England, where they get married, have a baby and struggle to keep a home. Wonderful, lovable, engaging characters from a first-rate storyteller. For readers of 11 or over.


The last poem in the late Helen Dunmore's Inside the Wave has the startling, moving image of Death as the mother welcoming her dying child. The collection is of spare, lyrical, eloquent poems set in the borderline between the living and the dead, for:

Who would have thought that pain
And weakness had such gifts
Hidden in their rough hearts?

I've found the smack-in-the-face titles of `psychological best-sellers' easy to confuse and the novels often disappointing, but was gripped by Sabine Durrant's Lie With Me. Creepy, deceitful Paul won me over and his ghastly `friends', the manipulative teenagers and the particular kind of Greek holiday resort were utterly convincing.

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman. A collection of thirty plus essays on storytelling, utterly compelling and should be essential reading for every aspiring artist. In the author’s words, “if something doesn’t help, it’ll hinder”: this helps – and inspires.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. Set in 1940s rural America, this is a story of the far-reaching damage wrought by war and its effects across the generations, with a wonderfully drawn young main protagonist. Full of compassion and completely gripping: I didn’t want it to end! I also highly recommend her second book, Beyond the Bright Sea.

So many authors are reinventing themselves under new guises. I’d hate for people to forget that William Brodrick is the author of a handful of brilliant P.D.Jamesian/Ellis Petersish novels about Brother Anselm (see The Discourtesy of Death), but I was delighted to meet his new incarnation as John Fairfax, who is writing about William Benson, an ex-con turned lawyer. Summary Justice (Abacus) is a brilliant, memorable crime novel - can’t wait for next year’s instalment.

A lot of people wouldn’t lament a lack of comedies about middle-aged male writers, but I’d be very sad to be without Less  by Andrew Sean Greer (Little Brown US). Approaching fifty, Arthur Less travels the world to avoid, mostly, himself. There are some wonderful comments on being mid-list in publishing and possibly in life, in this very human, humane novel. I hope it’s published in the UK very soon.


My top reads this year have been Human Acts by Han Kang (brutal student uprising of 1980 in South Korea), A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (humans wrecked by a combination of WW2 and being human - full review coming early next year), Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (more brutality - sorry - this time in the massacres of native Americans after the US Civil War) and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (who pulled off the incredible feat of making me feel brief sympathy for a deeply repellent white supremacist). Great plots, big emotions - just what I need.


I absolutely loved The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I always look forward to new work by her. She never disappoints!


Philip Pullman's Daemon Voices is an inspiring and engaging collection of his talks and articles dating from 1998 to the present day that all writers should read and, indeed, anyone interested in story and storytelling. It includes essays on the origin and creation of Pullman's own novels and much about the craft of writing itself.

Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, about the extraordinary, intertwined relationships in the Victorian era between a quiet telegrapher in the Home Office, a brilliant and mysterious Japanese clockwork maker and a young female physicist, with its mixture of history and fantasy and its deeper themes about human destination, is different and on the whole delightful. It could do with cutting and its charm almost tips over into whimsy at times, but I love its exuberant and inventive writing.


The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke, is an exciting, thought-provoking thriller; the black heroine/investigator works at a historic plantation house in Louisiana. The plot revolves as much round Caren's feelings about working at this place where her ancestors were slaves as about the issue of who's the murderer, though you do find that out, and the ending is perfect.

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens. What is disturbing about this book is how relevant it is to nowadays; financial instability, the gulf between rich and poor, and a corrupt government, embodied in the Circumlocution Office, which exists to shore up the status quo of privilege. Dickens may have been terrible at writing about women, but he's an amazing, surreal storyteller.

What have you most enjoyed this year? What would you like to recommend? Please leave your comments below.