Monday, 18 January 2021

Guest review by Jon Appleton: SHUGGIE BAIN by Douglas Stewart


"This is a book full of heart ..."

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

‘She’d looked as happy as he could ever remember, and he was surprised how this hurt. It was all for the red-headed man. He had done what Shuggie had been unable to do.’

These devastating lines come halfway through Douglas Stewart’s debut novel, the deserved winner of the 2020 Booker Prize. ‘He’ is Agnes Bain’s youngest child, Hugh, known as Shuggie after his father.

The ‘red-headed man’ is Eugene, a self-interested, lonely widower who courts Shuggie’s mother Agnes and who is yet another person – specifically, a man – who ruins her. First there was her father, years earlier, who bitterly came to regret indulging his daughter, as do both her husbands. Yet Agnes’s beauty is compelling and irresistible; it also seems inviolable, enduring even when the demon drink impairs her capacity for everyday living, and in spite of the heckles and put-downs from the neighbourhood gossips on the bleak housing estate flanked on one side by the abandoned colliery and marshland on the other. In Thatcher’s 1980s Glasgow, Agnes is constantly condemned for daring to have pride in circumstances which are patently denigrating.

Shuggie, needing beauty himself, is fuelled by Agnes’s vitality. But it’s a thin fuel; one character observes of the boy at eight: ‘he had grown taller but he had also sunk somehow, like bread dough stretched much too thin. She could see he had slid deeper into himself and become more watchful and guarded. He was nearly eight now, and often he could seem so much older.’

Both Agnes and Shuggie accept the need to be normal in order to fit in but neither can manage it – mother and son form an unspoken pact to stay together even when everyone else abandons them. Agnes’s parents die, the husbands detach themselves (Agnes left her first husband but he soon stopped contact with his children; Shug Bain moves the family out of town and leaves them there), her elder children leave – first Catherine, who escapes to South Africa with her new husband, then finally Leek can endure no more and makes his own life in another part of town. But Shuggie remains. He would do anything for her.

Despite the title, Shuggie Bain is more Agnes’s story. Or perhaps there’s more to say of her because Shuggie, who is six at the beginning and in his mid-teens at the end, sees much but understands or concedes very little, remaining ‘watchful and guarded’. He keeps his precocity, and his sexuality, close to his chest, and is a quiet but potent presence in this story. In a strange way, the reader is protected from enduring an impossibly harrowing narrative.

Douglas Stuart writes with a light, lyrical touch that is not without humour. He includes a smattering of Glasgow dialect but there’s a power that transcends word choice and placement. This is a book full of heart. For all that the Scottish literary world is rightfully proud of Stuart’s achievement, he has spent most of his adult life in America and it felt like a sweeping American novel rather than a British one. Or perhaps it’s an ex-pat’s novel, addressing what’s been left behind but also carried with him.

I also think it’s like a prequel – the making of the man – because only at the very end, in the final paragraph, does Shuggie feel safe enough to outwardly display his real self. Shuggie Bain is apparently autobiographical, but it is fiction. I left it wondering where Shuggie is now, feeling hopeful.

Shuggie Bain is published by Picador.

See more reviews by Jon:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Carnivore by Jonathan Lyon

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Monday, 11 January 2021

Guest review by Jane Rogers: THE GREAT DERANGEMENT by Amitav Ghosh


"This is the best book I’ve found in a year of seeking out fiction and non-fiction about climate change."

Jane Rogers has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her new dystopia Body Tourists was published in November and is now available in paperback. For more information, see Jane's website. 

This is the best book I’ve found in a year of seeking out fiction and non-fiction about climate change. Quite apart from being beautifully written, it’s continually surprising and thought-provoking. Ghosh invokes the scientific, philosophical and spiritual traditions of the global East as well as the West, exploring ways of living in and understanding the world, which are far outside our colonising Anglo-American, Northern European, Protestant mindset. My thinking was repeatedly turned on its head.

And every idea he discusses emerges from a real-life incident. It may be an event from Ghosh’s own life, like being caught in a tornado in Delhi in 1978; or it may be historical, like the gloom of 1816, the ‘year without a summer,’ thanks to skies full of volcanic ash. The range of these illustrations reveals a staggering knowledge of history, geography and geology; this reader leaned something new on every page.

The book started life as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago, and it retains the lean essay structure, with each part pursuing a specific line of argument as to why humanity has failed to engage with the climate emergency. He calls that inability ‘the great derangement’. Why do we continue to live as if the earth’s resources are infinite? Why do we burn coal, drive petrol cars, take flights, drill for oil, heat our homes with gas and destroy trees across the world, from the Brazilian rainforest to the ancient English woodlands being felled for HS2? We know these activities will cause catastrophe for our grandchildren. What is wrong with us?

As a novelist, I was most challenged by part 1, ‘Stories’. Ghosh asks, ‘What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?’ He puts forward evidence for several explanations; I think the most radical is his suggestion that the nineteenth and twentieth century novel has closed down on communal experience and is simply interested in the narrowly ‘realistic’ day-to-day life of the individual. Since I write, and love to read, these kind of character-based novels, this felt like a serious put down. But his arguments make sense:

‘Before the birth of the modern novel, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. Narratives like those of The Arabian Nights, The Journey to the West, and The Decameron proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another.’  Myths, legends, epics, fables and chronicles are staples in the story-telling history of many – maybe all – human cultures. They range over vast expanses of time and space, where humans are challenged or helped by supernatural beings, intelligent animals, or the elements. Character is not central.

The modern literary novel reduces this scope to as little as one day in one place; silences the non-human; and charts ‘an individual moral adventure’. Ghosh sees nineteenth century ideas of progress, and rational control over the natural world, as feeding into this literary development. Natural disasters and sentient non-human forces have been banished to genre fiction, to Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror.

‘At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.’

I can’t help feeling he is right, though I would love to disprove him. It’s humbling to realise just how much one’s world view is determined by the time and place of one’s birth. But if he can lead readers to question themselves, then as a writer he is surely succeeding, beyond the wildest expectations of most of us. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your take on it.

The Great Derangement is published by University of Chicago Press

See also: Jane's review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Her account of adapting Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease for BBC Radio 4

Jane's latest novel, Body Tourists, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Lockdown Sunday extra: TOUCHING THE VOID by Joe Simpson, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"It seems that he relived the experience in vivid detail through his writing, capturing the extremes of terror and anguish but also of giddy exhilaration ..."

Linda Newbery has written many novels for young readers and one for adults, Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon (published in paperback as Missing Rose). Her Victorian Gothic young adult novel, Set in Stone, was children's category winner in the Costa Book Awards. She is currently working on a new novel and completing a non-fiction title which will be published this year. 

Just looking at that cover is enough to make my stomach lurch in fear. But, although my own experience is limited to walking to easy summits with at most a little rock-scrambling, I love the lure of mountains and am fascinated by the courage and single-mindedness, even fanaticism, of those who tackle forbidding heights.

I read Joe Simpson's account of his extraordinary near-death experience in the Peruvian Andes many years ago, and have seen the Kevin Macdonald film. This time I listened on Audible, and although obviously I knew the outcome - and so does everyone, as here's Joe Simpson writing about it - I was as gripped as on my first reading.

The facts of what happened on the slopes of Siula Grande are well known far beyond mountaineering circles. With climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe completes the ascent of the treacherous, previously unclimbed, 4,500-foot West Face of the mountain. Shortly after they begin to descend, Joe falls, fracturing his leg and driving his tibia through his knee. With conditions worsening, no fuel for their stove and no food left, they attempt to descend quickly to the glacier, Simon supporting his partner on a rope from above, but he inadvertently lowers Joe over a sheer drop. Knowing that both are in mortal danger, and slipping from a snow ledge himself, Simon cuts the rope, sending Joe to (as he presumes) his death.

Joe Simpson has always made it clear that he doesn't blame Yates; it seems to be climbers' ethos that anyone in that dreadful situation would do the same. But Joe, instead of falling to his death, plunges into a crevasse, landing on a snow bridge. Astonished at still being alive he finds himself in darkness and extreme cold, with frostbitten fingers, a fathomless drop beneath him, an excruciating injury, fading torch battery and no provisions … Yet against fearsome odds he slowly extricates himself, facing then a long, agonised crawl over glacier and boulder fields before reaching the relative safety of base camp. Even then - will he reach camp (itself the height of Mont Blanc, and two days' rough walking from the nearest village) before Simon and their waiting colleague Richard depart for Lima, as surely they will, with no reason to wait? It says much for the skill of the writing that even though Joe obviously does make it, tension remains high. 

Whether your knowledge of climbing paraphernalia and techniques is greater or less than mine, it's a mesmerising read. A large part of the appeal is that while describing his 25-year-old self in retrospect as "bold, ambitious, or even a little crazy ... too much testosterone and too little imagination," Joe Simpson is also frank about his feelings of weakness and despair. Though loth to let Simon see how scared he is at particularly dangerous moments of the ascent - his tough, capable persona must be maintained - to us he lets the mask slip. It seems that he relived the experience in vivid detail through his writing, capturing the extremes of terror and anguish but also of exhilaration. There is so much I could pick out, but I’ll just give these samples:

On reaching the summit: "I felt the usual anticlimax. What now? It was a vicious circle. If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it's not long before you're conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious - a bit more dangerous. I didn't like the thought of where it might be leading me ... the very nature of the game was controlling me, taking me towards a logical and frightening conclusion."

After the first fall: "We both knew the truth, it was very simple. I was injured and unlikely to survive. Simon could get down alone. While I waited on his actions, it felt as if I was holding something terrifyingly fragile and precious." Simon could, he realises, simply leave him there to die.

When he emerges from the crevasse and realises that his struggle is far from over: “I would probably die out there amid those boulders. The thought didn’t alarm me. It seemed reasonable, matter-of-fact … If I died, well, that wasn’t so surprising, but I wouldn’t have just waited for it to happen. The horror of dying no longer affected me as it had in the crevasse … In a peculiar way it was refreshing to be faced with simple choices … I had never been so entirely alone, and although this alarmed me it also gave me strength.”

In a new epilogue, following the making of the film, Joe wonders what course his life would have taken without his Siula Grande experience, concluding that he’d have looked for more and more extreme challenges and probably killed himself in the process, as many of his peers have. Instead, although he continued climbing, the international success of Touching the Void launched a career as writer and speaker.

I think I’ll continue my armchair mountaineering with another Joe Simpson memoir, This Game of Ghosts. Who else can’t resist mountain books? What do you recommend?

Touching the Void is published by Vintage.

The Audiobook is read by Daniel Weyman (Joe) and Andrew Wincott (Simon), with an introduction by Chris Bonington.

See also: Linda Newbery's review of a ghostly mountaineering novel, Michelle Paver's Thin Air.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Reading ahead - New Year anticipation, part 3

Here's the third and final part of our Reading Ahead feature, and again we take the chance to thank all our contributors for supplying us with great reviews and recommendations all year round. This last part includes a number of titles due for publication this year, so - whatever tier we're in - none of us will be short of tempting books to read. Several of the titles mentioned here will feature on the blog in the coming months. 

Happy New Year reading!

Paul Dowswell: I’ve enjoyed retreating into music non-fiction during the pandemic. It’s a perfect comfort read for an anxious time. Rock writer and music magazine creator, David Hepworth, has been churning out a book a year since 2016’s 1971 – Never a Dull Moment. It’s a particular pleasure to read his work because his brilliant but defunct monthly music magazine The Word is greatly missed. From its marvellous title and fabulous cover shot of the Rolling Stones dressed in drag onwards, Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There - How a Few Brits with Bad Teeth Rocked America promises a fascinating journey through an era (1960s to 80s) when British bands dominated American popular music. His previous books have shown that Hepworth excels in the quirky anecdote, and being a publishing entrepreneur as well as a music fan, he is always able to present a perceptive insight into the business side of ‘show business’. I’m snapping this up as soon as it comes out in paperback.

Pippa Goodhart:
I bought a book for my daughter Mary that I’m longing to read myself. It’s The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. Hadlow has taken middle Bennet daughter, Mary, from Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, and imagined what happened to her after Austen’s novel finishes. Mary is the plain and serious sister amongst lively beauties, and she fails to find a man to marry within P&P, but this novel promises to see her ‘grow into herself’, and, yes, find love. Perfect, I hope, for some escapism during cold Brexit January.

​Talking of ‘hope’, a treat I’m very much looking forward to in March is Hope Adams (a.k.a. Adèle Geras)’s novel set in 1841 on a ship bound for Australia with 180 women convicts on board. I know that the seed of this story was planted by a quilt in the V&A Quilt Exhibition from a few years ago that I saw. I love real history woven into rich story! Reading Dangerous Women, I look forward to jumping aboard that convict ship!

Michelle Lovric
: I read up to my thighs during lockdown 1: when I put them in a pile, that’s where the books reached. I wasn’t surprised to hear Bloomsbury are doing well: my literature consumption definitely increased with Covid. Books on my looking-forward-to list: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Dangerous Women by Hope Adams, a.k.a Adèle Geras of this parish; Casanoviana, including an account of 2019’s symposium – in a real room, with touchable international scholars – on the World’s Most Misunderstood Venetian. I discovered Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart recently, so now the rest of his oeuvre’s beside the bed. What else to do when you run out of Niall Williams and Sebastian Barry? (Hint, gentlemen!) For three wonderful years, I attended a poetry masterclass with Robert Vas Dias. Just arrived: his The Poetics of Still Life. For my own work, lately much taken up with puffins and millinery, I’m about to start Denise Dreher’s From the Neck Up.

Jane Rogers:
 This year I have been on the lookout for fiction about the Climate Emergency. Because it’s such a vital and overwhelming topic, I’m curious to see how other writers are dealing with it. And I should admit I’m hoping to write a climate novel myself.

In the interests of this research I’ve read Chris Beckett’s America City (recommended) and Jenny Offill’s Weather (well written, but doesn’t live up to the hype). I was delighted to hear a recent Open Book on Radio 4 devote a full programme to climate change fiction, or Cli-fi, as they are now calling it. It has become a sub-genre all of its own! Apparently there is lots in the pipe-line; I want to start with Carys Bray’s new novel, When the Lights Go Out, which is set in the near future, with floods outdoors and a collapsing marriage indoors. Carys writes beautifully - I loved her short story collection Sweet Home. And Diana McCaulay’s Daylight, Come, set in a fictional island closely resembling Jamaica, where she lives, in a future where the days are so hot everyone has to sleep in the day and work at night, sounds fascinating.

Adèle Geras
There’s much to look forward to in 2021, and these are the books I’m longing to read. First is Marika Cobbold’s On Hampstead Heath. I’m a big fan of this writer, and this will be published in April by Arcadia Books. It’s set in one of my favourite parts of London and concerns a journalist who invents a story, for the best possible reasons. Enticing.

Then there’s Caroline Lea’s The Metal Heart, which has a very striking cover. It’s a wartime love story set in a camp for Italian prisoners of war in Scotland. I suspect I will need tissues. Coming in April from Michael Joseph.

My last choice is Atomic Love, by US author Jennie Fields. (Michael Joseph) This is about a woman scientist working on the Manhattan project. I’ve read the first couple of pages and am drawn in already....

It’s going to be another good year for fiction.

Patricia Elliott
: I'm intrigued to read Stuart Turton's new second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, set on board a cursed ship sailing to Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, a dangerous voyage even without the murder and mayhem I'm promised. His first, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was an artful, twisty riff on a detective story, with a fiendishly complicated plot: a game he played with the reader. Turton is not a beautiful stylist but his writing is energetic and vivid, with startling similes. Also recently published, I think I shall enjoy Edward Parnell's Ghostland, in which the author goes on a cathartic journey after family tragedy, revisiting books and places in Britain's most haunted countryside. To reread? Among other books and inspired by the magnificent television adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, now finishing its second series, The Subtle Knife, my favourite of the trilogy, last read 25 years ago. Jon Appleton: Echoes of adored, established writers have lured me to some recent independent publishing.

Jon Appleton: 
Echoes of adored, established writers have lured me to some recent independent publishing.

The Continuity Girl by Patrick Kincaid (Unbound) promises ‘A lost movie. An elusive monster. One last chance…’ It’s billed as a novel for fans of Jonathan Coe (whose work I adore). There’s a fanatical fan and an old film retrieved and the stage is set for a glorious homage and reckoning with the world today. I can’t wait!

 Penelope Lively’s clashes of the mores of past and present (Treasures of Time, Judgement Day) remain reading highlights. (They’re funny, too.) I predict Simon Edge’s historical fiction will be equally beguiling. Anyone for Edmund (Lightning Books) pokes fun at Westminster culture and celebrates the cult of a medieval saint. I’ve also ordered his A Right Royal Face-off, which contrasts Gainsborough’s high art with celebrity TV.

Another indie publisher whose work impresses me is Louise Walters Books. I love novellas and The Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton evokes the brilliant film 45 Years. Louise has just released Helen Kitson’s Old Bones ­– I can’t resist a quarry-found corpse and the repressed secrets of spinsters. Could we have another Ruth Rendell in the making?

Sue Purkiss:
In the last few years, like many of us, I’ve become more and more concerned about our environment and what we’re doing to it. So in the New Year I shall look forward to reading more books about nature. One will be The Running Hare, by John Lewis-Stempel, which has been strongly recommended to me by my brother-in-law, who has a smallholding in Ireland. I’ve also heard good things about James Rebanks’ new book, English Pastoral: and I have my eye on Surfacing, by Kathleen Jamie, who writes about wild places with a poet’s perception, though this, like an earlier book, Sightlines, is prose. (Of the most elegant, spare and focused kind.)

I still have some excellent birthday books to look forward to as well – The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante, and The Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty.

Dara McAnulty's Diary of a Young Naturalist is reviewed here by Gill Lewis.

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is reviewed here by Adèle Geras.

We will feature a Question and Answer with Hope Adams (Adèle Geras) to mark the publication of Dangerous Women.

Monday, 28 December 2020

Reading ahead - New Year anticipation, part 2

Here's part two of what's ahead for some of our guest reviewers - whether it's a new publication, a return to an old favourite, or an author newly-discovered. What's on your reading pile or wishlist for the year to come? And it's our second chance to thank our wonderful contributors - this weekly blog wouldn't happen without them!

Daniel Hahn: 
2021 is the year that brings us a new David Grossman novel, which is always something to be grateful for. More than I Love My Life, translated by Jessica Cohen, comes out in August. I know very little about it, except that it’s by David Grossman and therefore will be clever and beautiful and generous and humane and surprising, which I reckon is a pretty good start. In the chidlren's/YA world, The Smell of Other People's Houses was one of my books of the year in 2016, and I couldn't be more excited that the next Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock book is on its way at last - Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town comes from Faber in April. We’ve also got Hilary McKay’s follow-up to The Skylarks’ War to look forward to – anybody who read that first book will share my excitement; we only have to wait till May to meet the next generation, in The Swallows’ Flight. But before any of these comes Sasha Dugdale’s translation of In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, due in February, a big and deliciously unusual-sounding multi-genre “exploration of cultural and personal memory”. Can’t wait. (Oh, and I’ve just started reading a proof of Chris Power’s debut novel A Lonely Man – coming in April – and I can already tell I’m going to love that, too.)

Rosemary Hayes
The reading pile never diminishes but Claire Tomlin’s biography of Charles Dickens and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light have both languished on it for too long and I really will read them next year. The captivating Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens has alerted me to the books she co-authored with Mark Owens about their time in Africa, Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant. I’ve not read any of John Lanchester’s books, so am looking forward to reading The Wall. A recent discovery is Lisa Jewell and I’m racing through several of her titles. Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter is on my list as is Kate Grenville’s latest, A Room Made of Leaves. Extinctions by Australian author Josephine Wilson is another and, also with Australian connections, there’s the intriguing sounding Dangerous Women by Hope Adams, aka Adele Geras. Can’t wait for that one!

Sophia Bennett: 
One of the family’s favourite all-time books is The Martian by Andy Weir. His new book, Project Hail Mary, is also set in space, and I expect to be on the edge of my seat. I’ve recently discovered Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, set in a small village in Canada. If you love contemporary, classic crime fiction, I recommend her. I’m also looking forward to Andrew Marr’s look at twentieth century Elizabethans, which has resonances with my own series about Queen Elizabeth II (as a detective). And I have my eye on The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, is about three women who meet at Bletchley Park. Finally, I’m looking forward very much to Dangerous Women, by a certain Hope Adams. I’m a sucker for anything to do with needlework, history and women in the judicial system. A book that combines all three will be a perfect read.

Savita Kalhan: 
Kololo Hill  by Neema Shah, to be published by Picador, February 2021, promises to be a compelling debut. It is set in the tumultuous time of Idi Amin’s eviction of Asians from Uganda in 1972. I know that Asians were given ninety days to leave the country with only what they could carry, leaving behind their homes, their businesses and belongings, and their money. But I have not read any stories set at that time. In Kololo Hill there are secrets, disappearances, turmoil, violence and fear before Asha and Pran, newly married, and Pran’s mother Jaya, manage to escape into an unknown future.

I read Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anapara when it came out in 2020, but already I know I must reread it in 2021. The story is told through the eyes of nine year old Jai, who, with his two best friends, investigates the disappearance of another friend from the slum they live in. It is a vivid and darkly realistic story, leavened by the humour, the naivety and optimism of the child detectives, and that makes this a very poignant read.

Linda Sargent: 
As usual the older I grow the greater the number of books I want to read grows too. So far, I have only one on my reading ahead list, but Christmas is coming and I live in hope. During this past year, as for many, poetry has become even more crucial in my life and from what I’ve heard and seen of Margaret Atwood’s latest collection, Dearly, it is high on my list. She manages that rare combination of wisdom, lyricism and simplicity – and, what’s more, reads her own work as if she’s addressing me personally and not some sacred congregation. Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell: how I’ve resisted buying this I don’t know and why it hasn’t been on more prize lists, well, I don’t know that either! Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights: I heard a couple of episodes on Radio 4 and knew it was one for the list. And, finally, Michael Rosen’s Book of Play is, I’m happy to report, sitting next to me on the to-read pile.

Ignaty Dyakov: 
Two books I can’t wait to receive for Christmas and New Year are Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I have discovered both authors only this November, having read Homo Sapiens, The Humans and How to Stop Time alongside each other. 

Despite obviously having been written independently of each other, together they have created a wonderful narrative about humankind, our past, and our impact on the Planet and fellow planetary residents, humanoid and otherwise.

Somehow, I feel that Homo Deus and The Midnight Library ought to be read side by side too and I treasure those – as yet only imaginary – moments of morning non-fiction reading and dark evening reads of a novel with modern jazz playing in the background.

Yvonne Coppard: 
In 2021 I will tackle the toppling stack of panic-bought titles from the first Lockdown, when I feared I might run out of good books. Lined up for the New Year are: Tidelands, Philippa Gregory, set in the English civil war. I know I’ll love it because, well, it’s Philippa Gregory, innit?

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware. ‘A passenger is missing. But was she ever on board at all?’ is a great tag. The author is new to me, but a Sunday Times bestseller seems a safe bet.

The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry, is one of my Lockdown projects. It’s a masterclass in poetry, complete with practical exercises. I made a start and promptly mislaid the book. It’s turned up now, and I’m looking forward to indulging a neglected love of poetry.

Gill Lewis: I’m really looking forward to Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell. Snow represents so much for many people across the world, and there is a palpable ecological grief at the loss of it in some regions due to climate change. And second in my TBR pile is What is Life? by Paul Nurse, where I hope to find some answers to this huge question.

Celia Rees: 
I’m looking forward to reading Mick Herron’s Slough House, due to be published February, 2021. I love spy novels and I love Mick Herron’s writing. I eagerly devoured books I - 6 and am eagerly anticipating the seventh in the Slough House series. I’m also thinking of re-reading the Master, John Le Carré.

I also like the Australian novelist Jane Harper, and notice that her next book, The Survivors, is to be published in February, 2021. I very much enjoyed The Dry and The Lost Man, so I’m looking forward to this one. 

The TV series of His Dark Materials has made me want to re-read the Philip Pullman novels, particularly The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I fear I read them too quickly the first time round! 

Julia Jarman:
 I will read everything Patrick Gale has written, and am currently enthralled by A Perfectly Good Man.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Reading ahead - New Year anticipation, part 1

Here's part one of our yearly thank you to all those guests whose contributions keep us going! In this first part of three, some of our reviewers tell us what they're looking forward to reading in 2021 - whether it's a new publication, a return to an old favourite, or an author newly-discovered. What's on your reading pile or wishlist for the year to come?

Graeme Fife:
In these darkening, dark, days of 2020, this stuttering conclusion to such a strange year, yet inspirited by the promise of a vaccine and by a zephyr of hope from across the Atlantic – a woman soon to be a heartbeat away from the American presidency, (wishing no harm to Biden) – I will be reading a new study of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, arranged in their probable chronological order of writing, by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. The approach promises new insight. Having come late to Jonathan Coe’s novels, there remains only one of his titles to read, Mr Wilder and Me, his latest novel based on the work of the great film director, Billy Wilder, revisiting Coe’s fascination with cinema, the tropes of movie comedy and the refractions of the celluloid world. And JB Priestley, The Good Companions, the big novel which launched him. Hurray.
Also I aim to watch again the utterly superb Babylon Berlin. Don’t miss it.

Jonty Driver: I look forward to Jonathan Smith's latest book, Being Betjeman(n), recently published by Galileo. Described as "part biography, part fiction and part self discovery", it includes enough of Betjeman's poems for one to want to add "part anthology". I've resisted the temptation to begin it at once, because I have at least five other books piled up next to my reading-armchair, all interesting, all not finished yet; but dipping into Jonathan Smith's new book I am once again impressed by his style, which is I guess so like the voice he used when he was a schoolmaster at Tonbridge: clever, funny, casual, sharp-witted. On the back cover are three recommendations: from Sir Anthony Seldon, no longer a Master or Vice Chancellor but a full-time writer; Dan Stevens, the actor, and Christopher Reid, poet and publisher. What fun to have those three ex-pupils as enthusiastic readers.

Amanda Craig: 
I am particularly looking forward to Francis Spufford's new novel Light Perpetual, to be published in February. It imagines that five children whose lives are destroyed in 1944 by a bomb continue to live in an infinitesimal alternative fraction of time - an intriguing idea, and one that, as a devotee of CS Lewis, I am hoping he will develop with the imaginative zeal he showed in his classic book The Child That Books Built.

I'm also looking forward to Liz Kessler's YA novel, When the World Was Ours, coming in January, about three children in Nazi Europe, inspired by her father's escape. She's a terrific writer who keeps pushing her imagination and her readers' sympathies to engage with difficult, dark yet uplifting subjects. I can't wait to see what she's done with this material.

I'm also planning to tackle Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments, about the first generation of black women in America after emancipation who refused to accept their degrading conditions and who became pioneers in pursuit of liberty. I was sold it by a passionate recommendation at Daunt's and it looks both intriguing and original.

Jean Ure: With the very recent death of my beloved husband I find that it is books which are my greatest solace and means of at least temporary escapism.   But they have to be a certain type of book.   Nothing to do with the here and now, which I feel would be too close to home for comfort.   Likewise nothing too distant – which immediately excludes an old friend such as Mary Renault – nor anything futuristic.  Nor anything too familiar – which excludes some of my all-time favourites such as Olivia Manning's two brilliant trilogies.    In the past I have often fallen back on Trollope, but for the moment he has lost his appeal.    Not quite sure why.    Maybe because for the most part he concentrates all his efforts on his characters, with not enough distractions to buoy me up in my present state.

By chance I have come upon an author I am scarcely acquainted with: Barry Unsworth.   I did read him once, long ago, but obviously at that time he made little impression.   Now he has come to my aid most wonderfully.   Tough, powerful, sufficiently removed from the present day - in-depth characters, much food for thought, plenty of distractions.

I started with Sacred Hunger, have now moved on to the sequel, and heaven be praised there are several more waiting for me.   Which doesn’t stop me from panicking in advance: where do I go next?    Any recommendations most gratefully received.

Cindy Jefferies: Among the teetering heaps of new fiction gasping for my attention next year, a more modest pile awaits me in 2021. These are some of the treats I have promised myself in between reading some more modern yarns. The Master, by Colm Toibin, his novel about Henry James. Roberto Calasso’s re-exploration of Greek mythology in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Finally, some of my grandfather’s bound copies of The Strand Magazine and the English Illustrated. These hold some of the writing thought best in1895, Mr A Conan Doyle amongst them. From fiction to cartoons, politics to the recollections of Sir John Everett Millais. They give a snapshot of English society during that year. Stories for children sit uneasily between notes from the Speaker’s Chair and an alarming drawing of a man being attacked by a pike. Cricket, railways, Balfour’s thoughts. Family entertainment in front of the fire on a Sunday afternoon over a hundred years ago.

Linda Newbery:
Bernardine Evaristo's Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other is near the top of my pile, plus a shortlisted title The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead,  and the latest winner Shuggie Bain. And I've got two climate change-related titles lined up: Jenny Offil's Weather, and The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric. So many wonderful things have been said about Piranesi that it sounds like a must-read - and I loved Maggie O' Farrell's Hamnet so much when I listened to it on Audible that I must read it in book form, too. Finally, the death of John Le Carre has made me realise how few of his novels I've read, so The Spy who came in from the Cold is next on my pile.

Gwen Grant: 
Poetry of the Committed Individual. Amongst the poets in Jon Silkin’s wonderful 1973 Stand anthology is the Israeli poet, Natan Zach, who died last month. His tiny poem ‘How is it that one star,’ about a star daring to shine on its own, is so beautiful that, unprepared for the savagery ribboned into his poem, ‘Against Parting,’ I found myself staring blindly at the page. Zach’s tailor once parted from his wife – Auschwitz, and from his three sisters – Buchenwald. Parted for ever.

Michèle Roberts is a writer who takes you into the very heart of her characters and their stories. So I am immensely looking forward to reading Negative Capability, an account of how she copes with the rejection of her latest novel.

More George! published by The Hallamshire Press in 1994 is the story of George Cunningham growing up in Sheffield. George is a fabulous amateur illustrator. His beguiling pictures and vivid accounts of his life are enchanting. ‘Get a Good Rise – Join the R.A.F. Pay 3/- to 18/- a day.’ Such a lovely book. 

Ann Turnbull: 
I'm planning to re-read some older books that have been sitting on my shelves for years and that I remember almost nothing about: 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively; 
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; 
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; 
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

Lesli Wilson
: In the New Year, I'm hoping to read the Booker shortlisted Burnt Sugar, by Avni Doshi, as it sounds interesting and deals with a difficult mother-daughter relationship; I had one of those myself.. I also want to read The Black Jacobins, by CLR James, which is about Toussaint L'Ouverture and the rebellion of enslaved people in San Domingo. I have on my shelves Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, which my sister-in-law recommended to me, and I intend to read that after Christmas. A long way into the New Year, I am very much looking forward to reading Katherine Langrish's From Spare Oom to War Drobe; Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self. I also intend to read the latest book in the uncomfortably exciting Babylon Berlin series by Volker Kutscher, Marlow. As yet, it's not available in English, but I shall read it in German.