Monday, 20 July 2020

FOURTH ANNIVERSARY round-up: our Books of the Year (so far), by Adèle Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery


Now we are four! That's four years' worth of great reviews and recommendations, all by authors or independent booksellers. Huge thanks to all those who contribute - we couldn't do it without you. Here Adele Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery choose their favourite reads of the year so far (not necessarily newly-published).  

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All three of us could have chosen The Mirror and the Light, but Adèle bagged it first ...
Adèle: The timing of this novel's publication was fortunate. It came out in March, just before lockdown and it's been keeping thousands of readers happy for a very long time. I thought I was going to race through it, because I'd loved both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but it took me weeks because I was so bound up in following the pandemic as it unrolled that I only read it at night, in short sessions. Everything you've read about it is true: it's a wonderfully exciting story written in the most dazzling prose by a writer at the height of her powers. The word that kept coming into my mind was 'richness.'  There's an abundance of everything and I do think it ought to have been shorter, but overall it's a marvel. I compare it to Christmas pudding, which is one of my favourite desserts. I adore it, especially with brandy butter, but can only ever eat one helping at a time. It's very rich, just like this book.

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Linda: The Garden of Vegan, by top garden designer Cleve West, could have been written specially for me. Increasingly, alongside his high-profile design career, Cleve puts his energies into campaigning for animals. His book covers so much of importance: green gardening, animal welfare, sustainability, veganism, simple appreciation of wildlife and our environment. I hope it'll find its way into the RHS shops and be recommended in gardening magazines.


Diary of a Young Naturalist  by Dara McAnulty is another delight. Dara is an autistic teenager from Northern Ireland whose blogging about wildlife and the threats it faces has attracted support from Chris Packham and Robert Macfarlane. He records his fifteenth year in close and eloquent observations of the natural world in which he finds both intense joy and escape from his social difficulties, which include being badly bullied at school. A wildlife presenter and campaigner for the future? “This churning in me, it’s got to go somewhere."

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Adèle:  Magpie Lane has been one of the Books of the Lockdown and I take some of the credit for its success because I've been Tweeting about it like mad, and retweeting every word of praise of it I find. I raced through it, (yes...it's a frying onions book...one you hold in one hand as you cook!) and have subsequently read Lucy Atkins' previous novel, The Night Visitor, which is also very good indeed. I was attracted to Magpie Lane because it's set in Oxford in the house of a Master of a College and it involves elements of the Gothic and a narrator who may or may not be unreliable but is certainly spellbinding. It's also a love story and a mystery. I adored it and can't wait to read Atkins' next novel.

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Celia: I have to confess to not having read much during lockdown. A lot of my reading was taken up by The Mirror and The Light which Adèle snaffled. Pre-Covid, most of my reading time was spent gobbling up Mick Herron's Slough House Series. Mick Herron makes John Le Carré's spies and spymasters look like James Bond and Q.  The novels have their own argot with Suits and Stoats, Dogs and Achievers and the eponymous Slow Horses who are are stabled at Slough House in a grimy, grungy area of London far from their Secret Services' HQ in Regent's Park. They are a bunch of cock up merchants and misfits with drug, alcohol and anger issues, working under the jaundiced eye of Jackson Lamb who supervises them toiling over a never ending stream of totally pointless tasks that have been set in the hope that they will give up, resign and therefore not qualify for redundancy. They are there because they do not follow orders and in each book it is this that saves the day. 

Through the series, Mick Herron explores and uncovers the devious, back stabbing duplicity, chicanery, cover-ups and mendacious ruthlessness of modern British political life. From a boy hunted because of something he should not have seen involving a  Royal, to Brexit and the underhand doings of a ruthless senior politician who hides his true nature behind blustering, boyish bonhomie, this is the nearest thing we have to a satire of our times. The books are constantly unsettling: achingly funny scenes become shockingly violent and visa versa. There are many reversals of fortune for the Slow Horses and Mick Herron is as casually violent with his characters as they are as spies. There is also a reverse morality. Jackson Lamb who appears to have no moral sense is true to his Joes - his agents. Those above them are exposed as having no moral compass at all. I must confess to feeling rather bereft when I finished Joe Country, which I thought was the last in the series but a quick look on Amazon shows me he's published another one, Slough House. I missed that in all this Covid business  - I'm off to order it now.

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Linda: The Golden Rule, Amanda Craig's new novel, kept me hooked with its twistiness, its likeable, brave central character, Hannah, and its mainly Cornish setting. Gothic overtones of Jane Eyre and Beauty and the Beast combine with a plot that owes something to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. As always, Amanda Craig is sharp on details of rural poverty and class inequality. Equally gripping was Celia Rees' impressive first adult novel, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook - more next week, in a special Q&A with Celia to mark publication.

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Adèle:  This is not the done thing at all: reviewing a book by a friend of yours, but I've done it for years and I will defend my right to put before readers books that I enjoy, whether I happen to know the writer or not. Mostly, the same few books get into everyone's hands so when I can recommend a book I know many, many people will love, I do so whether I know the writer or not. The Secrets Between Us, by Judith Lennox, shares with Judith's other novels a wonderful sense of time and place and a story about relationships which all of us can understand and appreciate. She's also very good at houses and clothes and details of every kind, which I really appreciate. In this book, a woman discovers after his death that her husband had a second, entirely other family....I'm not saying any more than that, for fear of spoilers. It's set in and around the Second World War and that adds to the drama. There's love and anguish and disappointment and triumph. I think it's terrific.

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Linda: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, had been on my wish list for ages, since I kept seeing it recommended on various people's life lists. Lockdown was the perfect time to read it - or rather listen to the audio version, read by David Horovitch (translated by Archibald.Colquhoun). Set in 1860s Sicily, it's the story of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio, in his mid-40s and presiding over his family and wealthy estate. The rise of Garibaldi and the move towards unification threaten the luxurious way of life he's loth to change, yet he sees potential to adapt in his young soldier nephew, Tancredi. In some ways Don Fabrizio isn't an admirable character, but his reflections, self-justifications and thoughts of the future, together with sumptuous descriptions of palaces, social gatherings and the sweltering summer landscape, make for a compelling read.

Finally, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. Until I started it I'd have thought that Hilary Mantel had the Women's Prize in the bag for The Mirror and the Light, but this must surely be an equally serious contender (and I should add that there are three shortlisted titles I haven't yet read). It's a sensuous, intense imagining of the life of Shakespeare's wife, Agnes - relating her first meeting with the man only ever referred to as 'the tutor', 'the son', 'the husband', and the death of their son, Hamnet, at the age of eleven. Rich with detail of domestic life and with searing insight into love, death and grief, this is a joy from the start to its perfectly-pitched ending.

What are your best reads of the year so far? Please tell us in the comments!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, reviewed by Celia Rees

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, reviewed by Anne Cassidy



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