Monday, 27 January 2020

Guest feature: Q&A with Cynthia Jefferies on THE HONOURABLE LIFE OF THOMAS CHAYNE


'One of a novelist’s jobs is to reflect society and provoke thought. I hope I can do that, while also striving to entertain.'

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, Cynthia Jefferies' first novel for adults, was published in 2018 and is reviewed here. Her follow-up, The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, is linked, developing a minor character from the first book. It has recently been published in hardback.

Writers Review: This novel is linked to your first, The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, though it pre-dates it. Was the idea for this story already taking shape in your mind as you finished the earlier one?

Cynthia Jefferies: I knew I would have liked to find out more about Ptolemy when I put him in the first book, because he only had a small role. Any more might have unbalanced the novel but he intrigued me. I had mentioned in The Outrageous Fortune  that he had never been able to settle after his experiences during the English Civil War. Why? What had it been like to live through that violent time? When it came to choosing a theme for the second book he was an obvious candidate, though I have Celia Rees to thank for the suggestion to base the second novel on a minor character.

WR:  Many writers find it difficult to strike the balance between authentic historical background and the demands of fiction. You evidently drew on many sources for information of the period - were there times when you felt overwhelmed by your research, or on the other hand did you find that it boosted your confidence?

CJ: It certainly boosted my confidence to have an idea of the realities of the period. On the other hand I was writing fiction, and that means leaving a lot out. I love the research, but believe strongly that too much detail can quickly make a good story collapse under the weight of facts. That’s not to say that I wanted to write an alternative history. I have been as accurate as I could, while not dwelling too much on the minutia. Likewise with the language. Little things like an enemy being pistoled instead of shot give a feeling of being in the period while not forcing the reader to wade through too much that is unfamiliar. Readers might learn things reading my fiction. I hope they do, but it’s not my job to educate. My job is to entertain, and also to offer something to think about.

WR: Was it always your intention to depict a son loyal to the King while the father sides with the Parliamentarians - did you ever consider having it the other way round?

CJ: I did think about it being the other way around but my interest in the storming of Cirencester led me to write it the way I did. Cirencester was an economically depressed wool town with plenty of reason to support parliament, although many surrounding landowners supported the king. I wanted to put Ptolemy in the position of having to attack a town and inhabitants he knew well. I wanted him, and the reader to be confronted with that terrible situation, so common in civil wars. However, I didn’t set out to make his father change sides. That came about through reading about the period and the way his father’s character developed.

WR: You've drawn extensively on the Civil War history of Gloucestershire, where you live. In your research, did you come across any chance finds or locations that became important in the story? And did you visit all the settings, e.g. Flint Castle?

CJ: I have some very useful street maps, and a facsimile of a map of the UK in the 17th Century. I find maps essential! In fact Flint Castle was a gem of a find when I was searching for somewhere in the north for Ptolemy and Richard to go. I drove up there with my eldest son and we spent a very rainy few days, looking at the ruins of Flint and other places mentioned nearby. The river doesn’t come to the walls any more, but you can see quite clearly how it did. I also stayed in Bristol overnight and spent two days walking about the streets. Being a flaneur (is there a feminine for that word?) is vital for me when researching a novel, so yes, I have visited everywhere. Living on the west coast of Scotland for a few years informed those locations. I have been to Oxford many times, and Norfolk too.

WR:  "When war comes in, morality becomes a poor relation." Why did you choose the title The Honourable Life ...  and do you want readers to question that during the course of the novel?

CJ: Actually the word 'honourable' was suggested by the publisher to complement 'outrageous' in the title of the first novel. I do though want readers to think about honour and morality within the story. Aphra makes Ptolemy think a little about slavery and women, but his is a 17th Century morality and he can’t see through our eyes. In addition, he does not have a naturally rebellious nature. He does like to think he is very honourable but he can also be naive.

WR: You seem to feel quite at home with 17th Century weaponry, battle strategies, domestic life, medicine and seafaring. Was any of this particularly daunting to write about?

CJ: Well I hope I did a reasonable job. It wasn’t usually daunting but occasionally I wanted to know something very specific and it could be tricky finding the information. Facts about doors on board ships of the time for instance. In the end I fudged that one, having found a sliding door on an earlier vessel, which gave me enough to work with. Fortunately, with fiction it’s usually possible to swerve around something one isn’t sure about, although I far prefer to know the truth.

WR:  The novel covers a vast span of time - from Thomas's birth to his fifties. How did you avoid any sense of hustling the reader forward?

CJ: Perhaps because I was so enjoying making the journey with him! I really don’t know, but am very glad you think it didn’t feel rushed. Writing in the first person has immediacy. It feels to me like having a conversation with the character. During a normal conversation we tend to leave out great swathes of ordinary life in order to describe the more interesting bits. I think what Ptolemy did while telling his story was to refer to the boring bits obliquely. For instance, his years in Bristol, building his career are mentioned a little in his letters to Aphra and as a backdrop to his visits home, but little is revealed of the day to day work, or of any specific friends he made. The years drift by, as they do in real life.

WR: So far you've chosen male perspectives as your viewpoint character. Did it just happen like this, or was it a deliberate choice?

CJ: I’ve been asked this many times and I’m still not sure of the answer! I think it’s too simplistic to say that men get all the best stories, and women are largely written out of history. Of course that is true, but I have no problem imagining strong female characters, or persuasive plots for them. For some reason I don’t understand, boys and men have always been my go-to main characters of choice, in spite of needing to write girls in much of my modern fiction for children. I know that I naturally write more comfortably as a man, although I’ve never been one! Sometimes I wonder if there’s something linking the male side of my brain with creating stories? Is that even possible? I have no idea. All I know is that whenever I start a story, I write a male character and have to deliberately bring in women as the plot develops. Whether my male characters are believable or not is a question I can’t answer!

WR:  What next - will you stay in the 17th Century, or are there other periods you're keen to explore?

CJ: To some extent that depends on what a publisher wants. There is more I want to say about the 17th Century, and oddly, considering my last answer, I have a woman’s story firmly in my head!

Apart from the 17th Century, which I find so interesting because it seems to be balanced on the cusp between medieval and modern history, I have also always been fascinated by ancient history. The Bronze Age Trojan war found Stone Age sling shot warriors acting as mercenaries. What did they think when they left their island and arrived at Troy with all the metal weapons there?

How new technology informs a community is so interesting. Man’s ingenuity has always been impressive. It’s one of the things that gives me any hope about our climate emergency. We have been lazy for many generations, plundering the wealth of our world because it was easy. Now we are having to think again. I look at the sudden explosion of manufactured vegan food on offer, the race towards cleanly produced electricity for transport because the demand is there. Inventors are excited about the need to be different. Meanwhile we can be taught and encouraged to be frugal, and to find pleasure in it. One of a novelist’s jobs is to reflect society and provoke thought. I hope I can do that, while also striving to entertain.

Thank you, Cynthia Jefferies, for answering our questions.

The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne is published in hardback by Allison & Busby.



Monday, 20 January 2020

BODY TOURISTS by Jane Rogers, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"A clever, bold and entertaining novel with serious undercurrents concerning medical ethics, class privilege, deprivation and manipulation."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. She has published widely for readers of various ages and is currently completing a new adult novel.

Once a technological breakthrough has been made, it can be used for good or for evil, responsibly or recklessly: the basis of many a science-fiction novel, from Frankenstein onwards. This premise finds topical relevance in Jane Rogers' bold and inventive new novel, set in 2045.

The story's frame is the perspective of Gudrun, apparently over 100 years old, and focuses on the work of her highly intelligent nephew, Luke, who's developed a pioneering technique for inserting the cryogenically frozen minds and memories of dead people into healthy young bodies. Luke is autistic, leading to morally dubious actions and consequences when his theory is secretively put into practice.

Rogers uses a range of distinctive voices to show the effects of body tourism on both clients and hosts. Imagine the temptation, for a a financially struggling young person, of being offered £10,000 simply to drop out of consciousness for a fortnight while someone else inhabits your body! In this near-future setting, society is sharply divided into haves and have-nots. The latter, living in bleak urban estates (named Thatcher, Major, Cameron, etc) have minimal exposure to the natural world and little hope of improving their situation. Tended by the 'bots' which have reduced their employment potential, many find solace in addictive Virtual Reality. Although accepting Luke's offer entails taking a vow of secrecy, there's no shortage of applicants.

Dance teacher Paula has benefited from an extra injection of cash to ensure her silence when her boyfriend failed to return from hosting, his body having been taken over by an elderly woman who so relished the novelties of youth, lust and masculinity that she knowingly exposed her temporary new self to danger and death. Compromised by the scraps of knowledge she has, Paula recruits new volunteers, telling herself that the financial benefits outweigh the risks. But there's humour, too, when Richard K, a former rock star now in his sixties and with a much younger wife, brings back his father but finds himself escorting someone unrecognisable: a young black hunk, irresistible to desirous females. You can probably see where this is going ...

Morally grey areas are balanced by the poignant tale of middle aged lovers Elsa and Lindy. When Lindy is wrongly suspected of child abuse, Elsa's support is eroded by doubt: "There's no smoke without fire," she tells Lindy, who dies without knowing that Elsa is grief-stricken at her shameful failure of loyalty. 'Hosting' could offer the chance of reunion and forgiveness.

But it's not hard to see how body tourism will be exploited at the expense of an underprivileged underclass as it inevitably expands - depriving them even of sole possession of their own bodies. Body Tourists  is a clever, bold and entertaining novel with serious undercurrents concerning medical ethics, class privilege, deprivation and manipulation. Again, Jane Rogers proves herself as a versatile and supremely accomplished novelist -  her backlist, which includes Mr Wroe's Virgins and The Testament of Jessie Lamb,  shows the range and ambition of her work.

Body Tourists is published by Sceptre.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Guest review by Lissa Evans: THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx


"A nest of narratives – stories within stories, a structure dense enough to mean that, looking back from the end, it’s impossible to see the whole of the road that took you there."


Lissa Evans is the author of five novels for adults, including Their Finest Hour and a Half (filmed in 2017 as Their Finest, starring Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton), and Old Baggage which tells the story of a former suffragette who is not yet willing to give up the fight. She has also written three books for children, two of which (Small Change for Stuart and Wed Wabbit) were shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Before becoming a writer, Lissa initially studied medicine, but later worked in radio and television comedy, where she produced and directed numerous series, including Room 101 and Father Ted.  She lives in London with her dog and her family. Her hobby is reading. 



There’s a shelf in my bedroom where the re-reads sit: old friends, always ready for another visit, the pages freckled with the odd coffee-stain, the spines lacking in …well, backbone : most are books that I tend to dip into, each falling open at favourite passages, but a small number I re-read from start to finish, among them The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s melancholy and fascinating ramble through Suffolk , Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a near-perfect, mult-layered story about a boy growing up surrounded by ghosts, Sure of You, the sixth of Maupin’s Tales from the City series, a little darker, a little more real than the others and Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks, a book that combines a love-letter to chemistry with the story of a complex childhood. They’re a disparate bunch, these total re-reads; what they have in common, I realised recently, is that each possesses a nest of narratives – stories within stories, a structure dense enough to mean that, looking back from the end, it’s impossible to see the whole of the road that took you there. A second read still springs surprises ; the pleasures are still unworn after being encountered for a third or fourth time. 

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is also on that shelf, an edition with a cover showing a pounding green sea under a louring sky. I must have first read it not too long after it came out in 1993.

Chapter 1. Quoyle.

Quoyle: a coil of rope


Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

The opening chapter is a jolting read for a first-timer – a rapid run through Quoyle’s early life, short sentences like slaps in the face, half-phrases and broken clauses like missing steps, together building a vivid picture of a man who cannot find a place in life, who is forever standing awkwardly on the margins.

Quoyle has a ‘great damp loaf of a body. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips.’ He’s awkward and unhappy and exploited by everyone he meets, culminating in a terrible marriage to Petal, who despises him while he worships her. When she dies, leaving him with two small children, he takes the initiative for the first time in his life, and moves his family a thousand miles to Newfoundland, the home of his forebears - a lump of rock in a hissing sea, the harshest of environments, but a place where, to his surprise, he seems to fit. He is accompanied by one of the most magnificent female characters in twentieth century fiction: The Aunt – dry, fierce and practical, a woman who has fought back against an unspeakable childhood to find life and love, and is now returning to exorcise old memories. But besides this central hinge, there’s so much else in the book - it’s stuffed with characters and interlinking stories, with the problems and practicalities of Quoyle’s domestic life, with the office politics of the terrible local newspaper that employs him, with sea-lore and history, crime and intrigue, with the crash and roar of waves, and a vocabulary that leaves a salt-lick on the tongue. It’s also, often, very funny.

And there’s an extra reason for my affinity with this book. My mother was a voracious reader, largely of history and fiction (she loved detective stories so much that she used to give them up for Lent). She adored The Shipping News and read it once a year and now, when it’s my turn for a re-read, it's like having a conversation with her:

Me: Oh, I love those ponderous fast-food restaurant reviews in Quoyle's newspaper.

Mum: Oh yes, they make me howl. And the part where Quoyle buys a terrible boat and refuses to admit that it's no good, and nearly drowns. That's exactly what your father would have done.

Me: I know.

Mum: There are always bits I forget. I think I’m going to read it again before Christmas.

Me: Me too, Mum.

The Shipping News is published by Fourth Estate.

Lissa Evans' Old Baggage is reviewed here by Pippa Goodhart.

Monday, 6 January 2020

NEW YEAR ROUND-UP: More authors and booksellers tell us what's on their reading piles



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Susan Price:  Having just finished reading Dennis Hamley’s wonderful, subtle The Hare Trilogy, deciding what to read next will be difficult. My friend Karen Bush has just sent me Inheritance, a collection of short stories by a Robin Hobb, a writer we both admire. Another friend, Linda Strachan, has sent me her Guide To Writing for Children, which is a must-read. Visiting my local charity shop resulted in the purchase of Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. And I firmly intend to re-read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, which I found exciting the first time.

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Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham:  Have I read the Australian writer Patrick White before? I can't remember but a customer said I really have to read Riders in the Chariot (Vintage), which is about four independently damaged and discarded people wandering round the wreckage of a once fine city ... oh dear. But the cover blurb says there is a possibility of redemption. I hope so.

Discourse on Colonialism by Aime Cesaire (Monthly Review) comprises a short essay and material about this essay, first published in 1955 and is our bookshop open book group read in January. We try to vary our reading between fiction and non-fiction, and this came out of our discussion of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. The bookshop recently put on a talk by Priyamvada Gopal on her Insurgent Empire (Verso) which was inspirational, as part of an irregular series of events on race and Empire and this is a developing theme among our intellectual and activist customers. It's decades since I read Frantz Fanon and Edward Said but their work seems to be reaching a new generation. I need to revise.

I'm a sucker for Patti Smith so I'm saving her Year of the Monkey (Bloomsbury) for the two day Christmas break (poor old retailers, eh?). At heart I want to be Patti Smith, sitting in a cafe in New York munching sourdough toast with olive oil dribbled on it, drinking black coffee and rocking out in the evening. I do wear the same cap as she does, which is a start but it's too late to have been a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe and Allen Ginsberg. Here she wanders round the American west coast, writing her short dreamlike essays, illustrated by her usual Polaroid pictures.

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Wes Magee:  In 1975 I traipsed to the Poetry Society HQ in Earls Court, London, and listened to a bespectacled, slight young man talk about his recently published first book. He reported the book’s unheralded emergence, and how ‘traffic continued to flow along the Brompton Road.’ Thus did I discover Ian McEwan’s collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, and marvelled at such a confident debut. Since then he has gone on to become a multi-award-winning author, whose novels unfailingly surprise with their virtuosity. I have read the lot, and it is with high anticipation that I look forward to opening his 18th, Machines Like Me, on New Year’s Day, 2020.

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Rachel Phipps of The Woodstock Bookshop: The book I am most looking forward to reading is Actress by Anne Enright, which comes out at the end of February. I have to come clean and admit I read the proof, but a member of staff has snaffled it and I desperately want to re-read it. She is such a good writer, and this is about an actress and her daughter and their relationship – the daughter’s attempt to reconstruct and understand her mother’s life. I loved it and can’t wait to read it again, which is rare. I have a few days break over Christmas and will take books that I meant to read properly and haven’t – Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have been eyeing in the shop since it first appeared and reading little bits of here and there. It is over a thousand pages which does tend to deter people, but the few pages I have read are enticing. And A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, a collection of stories by Tamil writer Ambai, beautifully produced by Archipelago Books.

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Linda Newbery:  I've already had one go but am allowing myself a second slot, for non-fiction. These two titles, Animal Languages and The Hidden Life of Trees, will complement each other: both look at the lives and communications of non-human creatures, from whale songs and the apparently complex information shared by prairie dogs to the mysteries of the 'wood wide web' by which trees nurture each other and create ecosystems. Both should illuminate how much in the natural world is overlooked by our anthropocentric short-sightedness.

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 Daniel Hahn: Books I’m excited about for the early months of next year? OK, I’ve narrowed it down painfully to, um, thirteen, some of which I’ve read and some I’m looking forward to. My pair of top tips, though, both of which I have read and mean to read again:

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes, is an utterly ferocious piece of storytelling from Mexico; it’s a village story, in part a story of mystery and myth, but told with uncompromising realist brutality and a kind of incandescence from which it’s impossible to look away.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon is a novel of Israel and Palestine – it is huge and thrillingly original and political and intimate and perhaps the best book I’ve read this year. But I’m not telling you any more than that. Just order it now.

But oh, there’s so much else besides those two. Also in January/February we have Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, currently next on my TBR; Andrew Krivak’s strange and mesmerising The Bear (I loved this – a proper read-in-a-couple-of-sittings kind of book); Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering, which I have not yet read but which looks intriguingly like a sort of grown-up Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story from Indonesia; and Paul B. Preciado’s bold, provocative and thought-provoking An Apartment on Uranus. Then through the spring we have the very short and very gripping Elly, by Maike Wetzel, and many new books by familiar greats: Samanta Schweblin coming in April, and Judith Schlansky, Andrés Neuman and Yuri Herrera in June. June is also when we get David Trueba's Rolling Fields (I loved this) - oh, and there’s a début by Elaine Feeney to look out for. It's called As You Were - I’m only fifty pages in and it’s already bursting with emotional power.

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... and finally, an unusual approach from Sally Prue:  I've just read a library book chosen by a friend (just get anything! I'd said) about Edward VII's mistress Mrs Keppel. It was scattered with dreadful ahistorical generalisations and horrible snobbishness, and I enjoyed it hugely. I have therefore resolved that next year I shall read a) completely random books (I've usually neglected the bottom shelves in the library because of the strain to the knees and eyes) as well as b) as some scorned ones. For instance, I’ve never read Jeffrey Archer. Can he really be as bad as all that. Can he? I shall find out!



Monday, 30 December 2019

CHRISTMAS ROUND-UP Part 2: What's in our sights?


More of our guests tell us what they're planning to read next - and our final round-up, or rather the first of 2020, will appear next Monday.

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Paul Magrs:  All I can think of is the fact that there's a new Anne Tyler out early next year! It still feels like a huge treat - and the fact that her last two have been so wonderful adds to the anticipation. Next year marks exactly thirty years since I read my first Anne Tyler. She had just won a big award for Breathing Lessons and I was with my first boyfriend Gene in the middle of 1990. He was in the UK for a year and started me off reading Tyler and Armistead Maupin, Margaret Atwood, Carson MacCullers and Amy Tan, among others. He gave me If Morning Ever Comes and I was hooked forever.
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Graeme Fife:  In a deluded time, as we confront an indefeasible 
tangle of misprision, misleading promise and fantasy arithmetic, exacerbated by the dumb stupidity of prime nitwits posing as keepers of wisdom, it seems a very apposite choice of reading to turn to Don Quixote. Misconceit and misadventure, tilting at windmills, forlorn escapades in a bonkers scenario? Bullseye.

The Road to Wigan Pier next, another apt read against the current backdrop of blurred reality. Orwell’s unflinching truth-telling and masterly prose. And Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking for the stories attached to the vast gallimaufry of trouvailles washed up by the waters of old Thames.

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Linda Newbery:  Here are two enticing writers I feel ashamed to have neglected till now. In recent months I've read two novels by Jane Rogers, Conrad and Eleanor and the earlier Mr Wroe's Virgins, both of which confirm her as a writer of exceptional talent and versatility. Her new novel, Body Tourists, promises to be very different again. Ann Patchett, for some reason, I haven't read at all, but have seen such glowing reviews of her work from people whose judgement I respect that I'm going to plunge in with her latest, The Dutch House.


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Pippa Goodhart: Awaiting when I have time to snuggle by a fire and wallow in these book treats are: Mr Godley’s Phantom by Mal Peet. Mal Peet was a writer of such fresh, fun, sometimes shocking skill, who died too young. Here’s a new book, his last, glinting with gold on its cover and promising a ‘part ghost story part crime thriller’. And: a second-hand copy, bought from wonderful David’s Bookshop in Cambridge, of Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn. The sub-title is The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing. Lots of photos of posh Edwardians. Yum!

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Linda Sargent:  Fifty years ago when I was a “young adult” there were few books aimed precisely at my age group and consequently I read mostly from the adult shelves of our tiny village library. Among my favourite authors were Mary Stewart, Jean Plaidy, Mary Renault (must re-read her too), and Elizabeth Goudge. Recently I've been tentatively re-reading some of Goudge’s books, and have unearthed my battered paperback of Green Dolphin Country, first published in 1944 and set in the Channel Isles and New Zealand. At fifteen I was captivated, hoping that one day I might visit both places, but as is so often the case, travelling vicariously through strongly crafted stories can be almost as satisfying and Goudge’s vivid and detailed descriptions never fail here. And while there may be some aspects of her writing that feel a little out of step with modern sensibilities, as a friend of mine remarked, we should perhaps approach this body of work in the same way as we would that of – say – Dickens, Trollope et al, writers who, like Goudge, are products of their times. Meanwhile, I look forward to my travels in Green Dolphin Country ...


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Celia Rees:  I intend to read books I already have. If I don’t like the book, it goes to Oxfam; if I do like it, I’ll read then take to Oxfam. Slow speed de-cluttering. I’m starting with The Muse by Jessie Burton. I bought this because it had a pretty cover and sounded interesting. Next, The Raven King by Marcus Tanner. I loved the title and knew nothing about Matthias Corvinus, fifteenth century king of Hungary and his fabled lost library. Finally:Now All Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis. I love Edward Thomas’ poetry, but I haven’t read this because I know what happened to him and it will make me sad.

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Paul Dowswell:  Having greatly enjoyed Craig Brown’s Princess Margaret hatchet job Ma’am Darling, I think I might have developed a taste for royal biogs. Edith Sitwell’s Victoria of England is sitting in a pile by my bed and a cursory glance through the pages suggests it will be a fascinating read.

As a long-time writer of non-fiction I have a deep admiration for Bill Bryson – his History of Nearly Everything was excellent. So his recently published The Body looks unmissable.

Finally, I have just spent a week touring Italian schools and the people I was with have been working with the YA author Melvin Burgess and tell me he is brilliant. So I must give one of his a read.

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Michael Lawrence: Ever keen to read about photographers and painters, having been both in my time, one of my 2019 reads was Francoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso. She was with him for ten years and in the book details his working methods along with some descriptions of him that did not please him, for it’s said that he never spoke to her again after its publication in 1964.

I also re-read, for the first time in about 40 years, Emile Zola’s novel The Masterpiece, published in 1886, which is full of information about the lives and difficulties of the Impressionists, and in particular Zola’s friend from childhood Paul Cézanne who (guess what) ceased to speak to Zola after its publication.

The book that I’m most looking forward to is a debut novel, The Age of Light  by Whitney Scharer, given to me by my friend Julia Wills. I’ve only read the opening paragraphs of the prologue so far (I’m saving this book for just the right mood – mine, that is), which are so beautifully written that I might have wanted to read on even if it hadn’t been about the youth of American photographer Lee Miller, whose work I’ve always admired.

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Adele Geras:  Like millions of other readers all over the world, the book I’m most looking forward to next year is The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. That’s coming in March and I have pre-ordered it.

Other than that, I am excited about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (recently reviewed here as the choice of Orb's Bookshop of Aberdeen) by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I was attracted to it for its title, which is a quotation from William Blake and I downloaded a sample of the book on to my Kindle. I liked what I read very much and bought the book. This feature, which isn’t much talked about, is one of the things I love about reading on Kindle. It prevents a lot of terrible mistakes. I have sampled quite a few dreadful books and saved myself a lot of money! Merry Christmas to all our readers and hoping for lot of wonderful books in the New Year.

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