A lot of my reading in 2021 has involved catching up on books published in 2020 or earlier, particularly among non-fiction. Hungry by Grace Dent and Bookworm by Lucy Mangan were among my favourite memoirs this year, and take a nostalgic look at the authors’ childhoods defined by food and books respectively. A Promised Land by Barack Obama was a hefty but impressively readable political memoir by the 44th President of the United States covering most of his first term, and hopefully it won’t be too long before the second volume is published.
Elsewhere in non-fiction, Square Haunting by Francesca Wade is an absorbing group biography of five modernist women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury at various times between 1916 and 1940. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and compelling true crime books I have come across in a long time, and follows the first murder trial to be held in secret in modern British history.
Downing Street has been in the news rather a lot this week, so it seems rather timely to have been reading Number 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street by Jack Brown recently. Brown was the first ever Researcher in Residence at No. 10 and his book examines how the role of the Prime Minister and the architecture of one of the most famous addresses in the world have influenced each other. Originally built in the 1680s, significant reconstruction was undertaken in the early 1960s and much of the book focuses on how the prime ministers of the second half of the 20th century lived and worked there. Security reasons presumably prevent clear diagrams of the interior of Downing Street being included to accompany the text which is slightly unfortunate. However, Brown’s analysis of how the iconic residence projects soft power to its visitors and its strengths and weaknesses as a modern office and living space offers a convincing argument that successive prime ministers have impacted the building as much as the building has shaped their way of working. Continue reading
The world probably doesn’t need another review of Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney by now, but you’re going to get one anyway. Rooney’s much anticipated third novel tells the story of Alice and her friend Eileen, both approaching 30 and living in Ireland, having met as roommates at university. Alice is a successful novelist who meets warehouse worker Felix through a dating app. Eileen is getting over a break-up by flirting with a man called Simon who she has known since childhood. Rather than getting in touch via texts or calls, Alice and Eileen continue their long-distance friendship by having lengthy earnest conversations via email about capitalism. On balance, I found this epistolary device too convenient and less convincing than the instant messaging chats in Conversations with Friends which remains my favourite of her three novels to date. Nevertheless, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ further cements Rooney’s signature narrative style, which is more about pacing than plot and achieved very skilfully, and she remains particularly good at portraying power dynamics through dialogue and writing endings which are open yet not frustratingly so.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo was the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 alongside The Testaments by Margaret Atwood which I read earlier this year. It follows the lives of 12 characters, mostly black British women, spanning several decades in four overlapping clusters. In the first part, we are introduced to Amma, a theatre director, her daughter Yazz, and Dominique who is Amma’s former partner in the theatre group. Then there is Carole who works in banking, her mother Bummi and her school friend La Tisha. Shirley is a teacher whose mother Winsome is retired in Barbados and has worked with her colleague Penelope for several years. Finally, Megan/Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer, whose relatives Hattie and Grace were based in the north of England in the early 20th century.
The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is the first book in a planned trilogy of historical fiction. In a very different setting and genre from Slimani’s breakout thriller Lullaby, ‘The Country of Others’ opens just after the Second World War when a Frenchwoman from Alsace, Mathilde, falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan soldier fighting for the French and moves to Morocco with him in 1946 when they get married. Mathilde raises their daughter, Aïcha, and son, Selim while Amine works on the farm, but she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her choices. Inspired by the life of Slimani’s grandmother, who also left Alsace after marrying a Moroccan soldier, ‘The Country of Others’ is a very personal project for Slimani. It suffers slightly from a lack of narrative drive, often reading as a series of vignettes, but perhaps a bigger picture will emerge as the trilogy progresses. I look forward to reading the next instalment which will be set in the 1960s. Continue reading
I have read a lot of great books over the summer and I now have a massive backlog of reviews to catch up on. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the story of 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother in rural isolation, until her sudden death forces them to confront some harsh realities of life in the modern world and the truth behind some dark family secrets. It’s quite a meandering novel, often melancholic in tone, but I really enjoyed Fuller’s richly descriptive prose which captures the oppressive atmosphere of the twins’ daily lives. ‘Unsettled Ground’ was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and while it wasn’t too surprising that the judges crowned ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke as the winner last week, I think ‘Unsettled Ground’ would have been a worthy winner too, and I will definitely seek out Fuller’s other novels. Continue reading
This summer has mostly been a non-fiction reading binge for me. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and intriguing true crime books I have come across in a long time. Photographer, writer and expert on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 86-year-old Allan Chappelow was found beaten to death at his home in Hampstead in north London in June 2006. He was also a recluse and hoarder and his house was so cluttered that it took the police three days to locate his body buried under four feet of paper. Harding outlines Chappelow’s life, the investigation into his death and the background of the main suspect, Wang Yam, a Chinese dissident. The final part of the book covers Yam’s murder trial, which was the first in modern British history to be held in camera – that is, totally secret with no reporting of the defence case in the press. Even speculation about why the trial was held in this way remains completely banned. Despite the obvious limitations posed by this, Harding makes good use of the available background material to produce a gripping account of a truly bizarre and unique case.
The Booker Prize longlist was announced on Tuesday. The 13 titles are:
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
The Promise by Damon Galgut
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
An Island by Karen Jennings
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
It’s that time of year again – the 2021 Booker Prize longlist will be announced on Tuesday 27th July and I have made a list of predictions in terms of what I think could be some strong possibilities alongside my own personal preferences, based on a few eligible books I have read in recent months, as well as several that I haven’t. As ever, it’s impossible to know which novels have been submitted for consideration. Last year, for the first time since I started writing these posts, my longlist predictions list included the eventual winner Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so my first prediction is that it is highly unlikely I will repeat this trick for a second year in a row….
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell follows his Wellcome Prize-winning exploration of transhumanism To Be a Machine with another book about the future, this time looking at the ways in which people prepare for ecological and societal collapse. O’Connell travels to South Dakota to visit underground survival bunkers, attends a Mars convention in California, visits New Zealand to find out why it is the favoured location for billionaires to ride out the end of the world, and goes to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in which the post-apocalyptic scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.
In the paperback edition, O’Connell notes in a new foreword that the timing of the hardback publication in April 2020 was “impeccable”. Nevertheless, it does mean that certain parts read a bit differently from how they would have done without a global pandemic. For example, the actions of the “preppers” who stockpile supplies to live on in the event of a possible worst-case scenario now seem a lot less extreme these days. O’Connell’s writing is dense and cerebral and ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ contains as much food for thought as his first book, albeit with an even larger dose of anxiety about the future this time round. Continue reading
After a long period of neglect, I have been reading more books in translation recently, including some recently published titles. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura has been translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton and sees an unnamed woman in her mid-30s walk into an employment agency looking for a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, requires no reading or writing and preferably very little thinking. The book follows her attempts at five different roles: surveillance, recording voice ads for buses, writing fun facts to be printed on cracker wrappers, putting up posters and park maintenance. Tsumura wrote her debut novel after her own experience of job burnout and it captures a sense of listlessness in a way that will have you counting down the days until you are entitled to claim your own pension. With deadpan humour and a bit of magical realism, it ends up being a bit of an aimless novel overall, yet also quite thought-provoking about the meaning of job satisfaction, particularly in the context of workplace culture in Japan which is known for extreme presenteeism.
Bluemoose Books is one of my favourite indie publishers and I have been reading some more of its titles over the past few weeks. Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal has recently been featured on the BBC’s books programme Between The Covers and has deservedly won plaudits for its sensitive and non-judgemental portrayal of the most marginalised groups in society. Duggal’s second novel tells the story of Jimmy Noone who is homeless in an unnamed city and has been searching for his friend, Betwa, who grew up in the local area. He is seen as a threat by Ebele, a single mother who lives with her six-year-old daughter Tuli, while her landlord and employer, Nikos, who owns a furniture shop nearby thinks he is a nuisance. Jimmy does, however, generate more compassion from their neighbour, Rayya, who is a carer for her terminally-ill husband Satish. The way in which the characters’ backgrounds are slowly revealed is very effective, emphasising that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, that actions are not all that they appear to be and how people can end up on completely different paths and become invisible to the rest of society. This is a perceptive and poignant novel and I look forward to reading more of Duggal’s work. Continue reading
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood about 10 years ago and recently reread it followed by the long-awaited sequel The Testaments. Atwood’s dystopian classic first published in 1985 depicts the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and patriarchal state created after the downfall of the United States some time in the 21st century. It is narrated by Offred, a handmaid who is forced to produce children for Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy.
As a reread, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was fresher in my mind than it would have been thanks to the recent television series which is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. I particularly admire Atwood’s skill at detailed world-building in relatively spare prose. Even though there isn’t a huge amount of description of what Offred’s surroundings look like or even much explanation about the creation of Gilead initially, Atwood paints a vivid and shocking portrait of this dystopian world, gradually building towards a dramatic conclusion. Continue reading
The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters. Continue reading
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha is a novel about two families in Los Angeles – one Korean-American and one African-American. It is a fictionalised version of a real case in which Soon Ja Du, a Korean female convenience store owner, shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American girl called Latasha Harlins in 1991. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but didn’t receive a jail sentence. In the novel, 15-year-old Ava Matthews is shot and killed by Jung-Ja Han who believed Ava was attempting to steal milk from her store. The narrative alternates between both families and the past and the present. Ava’s brother and cousin, Shawn and Ray, struggle to cope in the aftermath of Ava’s death while Jung-Ja changes her name to Yvonne Park and her daughter, Grace, grows up unaware of the incident until the past catches up with them. Cha takes great care to show the impact of events on both sides and the result is a powerful depiction of the background behind racial tensions in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and beyond. Continue reading
Hungry by Grace Dent shares many thematic similarities with A Half-Baked Idea by Olivia Potts in that they are both memoirs about the joys of food, starting out in competitive careers in London and difficult family circumstances. While Potts’ memoir detailed her enrolment on the Cordon Bleu culinary school patisserie course after deciding not to pursue a career as a barrister following her mother’s unexpected death, Dent’s is about the childhood nostalgia of cheap beige comfort food in the 1980s, finding her feet as a journalist in her 2os and her father’s health problems including vascular dementia. Continue reading
‘A Promised Land’ is the first of two volumes of Barack Obama’s memoirs of his two-term presidency. Published in November last year, this part covers his path to becoming the Democrat candidate in 2008 and then rattles through the main challenges he faced during the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency including the financial crisis, military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, healthcare reform, climate change, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Like many political memoirs, ‘A Promised Land’ is on the wordy side, clocking in at over 700 pages with another volume still to come. Obama is self-aware enough to realise that his verbosity was an issue in his early campaign speeches which focused too much on policy detail and sometimes saw him struggle to connect with voters on a personal level. Thankfully, his writing on the page is engaging even when he is explaining complex policy background, although if you’re more interested in life behind the scenes at the White House, then Becoming by Michelle Obama generally offers more insight on that side of things. Continue reading
The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist for 2021 was announced last Wednesday. The 16 titles are:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Because of You by Dawn French
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
Luster by Raven Leilani
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Consent by Annabel Lyon
Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Summer by Ali Smith Continue reading
Hello World by Hannah Fry, subtitled ‘How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine’ looks at the role of algorithms in modern life, from our everyday internet use to the justice system to creating works of art. Most of the discussion around algorithms tends to focus on the negative impact they can have with sat navs sending drivers off the edge of a cliff and data privacy concerns being two of the most well-known examples. Fry also looks at the positive benefits of algorithms as they are undoubtedly useful in research contexts such as monitoring cell patterns in order to diagnose cancer earlier. The real-world examples of how humans interact with algorithms are concisely written and this is an engaging popular science book which is straightforward enough for a layperson to grasp as an introduction to a complex topic. Continue reading
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan is a memoir of childhood reading, from her earliest memories as a small child reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle, to her secondary school years in the late 1980s when Judy Blume books and the Sweet Valley High series were at the height of their popularity. Born in 1974 to northern Catholic parents, Mangan grew up in south east London and was a voracious reader from the start. Even though my formative years of childhood reading occurred over a decade later than Mangan’s, there is a significant amount of overlap in our literary diets. This isn’t very surprising given that Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and other staples have remained so popular over several generations, and it means that most readers will be familiar with much of what Mangan reminisces about here too. For the most part, we also have fairly similar taste in books – like Mangan, I prefer stories with fantasy elements to be at least partly grounded in the real world, and neither of us are great lovers of poetry (“All that feeling”). The exceptions are the ballet and pony stories favoured by Mangan and the late arrival of a series of books about a certain boy wizard which was a big part of my childhood reading.