Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2021 – two of my favourite literary prizes. Flyn explores 13 places where humans used to live but have now left for good. While most of the locations were hastily evacuated due to environmental disasters or war, the case of urban decline in Detroit is more about being gradually left behind. Flyn is very good at explaining concepts in laypersons terms and engages with the climate change issues sensitively. While there are undoubtedly consequences for humans and non-humans alike, she also shows how ecologically resilient these sites are with an ability to recover or adapt, simply by being left alone from human occupation. Overall, this is an excellent book which is very well-written and provides plenty to think about. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Non fiction
Books I Read in February 2023
Books I Read in January 2023
Love Marriage by Monica Ali tells the story of 26-year-old junior doctor Yasmin Ghorani who is engaged to fellow medic Joe Sangster. The novel opens with Yasmin’s Bengali immigrant parents meeting Joe’s famous feminist mother for the first time at her house in Primrose Hill. The evening forces Yasmin to re-evaluate her assumptions and opinions about the people she is closest to, but the supposedly inevitable culture clash doesn’t develop in the most predictable way. There are several subplots with a large cast of supporting characters, and although some of this could have been cut down, ‘Love Marriage’ is an entertaining modern family saga. Many thanks to Little Brown for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. Continue reading
My Most Anticipated Books of 2023
There are lots of new books due in 2023 which I’m looking forward to reading and my list continues to expand by the day. All publication dates where known apply to the United Kingdom only.
There are some promising looking debut novels out in January including Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey loosely based on the author’s experience of getting divorced in her late 20s and We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman about female friendship. Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater is one of the most intriguing crime fiction debut titles and will be published in April. Continue reading
My Books of the Year 2022
There were three novels which really stood out for me in 2022. Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year and skilfully presents the fictional biography of psychoanalyst Arthur Collins Braithwaite as authentic source material.
Careless by Kirsty Capes is an excellent debut novel which was longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is about a 15-year-old girl in care who discovers that she is pregnant and Capes handles the narrative very convincingly.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait is a memorable novel about the impact of mental health and dysfunctional family dynamics, which sounds depressing but is written with very dry humour.
Books I Read in December
For Richer For Poorer by Victoria Coren is the Only Connect presenter’s 2009 memoir about how she became a professional poker player and the first female winner of the European Poker Tour in 2006 in London. Overall, ‘For Richer, For Poorer’ will probably be appreciated the most by those who already know a fair amount about poker. However, if, like me, you only have some basic knowledge of the game, ‘For Richer, For Poorer’ is still very enjoyable to read, mostly because Coren is very skilled at writing about poker in a way that will make at least some sense to those who haven’t played before. From her first games as a teenager attempting to impress her brother’s friends to her appearances on the Channel 4 TV series Late Night Poker to the highest stakes at the EPT, Coren paints excellent pen portraits of her fellow players in the poker underworld and the book is as much about the mysterious characters around the table as the game itself and how much it has changed since the popularity of online poker exploded. A very witty memoir. Continue reading
Books I Read in November
Traitor King by Andrew Lownie is an account of the events which followed Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Lownie puts forward a convincing case that the newly created Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not just fascist sympathisers but also actively colluded with the Nazi regime. Living in various luxury apartments in Paris and the Bahamas, the couple rarely returned to England in order to avoid paying income tax and were obsessed with their social status and keeping up the appearance of a successful happy marriage when the reality was very different. ‘Traitor King’ is a well-researched book drawing on extensive archives to produce a damning portrait of a truly appalling couple who had no redeeming features whatsoever. Continue reading
Books I Read in October
Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Trust by Hernan Diaz was was one of the nominated titles which intrigued me the most. It consists of four manuscripts related to New York financier Andrew Bevel and his wife Mildred. The first is a novella called ‘Bonds’ written by Mildred’s friend and is followed by Andrew’s autobiography, a memoir written by his ghostwriter before concluding with Mildred’s personal journal. The structure is unique and very clever, but the pay off for the reader doesn’t really happen until well into the second half when the other perspectives highlight that Andrew and Mildred are thinly disguised as characters in the novella while Andrew’s boasts sit uncomfortably alongside Mildred’s version of events. This is an elegantly written and constructed piece of metafiction which has been accurately described as a “literary puzzle”, but I wonder how many readers will see it through to the end. Continue reading
Filed under Books
Books I Read in September
And Finally: Matters of Life and Death by Henry Marsh is the neurosurgeon’s account of being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer shortly after his retirement. If you have read Marsh’s first two books about his career, Do No Harm and Admissions, then you will know that he doesn’t sugar coat things, and after a long career in medicine and the realisation that he is now a patient himself, he is similarly candid in his personal reflections about his own ageing and mortality. The first part of the book which deals with his denial about the diagnosis is darkly funny. He also talks about his experiences supporting colleagues in Nepal and Ukraine and his worries about the impact on his family. ‘And Finally’ is a relatively short and unstructured book which reflects Marsh’s uncertainty about the future, but still beautifully written. Many thanks to Vintage Books for sending me a review copy on NetGalley. Continue reading
Books I Read in July
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka is a novel told from the perspective of the women linked to Ansel Packer, a serial killer on death row in Texas counting down the hours to his execution by lethal injection. As well as the four victims he killed, the perspectives of other women in his life are explored, including his mother, his ex-wife’s sister and the detective who caught him. ‘Notes on an Execution’ straddles both literary and crime fiction, posing reflective questions about the justice system while still ramping up the tension both in the present-day storyline with the clock ticking down to Ansel’s execution and in the flashbacks such as when his mother attempts to escape an abusive relationship. Overall, this is a unique suspense novel with a skilfully handled plot structure. Continue reading
Books I Read in June
June was a non-fiction month beginning with A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City by Edward Chisholm which is an account of the author’s time working as a runner and waiter in a Parisian restaurant. Chisholm moved to Paris in 2012 at the age of 24 to live with his then girlfriend. After she broke up with him, he decided to stay and look for work in the city despite speaking very little French at the time. Hierarchy means everything among restaurant employees and Chisholm paints vivid pen portraits of his colleagues who are all heavily reliant on tips to make ends meet. Chisholm leaves _____ gaps in the dialogue he doesn’t understand, which gradually disappear as he becomes more fluent in French. As a modern-day ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell, ‘A Waiter in Paris’ exposes the cut-throat intensity of long hours behind-the-scenes in the service industry, which doesn’t appear to have changed all that much in the decades since Orwell worked in the city as a plongeur. Continue reading
Filed under Books
Books I Read in May
About A Son by David Whitehouse recounts the aftermath of the murder of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir who was stabbed to death while he was on a night out in Nuneaton in Warwickshire on 31 October 2015. It’s a true crime book, but not written in the way that you might typically expect from the genre. Whitehouse has turned the Hehir family’s story into a really affecting piece of creative non-fiction. It is told in the second person from the perspective of Morgan’s father, Colin, based on his diaries and memories of the period following Morgan’s death. As well as processing grief and sitting through the trial of Morgan’s killers, the book also deals with the frustrating bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, and Colin’s attempts to persuade Apple to unlock Morgan’s phone so he could access his photos and music. ‘About A Son’ is a really exceptional portrait of an extraordinary event happening to the most ordinary of families, and it is very likely to appear on my Books of the Year list. Continue reading
Four Books About Music
I don’t usually read many books about music in such a short space of time, but I have read some good non-fiction titles on the subject so far this year, which largely conclude that working in the music industry is not very good for your health.
A Seat at the Table: Women on the Frontline of Music by Amy Raphael is a collection of 18 interviews with women who work in the music industry. The interviews were conducted in 2018-19 mostly with singers and songwriters across different genres while composer Jessica Curry, producer Catherine Marks and DJ Clara Amfo all reflect on similar issues with sexism and racism within the industry. In some ways, Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn’s experiences finding fame in the 1970s and 1980s are a world away from those of the musicians who are starting out today who face the pressures of social media, #MeToo and dwindling album sales due to the rise of streaming, yet there are also some frustrating similarities such as not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Raphael has clearly put a lot of thought into the range of interviewees in this collection and it would be interesting to compare this alongside her 1995 companion book ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock’ which includes interviews with the like of Debbie Harry, Courtney Love and Bjork. Continue reading
Books I Read in April
How Words Get Good: The Story of Making a Book by Rebecca Lee offers a fascinating look at the journey of making a book from initial idea in the author’s head to finished copies on a bookshelf. It celebrates the huge number of people involved in producing books, including authors who choose to remain anonymous, ghostwriters, literary agents, proofreaders and editors, and the processes such as typesetting, translation, indexes, footnotes, cover design, printing and much more. As well as demystifying certain elements of the publishing industry, it contains lots of trivia. For example, Donald Trump asked his ghostwriter, Mark Schwartz, to cover half the cost of the launch party for ‘The Art of the Deal’ on the grounds that Schwartz received half of the advance and royalties (p.47), and the Japanese version of ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce “required three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad” (p.216). Lee has worked as an editorial manager at Penguin Press for over 20 years and her wealth of experience shines through in her amusing anecdotes and encyclopaedic knowledge. Equal parts entertaining and insightful, this is highly recommended for bibliophiles everywhere, particularly those who enjoy weird trivia. Continue reading
Books I Read in March
I am rather partial to memoirs centred around food and I read two excellent ones last month, one of which was Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Tucci’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from Calabria, so his childhood growing up in Westchester, New York featured a lot of traditional Italian cooking. Food has also been a big influence in his acting career, including his 1996 debut directorial feature ‘Big Night’ about two brothers running an Italian restaurant. As expected, there’s a fair bit of celebrity name-dropping, but Tucci also gives great insight into how catering works on film sets and he now has the luxury of being able to choose projects based on where in the world they are shot and whether the food will be any good. He also describes his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from a tumour at the base of his tongue which was discovered a few years ago, leaving him unable to eat properly. Less of a conventional chronological memoir and more about the importance of food in his life, ‘Taste’ is nevertheless a delectable read.
Filed under Books
Books I Read in February
Time has run away from me again this month, so I am only just getting round to reviewing the books I read in February starting with No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson. His part bibliomemoir part cultural history details how he became a voracious reader in Rochdale in the mid-1970s in a working-class household with very few books, eventually succumbing to what Americans call BABLE (Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy – I know I can certainly identify with this, and I’m sure many readers of this blog can too). The book also interweaves the story of his grandfather who suffered from mental illness. Hodkinson is very good at dissecting the mindset of a collector and I particularly enjoyed the latter half of the book which outlines his career as a journalist on a local newspaper, publisher and writer. Local journalism in particular has changed beyond recognition from what it was when Hodkinson was starting out. Overall ‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy’ is rather odd structurally and not as straightforward a bibliomemoir as I was expecting, but it is nevertheless very enjoyable and nostalgic to read. Continue reading
Filed under Books
Books I Read in January
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet is set in the 1960s and consists of a fictional biography of Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a radical psychoanalyst with a practice based in north London, interweaved with notebooks written by one of his patients which have been purportedly “discovered” by her cousin and passed on to the author. The patient believes Braithwaite is responsible for the death of her elder sister, Veronica, and poses as Rebecca Smyth in order to find out more about him. As with the Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, Burnet displays his impeccable narrative skill in presenting the story as authentic source material. There is plenty of satire in the depiction of Braithwaite’s rivalries with his contemporaries, reminiscent of the spoof biographies in Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill, while pertinent questions about the nature of identity and reality are posed in “Rebecca’s” pursuit for answers. ‘Case Study’ is another outstanding novel by one of my must-read authors. Continue reading
Filed under Books
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe and Fall by John Preston
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe won the Baillie Giffard Prize for Non-Fiction last year and examines the history of three generations of the Sackler family. Radden Keefe is a journalist for the New Yorker and ‘Empire of Pain’ was developed from his 2017 article about the Sacklers. The Sackler name is mostly associated with philanthropy. Several universities, museums and galleries have wings named after the family in recognition of the substantial donations they have made towards the arts and sciences. However, the Sacklers’ role in the development of the highly addictive drug OxyContin in 1996 and the subsequent opioid crisis in the United States has only recently become subject to proper scrutiny.
Filed under Books
My Most Anticipated Books of 2022
My list of most anticipated books coming soon in 2022 is growing by the day, so here are some of the highlights. All publication dates where known apply to the United Kingdom only.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is out this month and spans an alternative version of New York in 1893, 1993 and 2093. I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews so far, even from those who didn’t get on with her second novel A Little Life. I expect it will appear on several predictions lists for the Booker Prize later this year, along with Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart which is out in April, after the Scottish author’s debut novel Shuggie Bain won the Prize in 2020. Continue reading
My Books of the Year 2021
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.
Filed under Books
Autumn Reading: Part Two
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
Filed under Books
You must be logged in to post a comment.