Summer is here and school is almost out so it must be time for another #KeepKidsReading week. Many parents and teachers know all about the phenomenon of ‘learning loss’ and after two years of disruption to school this may be a very acute problem this year more than ever. The rigours of school life can also bring pressures so many children need and deserve a break from formal studying.
The long summer holiday can be an opportunity for many kids to discover the joy of reading for pleasure. Choosing a book because they like the look of it and not because their teacher tells them to. I have long been a fan of the summer reading challenge for children that is run every year by council libraries. When they were young my children always loved the weekly visit to the library to choose a new book, getting stickers and tracking their progress on a chart. Oh for the simple pleasures! A visit to the library is free and therefore even more attractive with pressures on family budgets as they are at the moment.
The theme of this year’s summer reading challenge is ‘Gadgeteers’, which will appeal to youngsters with an interest in science and technology, who may perhaps think they are less interested in books! Kids can sign up at their local library, which may also be running tandem events, and if they have internet access there are various online activities they can do too.
If you are looking for ideas for books, I have a couple of reviews for you to look out for this week. On Friday I will post a review of Anna Fargher’s new book The Fire Cats of London. My review will be part of the book tour this week.
At the weekend I’ll have another suggestion for you, the latest from one of my favourite children’s authors writing at the moment, Ross Welford.
So, if you have any children in your care this summer, do get them along to the local library (they need our support, use them or lose them, not everyone can afford to buy books), get them signed up and #KeepKidsReading.
This was my my fourth non-fiction book of the year and, very helpfully, also my book club read for June (now only two behind!). I have to admit I was a little sceptical at first. It was suggested by one of my fellow book club members and I had not heard about it before. I thought it would be just another rich family memoir, but it seemed to have a bit of history about it, so I was game.
The author is a British ceramicist whose grandmother was part of one of the richest Jewish families in Europe, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, before the Nazis confiscated their property and they were forced to flee their native Vienna in the late 1930s. At the start of his journey the author apparently knew very little of his family history and it is only through the discovery of a collection of ‘netsuke’ tiny Japanese carved figures of people and animals in ivory or wood, that he decides to explore further. The author was on an academic sabbatical in Japan, where his great uncle Iggy (Ignatius) lived when he sees the collection for the first time. He is fascinated by the netsuke and this prompts him to dig deeper into their history and how they came to be in his family.
The book does begin as something of a rich family memoir. Originally from Odessa, the accumulation of wealth through banking enables them to live variously in Paris and Vienna, mixing with the highest-calibre thinkers and artists of the day. It is Charles Ephrussi, an enthusiast for ‘japonisme’, which was popular at the time, who put together the collection of netsuke. Later, they would be considered more like minor trinkets (compared to other parts of the collection), played with by the children of the family, as taste for japonisme waned and the market became saturated with lower quality objects. Because of the family’s wealth and importance, the author has been able to compile a detailed history of the family and imagines the scenes and events at their various homes, the salons they held with the famous people of the day present. It is fascinating but a touch sterile for me.
As the narrative moves into the twentieth century, and the inevitable decline of the dynasty, I felt it became more interesting. The first world war changes everything, of course, for that stratum of society, but the author writes most movingly when describing the decade or so before the outbreak of the second world war, with the gradual demonising of Jews, particularly the wealthy ones. As various members of the family see the writing on the wall and flee the continent, the dynasty begins to break down. The final humiliation comes when the Nazis confiscate their mansion in Vienna and all its contents. The netsuke only survived this process because the family’s long-serving maid, Anna, who was kept on at the house, gradually spirited them away and hid them in her mattress. Later they were smuggled out of the country.
This part of the book is also most moving because it is within the author’s living memory almost, his grandmother having been one of those to flee Vienna, arriving in Kent with next to nothing and having to start her life again. De Waal also becomes increasingly reflective as the history gets closer to the time of the war and to his living family members. It is as if he becomes able to feel their pain. He is also philosophical about how relatively lucky his family were – yes, they lost everything (and they had a lot to lose), but they survived and prospered, unlike many other European Jews. Their wealth meant they were able to leave more easily than most. He is also deeply moved by the loyalty of Anna, the family maid, who risked her own life by trying to save something of the family’s collection, the netsuke.
I listened to this on audio and it was beautifully read by Michael Maloney, but it would have been useful to have the family tree that is in the print edition to refer back to as I did lose track of the members of each generation. The book won the Costa Book Award in the Biography category in 2010. Since its publication, some historians have challenged some of the facts in the book, I gather, for example suggesting the standing of the Ephrussi family has been overstated. I suspect some misrepresentation is inevitable in this kind of book, where the author has fleshed out bare facts with imaginings about day to day life, and this does not detract too much.
It is a fascinating account – recommended.
My next non-fiction read is a book I have had for a while now, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions – a collection of essays and comment pieces. It is another big book, so I suspect I am not going to be catching up too easily on my non-fiction challenge for the year, but I plan to take it on my summer holidays so we’ll see!
The second holiday reading recommendation I’d like to share with you is The Break by Marian Keyes. For years I eschewed Marian Keyes (though I always enjoyed hearing her whenever she popped up on the radio) in the mistaken belief that her books were a bit too ‘chick-lit’ for me – I say this completely ironically, since I loathe that term – it’s so pejorative and patronising! I would argue all night that no genre is better or worse than any other, it’s all just about what you enjoy reading. I might just draw the line at ghost-written autobiographies by very young minor celebrities, but that would be a personal line, and I would be happy to be proven wrong. Back to Marian; my book club read Grown Ups a couple of years ago, after which I was completely hooked and vowed that I would work my way through all of her eighteen novels and five non-fiction books – I’ll write that again…EIGHTEEN novels! She has apparently sold more than 35 million books worldwide. She is one popular writer, and deservedly so.
As with Grown Ups I listened to The Break on audio, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t Marian herself narrating this time, but Aoife McMahon does an excellent job. The plot is simple but effective. Amy and Hugh are seemingly happily married with three daughters – Niamh is from Amy’s first marriage, Keira is their own and Sophie is her niece, who came to live with them after her own two parents (Amy’s feckless brother and his equally feckless Latvian girlfriend) separated and showed no ability to care for their daughter. Hugh hits a difficult patch after the death of his father and best friend, and announces to Amy that he wants to take a complete six month break. He doesn’t just want a holiday on his own, he wants to spend six months in Asia with a backpack living as if he was single, with all that this entails.
Naturally, this comes as a tremendous shock to Amy. By the time he tells her, Hugh has already made most of his plans and so there is little time for her to influence his decision. He insists that he loves her completely and fully intends to come back and resume their life as it was before, he just needs this ‘time out’. After he leaves, Amy goes through something like a bereavement, trying to come to terms with the practical and emotional implications of his actions. Amy’s family (sprawling, loving and a bit chaotic, typically Irish, you might say, and a common characteristic in Keyes’s work) has challenges of its own – her father has dementia, which puts a strain on the offspring, there are sibling rivalries and each of Amy’s daughters is going through their own turmoil, partly connected and partly unconnected to Hugh’s departure.
Amy has a job as a PR executive, working two days a week in London with her two partners in their small company. Life as a single parent therefore presents her with many practical challenges; even though the girls are old enough to look after themselves on one level, it is clear that they still need a lot of support. Amy’s life is busy and Hugh has left her in the lurch.
Amy’s friends encourage her to embrace her own bit of single life while Hugh is on the other side of the world having his fun. (Amy cannot help stalking his Facebook account and when she sees him with another woman, it is a devastating blow.) Amy’s relationship adventures turn out not to be as easy or exciting as might be expected, and neither do Hugh’s.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but needless to say, the book is not just about what each of them does while they are apart, but also what happens when Hugh returns, how they are changed and what the implications are for the relationship. Keyes keeps you guessing and it does not pan out quite how you expect. Part of this author’s skill, I think, is in taking the everyday mundane aspects of life and making out of them something special. It is so engaging because the characters, and therefore the events that befall them, could easily be us. There is an impressive cast of characters in this novel and yet they are all distinctive, well-drawn and multi-faceted. The narrator of the audiobook does very well also to give a slightly different voice twist to each one.
So, another ‘highly recommended’ for your summer reading!
For many of us (lucky enough to have a passport and the funds to do so), thoughts are turning to summer holidays. Even if you are not getting away this year, perhaps you will have some relaxation time to enjoy the warmer weather from the comfort of your own garden or a local park or beauty spot. I am seeing quite a few ‘best books for the summer’ type features in newspaper supplements, magazines and in online newsletters so I thought I would join in and share a couple of my own recommendations this week.
What do we want from summer reading? Well, I read Ulysses on a trip to Spain many years ago, but life has changed somewhat since then and that would be a bit ambitious for me these days! Generally, holiday reads should not be too taxing, can be picked up and put down as we take a dip, that we don’t mind getting sand over and which we might just leave on the holiday let bookshelf to make space in our luggage when we leave. Oh, and long enough that they will definitely last the whole trip plus any potential waiting time in stations or airports!
The first book I’d recommend is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was actually recommended to me by sixteen year old daughter who read it cover to cover in days, could not put it down (AND she was revising for GCSEs). It tells the story of the life of ageing film star, Evelyn Hugo, giving a rare and possibly final interview to accompany the auction of a number of her gowns for a cancer charity. Evelyn agrees to the interview (a major scoop for the magazine Vivant) on the basis that it is conducted by one of its least-known writers, Monique Grant, a condition which irks the magazine’s editor.
Monique, who is going through some difficult life events herself, her husband having recently left her, is surprised when at their very first meeting, Evelyn reveals that she has in fact hand-picked Monique to write her biography, NOT to do a magazine interview, though she will not reveal the reason. Evelyn begins to tell Monique the story of her life, from the very beginning when she lost her mother and as a teenager married Ernie Diaz (husband number one), as a way to escape Hell’s Kitchen in New York and her violent father and go to Hollywood where she plans to find fame and fortune. She quickly finds roles in a number of films and after divorcing Ernie she marries her handsome and popular co-star Don Adler. Evelyn is a huge success and is nominated for an Oscar for her role in an adaptation of Little Women. She finds herself embroiled in scandal however, when she leaves Don who, after a brief honeymoon period turned out to be abusive. But as a woman, it is Evelyn who is publicly ostracised and the Oscar goes instead to her co-star Celia St James, with whom Evelyn will go on to have an important friendship.
The story goes on, with Evelyn recounting the events of her life, how she came to have seven husbands and the circumstances behind each of her marriages. She had a daughter, the result of her fifth marriage to Hollywood producer Harry Cameron, one of her very few true friends. But Connor, their daughter dies of breast cancer, hence the sale of Evelyn’s gowns to benefit the charity. Evelyn tells her story in parallel to the reader learning of Monique’s relationship troubles. Through her meetings with Evelyn, Monique gains a certain courage which enables her to confront some of the issues in her life and begin to take control of her destiny rather than being the victim of circumstances.
I listened to this on audiobook and it far exceeded my expectations. My daughter told me that I would “never get the plot twist”. There are in fact quite a few very clever plot twists, some of which I foresaw (and felt rather smug about) and one or two jaw-droppers I did not. The book has become an international bestseller of course, since its publication and the author, Taylor Jenkins Reid has had other popular and critical successes, most notably Daisy Jones and the Six (which I picked up secondhand the other day and which might be one of my own summer reads). Monique and Evelyn were voiced separately and both were very good, I felt.
The book is everything you could want from a summer read – doesn’t require too much brain power, engrossing, a fantastic plot, great characters and an interesting premise. Highly recommended.
The non-fiction reading challenge that I set myself at the beginning of the year has not been going quite to plan – I set myself the goal of reading one non-fiction book a month, so I should be well into my sixth by now, but I have only completed three. My reading has been quite erratic these last few months; my two daughters have been doing their GCSE and A level exams and have needed a lot of support from me, including taking them to and from school for the exams themselves. Happily, they finish this week and I am pleased to report that they have both coped really well with the enormous pressure.
After the challenge of Andrew Arsan’s Lebanon, I went for something completely different for my third non-fiction, a book by the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, who is much better known for his novels, such as Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. He is considered one of the world’s greatest living writers and has published fourteen novels, several short story collections and a number of essays and works of non-fiction.
I came across What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by complete accident when I was looking for books to give my son for a foreign trip he took recently. He is a keen runner too and I thought he might find it interesting. Reading the blurb I determined that I would give it a go myself.
I decided to listen to it on audiobook, and to listen while I was running! It’s fairly short, less than five hours listening time, around 200 pages, so I got through it fairly quickly. In it the author talks about his experience of running marathons, which he does once a year, and an ultramarathon in his home country of Japan. He writes about his highly disciplined approach to running; he has run six miles a day, six days a week for more than two decades. He wrote the book in 2007, when he was in his late fifties, and was still managing to maintain this schedule. Despite his busy life as a world-famous writer, international lecturer and academic, he has stuck very successfully to this schedule. He is now in his early seventies – I wonder if he is still doing it?
He writes of the benefits to his mental and physical health from his running schedule, but he is not fanatical about promoting his particular method. He is simply writing about what works for him. He draws parallels between his approach to running and his approach to writing – the meticulous attention to detail, the obsession with timings, the need to remain on task. It is also fascinating when he writes about what he notices when he runs, the landscapes and people around him, how it makes him see the world in a certain way. This is the continuous practice of the writer, observing what is happening in the world they inhabit.
This felt like a very intimate book; Murakami lets us into his very private running world. As a runner myself I do not talk very much about the strange thoughts that go through my mind when I’m running, how I feel when approaching a known hill or what my legs feel like after 7km, but Murakami takes us there. Some of the narrative is extremely detailed, for example when outlining his training schedule for an upcoming marathon – this could be the literary equivalent of showing someone your holiday photos! In other words not really interesting to anyone else! But if you are a runner and interested in the process you will be drawn into his world of measurements, timings, footwear and clothing considerations, like it was all completely normal conversation. As with running the book has a meditative quality.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend listening while running.
My next non-fiction title is actually one my book club is reading – The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, about the well-known potter’s search for his family history as he traces the origins of a cache of Japanese miniature sculptures. Let’s hope I can catch up on this challenge!
The Women’s Prize has really gained in profile in the last few years. I think it’s actually been better since it stopped being sponsored by, first, Orange and then Bailey’s. By calling itself simply ‘The Women’s Prize’ it seems to have been able to be truer to its purpose. It also seems not to have suffered from some of the criticisms that other literary prizes have attracted around diversity. I make it my intention to read the Booker Prize shortlist each autumn; perhaps I should do the same for the The Women’s Prize.
This year, I have read three of the six titles on the shortlist, although one of these, Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, was shortlisted for the Booker last year too, so I was one step ahead for a change! I have already written about how much I loved that particular book.
When the shortlist was announced, my book club decided we’d read The Sentence Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is an American author. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her novel The Night Watchman. I know very little about her, except that she has Native American heritage on her mother’s side, and that this cultural inheritance influences her writing.
The Sentence is a complex book. The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who is convicted of drug smuggling and given a prison sentence. She has had a difficult upbringing (in common with a disproportionate number of Native American and African American young people, an issue which underpins many of the novel’s themes), but during her incarceration she discovers literature. When she is released she marries Pollux, the man who arrested her, a kind of tribal law enforcement officer, and gets a steady job in a bookstore. Her life is good, on track, and she and Pollux live very happily.
All that changes on All Soul’s Eve in 2019 when a former customer of the bookshop, a cantankerous elderly woman called Flora, dies. Tookie is convinced that Flora is haunting the bookstore, more as a poltergeist than a friendly ghost, and the impact this has on Tookie’s mental state is mirrored by wider social events which seem to signify a kind of societal breakdown. The novel is set in Minneapolis (where Erdrich herself lives so she will have been close to events) and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is a totemic moment that causes grief and chaos. Then there is the Covid pandemic, the lockdowns, the visceral fear of disease and the social isolation that it leads to. Tookie and Pollux at least have each other (plus Pollux’s daughter Hetta and her baby son, who come to live with them), but it is clear that this is a period during which the things they have thus far taken for granted are being swept away.
The Sentence is a powerful novel which explores many important issues, but I cannot say that I really ‘enjoyed’ it. It is one of the first ‘pandemic novels’ I have read and it will have been written when the world was still in the grip of Covid, not really knowing how or if we would get out of it. That comes through strongly in the novel, the sense of entering an unknown state, whilst also observing things falling apart. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder will also have been quite raw and the sense of history repeating itself, of lack of justice for minorities and fear of the police, a sense of social structures collapsing, is expressed in Tookie’s despair. For me, though, the novel feels a little under-cooked. I’m not sure many of us have fully processed the events of 2019-21 and the novel seems to flounder a bit on not really having a clear direction.
My feelings about another of the shortlisted books, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss could not be more different. It too deals with a pressing social issue, mental illness, but it deals with it through, for me, a much stronger narrative. Martha is unwell. She has her first bout of depression, or ‘episode’ we might call it, when she is seventeen. Her family might be described by some as bohemian, dysfuctional by others. Her parents are artists, her father a poet and her mother a sculptor, and neither is especially successful. Her mother, Celia, was brought up largely by her older sister Winsome, after their mother died. Winsome married a rich man, lives in Belgravia, and largely supports Celia and her family. Martha has one sister, Ingrid, to whom she is very close.
Every year, the whole family gathers for Christmas in Belgravia, and included in their number is Patrick, a boarding school friend of one of Martha’s cousins. Patrick’s mother is dead and his father lives abroad and appears not to care very much about his son. Patrick is one of the few people able to empathise and show genuine care when Martha is first unwell, that Christmas in Belgravia, and we later learn that he has been in love with her ever since. Martha makes a very brief and disastrous marriage to wealthy and obnoxious financier Jonathan, who bolts at the very first sign of her illness. Later she will marry Patrick (not a spoiler since the book begins with what is described as the end of her marriage to him after Martha’s fortieth birthday). Their life together is entirely dominated by her illness, which is misdiagnosed, misunderstood, mismanaged, and incorrectly medicated. Eventually, Martha receives a new diagnosis from a new psychiatrist – significantly, the name of her condition is left blank. This is not a book about a condition, it is a book about how mental illness tears lives apart, and not just the lives of those who have the condition. Martha is prescribed medication which finally seems to work, but when Martha seems to be getting ‘fixed’, her life actually begins to fall apart.
This book is an astonishing account of a severe mental illness from the point of view of the person experiencing it. We see the world entirely through Martha’s eyes for most of the book, until the final, correct, diagnosis is made. As the fog clears for Martha, the experience of being a loved one of someone with a mental illness, partner, sibling, parent, is given air time. It is astonishing and I have not read anything quite like it before. Meg Mason writes concisely and brilliantly, with a style that is both spare and completely exposing. She also has the most extraordinary dark humour – the trauma is so deep that you do actually need the laugh out loud moments. It reminded me a bit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in that respect. The characters are powerfully drawn and I loved the exploration of the relationship between Martha and her sister Ingrid – brilliant, comic, intensely loving and brutally honest.
I don’t know much about the remaining books on the shortlist, but I would be delighted to see Meg Mason or Maggie Shipstead win – both their books rank in the top five titles I have read in the last twelve months.
So, Sorrow and Bliss highly recommended, The Sentence, I am more lukewarm about. You can watch a live stream of the prize-giving event and the announcement by following the link here.
At the start of the year I set myself a non-fiction reading challenge. I realised that although I loved non-fiction, it was a genre I had neglected a bit. I set myself the goal to read one non-fiction title a month. It has not been going well! My January book, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, took a while to get through. My February book was Lebanon by Andrew Arsan, which I spotted in my local bookshop at the end of last year and bought on impulse. It was big and not cheap, so not the usual kind of book I would buy, so it was very much a treat to myself – I know, most people would go for a new lipstick or something!
There is a story to this. I had the privilege of visiting Lebanon about twenty five years ago. My closest friend at university was half-Lebanese and lived most of her life between Lebanon and the UK. Some of the time she was forced back to the UK due to civil unrest in Lebanon, but she always had a foot in each camp. At the time (the second half of the 1990s), Lebanon was relatively stable and I spend a wonderful few weeks there. The people I met could not have been warmer or more welcoming and I loved every minute of my trip. The history of the region is the history of civilisation and it is heartbreaking to see that that part of the world endures so much suffering and destruction today.
Lebanon is a tiny country, one of the smallest states in the world, but its strategic importance means it has a higher profile on the international stage than its size might suggest. Its population is though to be close to seven million now, but well over 1.5 million of these are thought to be refugees from the various conflicts going on nearby. Over a million refugees from the war in Syria are thought to be living in Lebanon.
I always knew that the country was comprised of a fragile balance of different religious interests, known as confessionalism. I also always knew that much of its political system was characterised by corruption and vested interest. I also always knew that it was a country whose people have endured the worst effects of that corruption and the factionalism. Who could forget the terrible explosion of out of date and highly combustible fertiliser at the Port of Beirut in 2020, which killed in over 200 people, and for which no-one has yet been held fully accountable? Lebanon is also a country that its other more powerful neighbours, particularly Israel and Syria, have sought at times to control. The story of Lebanon is fascinating if also rather tragic.
What I was expecting from Andrew Arsan’s book was a history of the country which would give me a more detailed perspective of its present conditions. I was expecting a textural narrative which would tell me more about the Lebanese people, their nature and character, and about the culture. That’s not quite what I got!
Andrew Arsan is a Cambridge scholar of Middle Eastern history, with Lebanese origins. This book is a work of great scholarship that focuses on the period 2005-2019 – the references alone run to almost fifty pages. The book begins with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the great political hope of the Lebanese people at the time. The Syrian government are thought to have been behind his killing. It triggered a period of political turmoil in the country that the author describes in great detail. I found much of this very difficult to follow. I suspect, however, that anyone with some prior knowledge of the country and its politics, or who was from Lebanon, would be able to appreciate this account more. The overwhelming impression that I was left with, however, was that the government is corrupt; it’s about who owes what to whom, is influenced by outside interests, and is more interested in itself than improving the lot of the population.
The second half of the book was more interesting to me as it followed many of the social developments in the period, the cultural changes, how corruption has compromised the basic rights of Lebanese people, for example, the extensive privatisation of beach areas, previously unowned public goods, to the exclusion of all but the wealthiest citizens. The very basics of life have become increasingly difficult – there are frequent power cuts, intermittent access to the internet, and there is a whole chapter on how government incompetence and corruption led to a months-long failure in refuse collection services, with predictable consequences.
The book is extensively researched – I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like it. It looks like the kind of book you would dip into, but in fact it is a book that is meant to be read as a single narrative work. It is extremely well-written, with dark humour as well as profound irony. It is a shame that it is unlikely to be read widely.
I could only read this book about ten pages at a time, so it took me almost two months to work through. It is not bedtime reading and it won’t be top of many wish lists, but it is the kind of book that deserves to be read and understood, because Lebanon is a country that deserves more of our attention and to be better understood.
The next book I read in my non-fiction challenge was Haruki Murakami’s What I TalkAbout When I Talk About Running – much longer title, much shorter book. I listened to it on audio over the course of about three runs. Look out for my review next week.
And so we find ourselves at the end of this Platinum Jubilee weekend, four days of events and celebrations that have been quite enjoyable, actually. I’ve been to two parties and for a change the British weather did not let us down! It does not seem so very long ago that we were celebrating the Diamond Jubilee (2012) in which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, being sprightly 80-somethings, played a much more active role. It had not been too bad a decade for Her Majesty – we had two major royal weddings, William and Kate in 2011, then Harry and Meghan in 2018, plus a host of minor royal weddings. And all those newlyweds have produced the next generation of royals. Sadly, the last couple of years have been very difficult; the Queen lost her husband in 2021, a few weeks short of his 100th birthday, her son Andrew brought disgrace to the family when he was forced into an out of settlement in a sexual assault case, and rifts between Prince Harry, his brother, his father and ‘the Palace’ have seen him and his wife give up their royal duties and move to California. Their public pronouncements have been uncomfortable to say the least.
But all that has been set to one side for the moment. We were even able to forget the mess that passes for British government at the moment to enjoy a truly once-in-a-lifetime moment in history. Whatever you may think of Queen Elizabeth, monarchies more generally or the British Royal Family, the world will not see her like again.
I started this blog in 2016 and have probably read more in the last ten years than in any previous decade. A few of my favourite books since 2010 have been by American authors. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of my favourite books from the 1990s. Her third novel The Goldfinch, published in 2013 certainly ranks in my top ten for the last decade. It follows the story of Theo Dekker, who loses his mother in an explosion at an art gallery. He manages to escape and takes with him a small but extremely valuable Dutch Renaissance painting. He spends the subsequent years concealing his crime and the book follows his story and the events that arise out of his concealment. It’s an extraordinary book.
Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life was another highlight, a novel of epic proportions following the lives of four college friends, all of them drawn together by their quirkiness, but also their relationship with Jude, the most vulnerable in the group. Set in New York city it is a novel of our times, dealing with sexuality, depression, self-harm, isolation and being on the outside. It is heartbreaking and completely compelling.
One of my other most enjoyable reads of the decade was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014. Set in St Malo, Brittany, it tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl in second world war France and Werner, an orphan and member of the Hitler Youth and invading German forces, and how their worlds collide.
Sally Rooney took the literary world by storm in the last few years with her books Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018) and Beautiful World Where Are You (2021). Normal People was made into one of the televison events of the decade and I loved both the book and the series. Exceptional writing from a very talented young woman, who is still only thirty.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were another highlight of the decade. Published 2011-2014, I devoured them all and cannot choose between them for brilliance. I have yet to see the television series as it is currently only available on a channel I do not subscribe to. The two central characters Lila and Elena have stayed with me and the relationship between them has shed a whole new light on the nature of female relationships. Outstanding.
In the UK, Dame Hilary Mantel completed her Wolf Hall trilogy with Bring Up the Bodies in 2012 and The Mirror and the Lightin 2020. It is a truly outstanding literary achievement. Having won her second Booker with Bring Up the Bodies, she did not quite get the hat trick with the final instalment. That honour went to Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, although she shared that honour with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.
Two other award winning novels by slightly lower profile authors I thoroughly enjoyed were Milkmanby Anna Burns, which won the Booker Prize in 2018, and Birdcage Walkby the late Helen Dunmore, which was published posthumously in 2017. Milkman tells the story of a young woman growing up in Belfast during the time of the Troubles and struggling just to be herself and live the life she wants to without the threat of violence. Dunmore’s novel confirmed her as foremost among authors of historical fiction telling the story of a young woman in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution.
If I had not confined myself to British authors, my book of the decade would have been Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a book about trees and people trying to destroy them, versus people trying to protect them. But my parameters were set and Powers is American, so my book of the last decade, for sheer enjoyment, writing brilliance, masterful storytelling is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. It tells the story of a young William Shakespeare and his wife, and the 11 year-old son they lose to illness. Powerful, poignant, and a creative imagining of an event that actually happened but which we know so little about.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, looking back over books from a big chunk of the last century that I have enjoyed. Every day I have thought of more that I should have added to a previous decade and I am sure you can think of many others I have forgotten. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of my choices.
After the turbulence of the 1990s, the noughties were a quieter decade for the Queen. She was getting older of course, in her mid-seventies by the turn of the century. In 2002 she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, marking an incredible half century on the British throne. It was an altogether more sedate affair than the Silver Jubilee in 1977, I seem to remember. Perhaps we were all becoming more grown up about the monarchy. The Queen also celebrated her 80th birthday in 2006 (my youngest was born on that day). She was officially an elderly lady and from that moment on she was pretty untouchable.
I think one of the reasons we took our eyes off the monarchy was that there was so much bigger stuff going on elsewhere in the world. There was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, of course, an event which led to prolonged and devastating war in the Middle East, the effects of which are still being felt today. The financial crash in 2008 would lead to a decade of austerity in the UK and the end of the Labour government.
For me, the decade was dominated by small children. My three children were born between 2001 and 2006. These were my reading wilderness years. Most of my reading was of children’s books, which, to be fair, is no bad thing. We worked through the Harry Potter books, of course. A favourite of mine was also Philip Pulman’s Northern Lights (though this was in fact published in 1995), though my kids were less keen on this one. My son adored the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney (2007 onwards) while my daughters adored the Rainbow Magic books (2003 onwards). We had a huge collection of them which they have never forgiven me for throwing out. To be fair, their opprobrium is deserved and I have no defence.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stimulated my interest in literature from that part of the world. I read two books published in this decade by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini which are extraordinary – The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). Both novels evoke the culture and atmosphere of Afghanistan and its turbulent recent history.
I had a long drive to work in the first couple of years of the decade. I used to buy audiobooks (on cassettes!) and one that I loved, and which I listened to several times, was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, published in 2000. Complex and innovative in structure, it explores the relationship between two sisters in the 1930s and 1940s, as recalled by Iris, her sister Laura having died in 1945.
In the UK, Zadie Smith shot to literary fame with her first novel White Teeth (2000) about two men, a Bangladeshi and an Englishman, who became friends during the war, and how their relationship evolves later on amid racial tension in London. I am ashamed to say that this is a book I have tried and failed to read more than once. I have no idea why. It took me a long time to read books in those days so perhaps it required more mental energy than I had available at the time.
A book I did love was Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003. It is an innovative novel about a teenager with autism spectrum disorder who takes it upon himself to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog. It is about how the central character Christopher navigates a world that has been set up for the convenience of the majority that does not experience disability or neurodiversity, and what this means for people who are on the outside of this group.
The book of the decade, for me, however, was Wolf Hall by Dame Hilary Mantel, published in 2009. I adored her earlier novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution A Place of Greater Safety (1992), but it was Wolf Hall that really cemented her reputation as one of the finest living British writers. And rightly so. As a piece of historical fiction it is truly extraordinary. The depth of her research and the profound degree to which she has understood both her subject (Thomas Cromwell, minister at the court of King Henry VIII) and the period, drips off the page. The plotting, the story-telling, the characterisation, the immersion, it is all breathtaking.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that I read Wolf Hall in the decade in which it was published (which was the rule I set myself), but on this occasion I am giving myself the benefit of the doubt for this is a truly outstanding book that might even be book of the century.
The 1990s proved to be a torrid decade for the Royal Family; the Queen’s children were getting divorced left, right and centre. Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, Princess Anne divorced in 1992, and Prince Andrew in 1996. In 1992, a massive fire at Windsor Castle caused extensive damage – the Queen would go on to describe that year as her annus horribilis. But it would get much worse. In 1997 her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned, deemed no longer worth refitting, one of the few occasions on which the Queen has been seen to cry in public. Then, the big one, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris in September 1997, drew great criticism. The Royal Family failed to grieve alongside a nation that seemed to have had its heart ripped out and sharp contrasts were drawn between the warm and outgoing character of Diana, and the seemingly hard-hearted Royals. Diana had become a thorn in the side of the British monarchy and conspiracy theories abounded about the cause of her death.
I was in my twenties in the 1990s and therefore at my peak. I had my own fair share of ups and downs, romances and heartbreaks, successes and disappointments. I joined the Civil Service in 1991 after graduating in 1990 and had an exciting few years in Whitehall before moving to Newcastle in north east England. Eighteen years of Conservative government came to an end in 1997 when Tony Blair and his New Labour government were elected in 1997, and there was so much HOPE! The music of this era remains the soundtrack of my life. My favourite band Radiohead became one of the biggest bands in the world, releasing their seminal work OK Computer in 1997, which probably remains my most listened to album ever. I was also listening to REM, U2, Blur and Oasis of course, Morrissey, PJ Harvey going to lots of gigs, working in the capital so at the theatre all the time. I was living my best life! Or so it seemed at the time. I met my husband in 1999, so the decade ended on a high too.
I re-discovered contemporary fiction in the 1990s and some of my favourite all-time books came out in this decade. One of the best was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published in 1992, a debut novel about a group of Classics students at a New England college and the events leading up to the death of one of their number. In 1991, Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri won the Booker Prize for his extraordinary novel The Famished Road, a strange and dreamlike book about a spirit boy who finds himself torn between the spirit and the material worlds. I remember finding it both strange and fascinating, but hugely powerful.
Two extraordinary Indian novels were published in this decade, both of which had a profound effect on me. Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is one of the finest books I have ever read, and, at more than 1,300 pages long, it is also one of the longest ever published. I read it one Christmas when I was particularly miserable and it saved me. In 1995, Rohinton Mistry published A Fine Balance, another very powerful novel about life in the caste system in India.
In the UK, there were a couple of literary landmarks. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary came out in 1996 – it WAS my life! It spoke for women of my generation, who were told we could have it all and then found we couldn’t really. Then in 1997 came JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and children’s literature would neve be quite the same again.
British-American novelist Tracy Chevalier took the literary world by storm in 1999 with her debut novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, a unique and innovative piece of historical fiction about the story behind Vermeer’s world famous painting. For me, it started a love affair with the Netherlands and with historical fiction for which I am very grateful.
Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love was another favourite. The scene with the hot air balloon remains one of the most arresting in the English language, in my opinion, and I am in awe of McEwan’s ability to create incredible stories out of the day to day.
But for me the book of the decade is AS Byatt’s Possession. Published in 1990, it also won the Booker Prize that year. The novel follows two present-day academics who are researching a possible romance between two previously unconnected Victorian poets. It is a book about academic rivalry and hubris, about lies and deception and is both a detective story and a romance. It is extremely literary whilst also being very accessible. It is a masterwork.
There are so many books I could have chosen from this decade. Reflecting on those years I see that they were turbulent for Her Majesty, and eventful and rich for me too, though rather more mirabilis than horribilis in my case, I am happy to say. At least none of my yachts were decommissioned.