Here's the list of  books I read last year, and what I felt about them:

THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins, 1860 long and wonderful, its suspense maintained very vividly across most of the novel.
THE SEED COLLECTORS, Scarlett Thomas, 2015 pretentious & self-regarding.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, 2008 despite the awful title, dual authorship & horribly perky first 20 pages or so, this becomes a wonderful, moving book that works as fiction and as a documentary portrait of wartime occupied Guernsey; exceptional.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BRIDGE, Mary Lawson, 2006 an even more admirably clear-sighted and deeply affecting novel than her "Crow Lake"; too short, though.
THE CROSSING, Andrew Miller, 2015 vital, poetic prose & a compelling heroine.
CHARLES DICKENS: A CRITICAL STUDY, George Gissing, 1898 to my surprise (since I loved "Grub Street" and love a lot of Dickens) I had to give this up after five chapters; far too stuck in the agonies of late-Victorian moralising.
GRAY MOUNTAIN, John Grisham, 2014 many GoodReadsers have moaned about it being an "issue book", but it's deeply researched about strip mining, black lung disease & the corporate trashing of the Appalachians; commendable & timely
ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson, 2013 a lesser work & even shorter, but recommended; I wish there were more of her work - three novels aren't enough from this great writer (though there's another one written in French, which I wouldn't be able to tackle; there seems to be no English translation).
THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, Anne Bronte, 1848 both narrators (speaking as letter & diary writers plagued by total recall) seem foolish early on, and the ending is too pat, but the portraint of the heroine's dissolute husband is absorbing. The book never explores or questions reliance on and exploitation of faithful servants, but it does examine the double standards in law & marriage between men and women.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, Philip K. Dick, 1962 patchiest book ever read; fresh sentences, long tedious passages, improbable characters, one great character.
GEORGE GISSING: A LIFE, Paul Delaney, 2008 diligently researched sympathetic study of an affecting, hopelessly wretched life & of a fascinating literary novelist; few people can ever have shot themselves in the feet as repeatedly as Gissing did.
THE ABORTIONIST'S DAUGHTER, Elisabeth Hyde, 2006 third-rate crime novel with implausible plot detail; manages to be both glib and clunky at the same time.
TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY In The Cevennes, R L Stevenson, 1879 a rare delight.
MRS. DALLOWAY, Virginia Woolf, 1925 an absolute masterpiece.
THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS, Colum McCann, 1998 a gruelling read: such sordid lives, such compelling & tragic characters, such powerful prose.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, Thomas Hardy, 1891 passionately written tale of tragic characters; a then-progressive foregrounding of the rural working-class (though hardly Zola).
THE LAST DETECTIVE, Peter Lovesey, 1991 superior whodunit of original construction and decent prose, though the culprit perhaps too easy to guess.
THE PACT, Jodi Picoult, 1998 gives readers no sense of whether her cringeworthy adults are meant to be seen as awful; riddled with creativewritingschoolitis; but when it becomes a courtroom drama it gets moderately compelling sub-Grisham.
DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem, 2013 a great novel: of wide-ranging genius & lapidary intelligence; historical accuracy fused with alert imagination.
THE DIVIDE, Nicholas Evans, 2005 nature well described, people almost entirely one-dimensional & self-regarding, as promised crime novel becomes long, tedious family-agonies story; humourless & witless throughout.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins, 2015 mystifyingly compelling page-turner early on, when the two main narrators seem creepy yet not sinister; develops into something extraordinarily clever as the tension is racked up. Brilliantly plotted. No wonder it was such a mega bestseller. Finest thriller I've read since Gone Girl, but so beautifully English instead of American.
PLOT 29, Allan Jenkins, 2017 a beautiful, sad book about the agonies of his unknown antecedents & his & his brother's abandonment, and of trying to uncover it all and adjust to it, interspersed with a journal of his cathartic life planting & growing veg, fruit and flowers. The first non-fiction book I've read for months.
THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES, Kate Tempest, 2016 probably in the top ten greatest novels I've ever read; truly contemporary, wide-ranging yet concentrated, wholly distinctive voice, moving & funny & impassioned & so shrewdly observant, and pins down situations we've all lived yet have never found in fiction before.
MR. NICHOLAS, Thomas Hinde, 1952 at first I thought it just a very inferior Elizabeth Bowen, but it grew on me. A bit.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST, Stieg Larsson, 2007; English translation 2009 my first read from Larsson; mind-bogglingly well-planned & plotted; an intelligent, substantial page-turner; and it reads well in English. One oddity: it's set in Sweden yet there's never any weather...
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS: A Memoir of Life & Love in Hamburg 1945, Harry Leslie Smith, 2012 & 2015 should be interesting re life for a British soldier staying on in Germany when WWII has ended - but he's no writer so it isn't. I gave it up.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG: A Compendium of Childhood, ed. John Burningham, 2004 a fresh, tremendously well-chosen range of childhood memoir pieces with an admirable literary bent & no dumbing down; full of quotable moments.
ENGLEBY, Sebastian Faulks, 2007 compelling story, dark humour, intellectually sharp; near total-recall of 1970s minutiae; crucially, the tranparently unreliable narrator (an almost common current device) comes within a highly inventive form of the novel that is ingenious without postmodernism (ie without being irritating).
ROBINSON CRUSOE, The Life and Strange & Surprising Adventures of, Daniel Defoe, 1719 [1808 edition] I'd read it as a child, but had no idea how ruthlessly this immensely long book had been abridged for children; in this edition he doesn't see the footprint till 27% of the way through, doesn't meet Friday till almost 40% of the way through and has returned to Europe by 50%, after several hundred pages. I gave up after that; the edition I read (on Kindle) seems to have added in all Defoe's far less popular follow-up novels. The original full-length novel, interesting & skilfully done, was enough.
AGAINST MISERABILISM, David Widgery, 2017 posthumous collection of his brilliantly prescient, wide-ranging essays written 1968-92: admirably relevant on politics and soberingly good (and affecting) on his experience as an NHS doctor in London.
A LESSON BEFORE DYING, Ernest J. Gaines, 1993 a short, likeable novel compelling through its detail as well as its quiet humanity; a portrait of racial injustice in the Deep South of the 1940s, set in a rural black community full of its own tensions; but told calmly.
WINTER IN MADRID, C.J.Sansom, 2006 a highly researched historical-adventure novel of politics & intrigue set in 1930s-early '40s Spain; a page-turner through accretion of detail long before it becomes one through tensions and twists of plot.
IN COLD BLOOD, Truman Capote, 1966 what a book! The perfect template for a historical crime non-fiction case, inspirationally structured from its calm, detailed, intelligent and humane beginning to its forgiveably sweetened end.
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, Stephen Crane, 1895 uncanny maturity of tone & humour from a 21-year-old writer, and so innovative: the first Civil War novel about ordinary soldiers instead of great generals. An easy read too.
THE VINYL DETECTIVE, Andrew Cartmel, 2016 goes on too long, many implausibilities but great fun for anyone who's ever been or befriended a hi-fi freak or obsessive record collector.
A RIVER TOWN, Thomas Keneally, 1995 admirable, vivid, unhurried novel from a major writer, and one of those rare authors whose books truly differ from each other & are unified only by his robust, engaged imagination. His adjectives dance but are never showy.
HERE I AM, Jonathan Safran Foer, 2016 provoking in both senses, this unfunny "hilarious" novel is so wearingly clever, so delighted by its own cutesy introspection and by its self-absorbed main characters (a drippy couple and their precocious children). It's also far too long, but that's another outcome of its shouty self-indulgence. (And boo to Penguin for a UK paperback with such a small typeface that they don't even admit what it is on the copyright page.)
THE HOUSE IN PARIS, Elizabeth Bowen, 1935 a re-balancing after the horrors of "Here I Am": forensic quiet intelligence in place of clever shouting, and that rare but special pleasure, a striking child character (Leopold).


  1. HNY Michael,

    Re. Defoe and his 'far less popular' later novels, surely Moll Flanders has lasted pretty well: still in print, a staple of academic courses and multiple TV, movie, theatrical adaptations to this day. Also, his Journal of the Plague Year remains a terrific book and a sort-of predecessor to the nonfiction novel of Capote et al. All the rest of his books are worth exploring; no one-hit wonder.

  2. Hi there, Unknown. I didn't mean those Defoe novels, which I'm aware of and read many years ago: I meant that follow-up Robinson Crusoe novels, which were never half as popular as the original. I didn't suggest, or certainly didn't mean to suggest, that Defoe was a one-hit wonder.

  3. Ah, my misinterpretation - sorry. Thanks for the reply. Even in those days the temptation to cash in was great... Blonde On Blonde 2, anybody?

  4. "Blonde On Blonde 2": yes please!

  5. Michael

    A fascinating and very varied list. Have read some of the books here and would generally agree with your comments. Willkie Collins a personal favourite since I read 'The Moonstone' as a teenager. Was pleasantly surprised by 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' which I read on the recommendation of a student of mine. Given that Anne is often damned with faint praise, I found it a really excellent - if at times somewhat inconsistent - novel. Also very brave for its times in its choice of subject matter. Also admire Gissing - read John Halperin's book before the Delaney one and still think it is better in its treatment of Gissing's books. Also like Stevenson, who is such a fine prose writer - and Elizabeth Bowen, who is such a brilliantly subtle one. Didn't know about the David Widgery book which I will check out immediately. Also look forward to catching up with some of the other books here...