rather late but here's my list of...


A READING DIARY: A Year Of Favourite Books, Alberto Manguel, 2004 many gemlike quotations & a nice restrained chattiness, but he's often precious, and a bit of a name-dropper.

THE SECRET LIFE OF COWS, Rosamund Young, 2017 edn Credible & creditable close long-term observation of cows allowed to live relatively free lives, yielding much about their quirks, feelings, behaviour, differences, and levels of trust in the author and her partners. No word about their responses to being taken for slaughter by the same people though.

STATION ELEVEN, Emily St.John Mandel, 2014 A surprising delight: elegaic, well-written and unusually kindly novel while telling, very thoughtfully, a tale of dystopian cataclysm; I was sorry to come to the end of it.

KIM, Rudyard Kipling, 1901 Strongly written - with British Empire confidence yet huge respect for, and knowledge of, such variegated Indian life - and though its long, slow beginning tries the patience (and no modern child would persevere) it becomes beguiling and includes too few of the depictions of landscape he does superbly.

RECENT HISTORY, Anthony Giardina, 2001 Well-written novel in which a sensitive, observant suburban youth grows up to be a drip.

MURDER, MAYHEM & MUSIC HALL: The Dark Side of Victorian London, Barry Anthony, 2015 Thoroughly researched, entertaining account centred on theatre-world scandals & crime.

DOGS FROM ALL ANGLES, Nina Scott-Langley & K.R.G.Browne, 1936 Largely hilarious commentaries (sometimes wildly inaccurate, eg re Bedlington Terriers) & quaint angular drawings.

HALF AN INCH OF WATER, Percival Everett, 2015 Short stories (a form I've never liked) in each of which a decent, laconic man living in a sparse western-state landscape that is described in spare prose either solves or fails to solve a problem handed to him by someone he hardly knows.

EUROPE BY RAIL: The Definitive Guide, Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries, 2017 Strikingly well-written, thoughtful guidebook not only to train routes but to countries, cities and landscapes.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Michael Ondaatje, 1992 A major WW2 novel I'd never read. It's framed with great originality and in prose of reverberating intensity.

MAGPIE MURDERS, Anthony Horowitz, 2016 A whodunnit about whodunnits predictably more concerned to be clever than to be plausible (postmodernitis). Plus a horribly smug narrator; is this a deliberate attack on people in publishing, or does he think this woman's ok?: hard to tell. Tosh.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, Edith Wharton, 1905 In the end a sad story but so sharply witty in its observations of society I found myself thinking it made Jane Austen seem myopic.

THE DEATH OF THE HEART, Elizabeth Bowen, 1938 Penetrating scrutiny of: a self-suffocating upper middle class 1930s London couple and their obliviousness to their soon-to-vanish servants; a naive teenager; lower middle class seaside life; and the wretchedness of a redundant ex-soldier's poverty & social isolation.

MARCH VIOLETS, Philip Kerr, 1989 Serviceable detective novel set in Nazi Germany; hopeless about women characters (and this is not defensible on period-attitude grounds because he uses a noticeably more modern voice on other topics).

ORLEY FARM, Anthony Trollope, 1862 For much of this long novel I felt that it might well be a great 19th Century novel that somehow no-one ever mentioned, but in the end it failed at a couple of hurdles, especially in its surprising insipidity as the young romantic heroine eventual gains the lover of her choice; but a fine novel all the same, full of characters, a decent & dramatic plot and a particularly moving scene of between a loving father and daughter.

A CRIME IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, Suzanne Berne, 1997 Strong portrait of an American suburb in the early 1970s; well plotted, shifting our view of the child-narrator cleverly as it goes; I appreciated it more after discussing it later than during the reading.

THE SINGER'S GUN, Emily St.John Mandel, 2010 Such a compelling story of crime, conflicted loyalties and love - modern and brilliant (and very different from 'Station Eleven') from a real writer. So many strata above workaday crime fiction like the Philip Kerr. She's a major find.

THE HEAT OF THE DAY, Elizabeth Bowen, 1948 Patchy but important novel of WWII London, exploring issues of identity, loyalty and trust, with passages of improbable dialogue and a habit of awkardly arranged sentence structure, yet the most superb, hyperreal, inspired description of the psychology of Londoners in the Blitz.

THE DISCOVERY OF SLOWNESS, Sten Nadolny, 1983 [English translation by Ralph Freedman 1987] Beguiling, admirable novel not quite like anything I've ever read; a fond and ingenious partly fictional portrait of Sir John Franklin from boyhood to death; sorry I reached the end.

A SHILLING FOR CANDLES, Josephine Tey, 1936 Whodunit; useful display of the class snobberies of England between the wars.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW, William Maxwell, 1979 A beautiful novel of sensitive intelligence, compassion and sense of place (rural Illinois 1920s-70s); reminded me in these ways of The Other Side of The Bridge by Mary Lawson.

MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS, Christopher Isherwood, 1935 Another I'd never read before. Disliked, early on, the exaggerated portrayal of Norris and the sordid allusions to S&M, but grew to admire this short, distinctive novel. Scrupulous portrait of German Weimar Republic life.

BLIND CORNER, Dornford Yates, 1927 A preposterous adventure yarn by a favourite author of my father's, typifying what Alan Bennett calls "that school of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through [British] twentieth-century literature."

INTO THE WATER, Paula Watkins, 2017 It's 90 years later and the crime thriller is more real, but though it's a page-turner, no one character is half as vivid or convincing as the narrator in her terrific 'The Girl On The Train'.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr, 2014 Unlike the characters trapped in WWII, I wanted it to never end: the best book about the coming of war and war itself that I have ever read; a beautiful and great novel.

CHASING THE MONSOON, Alexander Frater, 1990 I'm re-reading this after many years (having now been to India, though only once). The copious background research is too often introduced clunkily, but it's otherwise entertaining and quite funny; there are also large chunks of autobiography about his own childhood on a similarly rainy island in Vanuatu.

ABOUT GRACE, Anthony Doerr, 2005 Had to read this, his first novel; not as outstanding as t'other, but a very unusual, compelling book, suffused with a special sadness throughout.

WHEN A CROCODILE EATS THE SUN, Peter Godwin, 2006 Shaky start but becomes a well-written, convincing insider's account of watching Mugabe's Zimbabwe descend into violence, cruelty, stupidity and waste: an account that blends very skilfully and articulately a detailed picture of his own white family life with the shameful detail of national disintegration.

TWO CARAVANS, Marina Lewycka, 2007 A lovely book: clever, multi-faceted and funny, but at the same time a vivid education in the gruesome exploitation of immigrant workers in today's UK.

ALWAYS OTHER VOICES: Writings on Bob Dylan in the 21st Century, Stephen Scobie, 2018 An attractive mixed bag, featuring Stephen's distinctively appealing voice on many topics.

SMALL ISLAND, Andrea Levy, 2004 Starts so badly I almost gave it up; so glad I didn't. She has no style but the story she tells is so multi-layered, so wide-ranging (Jamaica, India in WWII, London 1948) and uses many character-narrators, all of whom work well except the first. An important synthesis of many cultural strands told with sympathy for all sides. Bit soulless, though.

THE CLEARING, Tim Gautreaux, 2003 He's a great writer, and this is as memorable a novel as 'The Next Step In The Dance' (1999). He makes a world so vividly realised here, in such detail and yet with an elegaic sweep; so atmospheric yet so specific. A novel of such violence yet so much humanity, a time and place of tough realism created with unerring poetic prose.

THE SHIPPING NEWS, Annie Proulx, 1993 A masterpiece. Straight in to my (unwritten) list of Best 5 Novels Ever Read. Came to the end with the greatest possible reluctance. Cast adrift, bereft, without it.

AFRICA EXPLORED: Europeans in the Dark Continent 1769-1889. Christopher Hibbert, 1982 Efficiently told, well summarised accounts, yet in some detail, of the extraordinary people who made these dangerous explorations and the equally extraordinary people they encountered.

THE TRANSLATION OF THE BONES, Francesca Kay, 2011 A beautifully written and very English, very Roman Catholic novel mesmerised by the language of liturgy, set mostly in a barely-present London but terrific on parent-child love.

JANE EYRE, Charlotte Bronte, 1847 A re-read after many decades. Remarkable novel, rather better than the more currently modish 'Wuthering Heights" by her sister and at least as racy in its time; and in St.John Rivers she has created one of the most truly loathsome characters in English fiction.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Elizabeth Strout, 2016 A short and very American novel that took me by surprise: I spent the first 75% or so finding it thin and insubstantial (and the wide high praise for it inexplicable) and then suddenly I found it very moving indeed.

THE GREEN YEARS, A.J. Cronin, 1944 Having only read 'The Citadel' (and that many years ago), and aware that Cronin has fallen heavily from literary favour in recent decades, I loved and admired this exceptionally well-written, compelling coming-of-age novel set in a time-past Scottish town.

THE BREAKER, Minette Walters, 1998 Whodunit that begins ok but plummets horribly: dodgy, flat characterisation and toe-curlingly bad dialogue, especially when her characters are being friendly or flirtatious. It makes Agatha Christie seem literary.

THE ACCIDENTAL, Ali Smith, 2006 Rapturous.

RED BIRDS, Mohammed Hanif, 2018 Starts badly with an uncertain narrative tone, achieves a clever and inspired central 150-page portrait of the mad relationship between foreign wars and the refugee camps & rehabilitation programmes those wars create... and then a final 70-odd pages so exasperatingly pointless and silly you wonder why Hanif didn't just delete them.

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, Maggie O'Farrell, 2006 Moving novel written with beautiful clarity and with a glorious main character whose life is ruined but not quite crushed by her family and the mores of the age in which she grew up.


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