I spent too much of this (and last) year reading anaemic updatings of Shakespeare plays: pale novels which borrowed plots and missed points and, oddly, always misunderstood the minor characters. After these, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, £9.99) came as a relief and a surprise. Her novel is big, beautiful, and most of all bold: a rewriting of King Lear, transplanted to modern day Delhi, which is both a dazzlingly original reading of the play and a full novel in its own right. A masterpiece, and by a long way my book of the year.
Mike Lankford’s genial and sassy biography Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci (Melville House, £19.25) has none of the stuffiness of that exhausting genre. Little is known about the day-to-day Leonardo, but Lankford’s passionate, intelligent speculations bring the shadow to life.
Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (Picador, £16.99) is a mirthful account of horrendous everyday events in an English hospital’s ‘brats and twats’ (obstetrics and gynaecology) department, but also, with its ‘Open Letter to the Secretary of State for Health’, a poignant condemnation of the political exploitation of junior doctors.
Deterred until now by the tediously engrossing television series and snooty characterisations of his ‘middlebrow’ novels, I wallowed in John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (Wordsworth Classics, £2.50) and discovered that Galsworthy is much closer to his French contemporary than the so-called ‘English Proust’, Anthony Powell.
Thomas W. Hodgkinson
‘Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the language dies.’ So says Martin Amis, the vieillard terrible of English letters, in his ragged collection of journalism, The Rub of Time (Cape, £20). It sounds as if he’s talking about himself. The worst bits here are horribly pompous and prolix, yet the best are essential: euphonious, penetrating and very funny. Amis on Larkin. Amis on porn. Amis on Amis. You’d better get it.
I recently visited the temple of Poseidon, just south of Athens. Its beautiful surviving pillars stand out against the brilliant blue backdrop of sky, in defiance of… what? Not time. It was Christians who trashed the temple, on the orders of the Emperor Arcadius. This is just one example of Catherine Nixey’s theme in her sizzling, scintillating book The Darkening Age (Macmillan, £20) about the hooliganism of early Christianity.
My greatest pleasure this year was discovering the novels and short stories of Tessa Hadley. As Anne Enright says on the cover of one of them: ‘She is the writer we didn’t know we were waiting for until she arrived.’ What a wonderful voice! Intelligent, reserved, strikingly perceptive and often very funny, Hadley is in her early sixties and has written six novels and two books of short stories, mainly about families, relationships, the stuff of life. There are no great stylistic curlicues and she writes broadly realistically, but if she’s a writer’s writer (and I suspect she might be), it’s because you never see the workings. There’s a strange magic with which she brings off her narrative tricks. I have read three of her books this year, with five to go. Warning: as an experiment I recommended one to a male friend, who likes his novels rather more cerebral and intellectually demanding, and he didn’t see the point. I can’t argue with that, although obviously he’s wrong.
Other novels I enjoyed this year include: Easy Peasy by Lesley Glaister (1997); The Extremes by Christopher Priest (1998); Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002); and The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (2016).
Martin Amis’s non-fiction stretches the mind and the vocabulary of his readers. He is acutely perceptive, and illuminates and reveals an author or a book. The Rub of Time (Cape, £20), his recent collection of pieces written between 1986 and 2016, is brilliant on politics, poker, people and places. Unmissable.
Set aside the Strictly Come Camp, if you can — he finds it hard to do so himself —and you discover a very different Reverend Richard Coles in his two books of autobiography, both newly published in paperback: Fathomless Riches (Weidenfeld, £9.99) and Bringing in the Sheaves (Weidenfeld, £8.99). His life story is intriging — pop star to Anglican vicar — but it is his insights into the church’s present situation, Christian belief and above all human encounters that are honest, sometimes funny and occasionally revelatory; they make these books special.
My top book of the year is The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane with sumptuous illustrations by Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, £20). It is one of those children’s books for ages up to 99 years. The lost words are those my generation and earlier ones used every day and which are fast disappearing, and Macfarlane’s aim is to resurrect the everyday glories of our language. May he succeed.
I don’t usually name a book I dislike; and I didn’t dislike Craig Brown’s sort-of-biography of the late Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling (4th Estate, £16.99) while reading it. I scampered through it with glee and then felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. Whatever HRH was, however difficult, however much of a mess she made of her life, she is dead but her close family are not. There are limits.
Anne de Courcy’s The Husband Hunters (Weidenfeld, £20) reveals how the ruthlessly ambitious wives of American parvenus stormed the social heights of New York and London in the gilded age. A tale of buccaneering matriarchs marrying their American princess daughters to the dim-witted, cash-strapped sons of British peers, and using their new-found social cachet to force admittance into the exclusive New York elite. Cleverly researched, sparkling with diamonds and wickedly funny.
I enjoyed and admired Philippe Sands’s East West Street (Weidenfeld, £9.99), which starts as a quest for a Polish family’s history in the Holocaust and broadens into the fascinating story of how two Jewish lawyers from Lvov developed the concepts of international law used to convict the Nazi killers at Nuremberg.
This year I loved Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s first novel, Peculiar Ground (4th Estate, £16.99). Set in the fictional country house of Wychwood, the novel begins in 1663, when the owner, Lord Woldingham, newly returned to his estate under the Restoration, decides to enclose his park in a wall of stone. The wall is both protective and imprisoning, as the story jumps forward in time ‘like a gramophone needle’ to 1961, 1973 and 1989. The characters inhabiting the old house change, but the gardens, birds and animals seem fixed in a timeless and peculiarly English form of paradise.
Grand English houses reimagined are also the focus of the most beautiful book of the year, perhaps decade. Ed Kluz’s The Lost House Revisited (Merrell Publishers, £35) presents nine of his collage portraits of ruined country houses, dating from Holdenby House (1583–1651) to Eaton Hall (1812–70). Kluz has chosen to show the houses ‘like ghosts, existing in surreal, dreamlike landscapes, illuminated by theatrical lighting’. I have long coveted Kluz’s linocut Restoration London, but this book is a satisfying alternative.
Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling (4th Estate, £16.99) is a superbly entertaining biography of Princess Margaret, enlivened by chapters in which he brilliantly imagines counter-factual episodes, such as her marriages to Jeremy Thorpe (in the style of Hello! magazine) and Pablo Picasso (in the style of Picasso’s biographer John Richardson).
I notice belatedly that the ‘scholar’ Alexander Waugh has published a ‘book’, also counter-factual. Shakespeare in Court (Kindle Single, sensibly priced at £0.00) argues that Shakespeare’s works must have been written by a proper toff, and not only one whose verses C.S. Lewis thought showed ‘faint talent’, but also one who rather inconveniently died before the composition of Othello, King Lear, Macbeth etc. It seems to me that Alexander is barking up the wrong tree. Since at least 2014 it has been obvious to a growing number of snobbishly ignorant but determined conspiracy theorists that his grandfather Evelyn, who came from Golders Green, went to a minor public school and scraped a Third at Hertford, could not possibly have written Brideshead Revisited. Their favoured candidate is Nancy Mitford, whose mortal remains, they believe, were secretly stuffed and mounted at the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Combe Florey.
Two wonderful travel books on South Asia gave me great pleasure this year. Both are by talented journalists who have spent long stints in the region, but they are very different books. Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland, £19.95) is a discursive, funny, moving portrait of Pakistan, one of the most opaque and difficult and complex of countries, but here rendered in bright chiaroscuro and with obvious affection. It a brilliant debut by a major new talent.
Victor Mallet’s book on the horrifying pollution apocalypse of the Ganges, here turned into a metaphor for modern India, River of Life, River of Death (OUP, £20) is also a wonderful achievement, but more political and analytical and serious in tone, as one would expect from a star correspondent of the FT.
Maya Jasanoff’s Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (William Collins, £25) takes us to other remote spots — up the Congo in Conrad’s footsteps — and is quite brilliant on the literature of colonialism.
Finally, I loved The Epic City by Kushanava Chaudhury (Bloomsbury, £16.99), a beautifully written and even more beautifully observed love letter to Calcutta’s greatness: to its high culture, its music and film, its festivals, its people, its cuisine, its urban rhythms and above all to its rooted Bengaliness.
Unlike the 74 bus, Beaton books come along every few minutes. But the bus stops here, at Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s sumptuous, subtle Love, Cecil (Abrams, £40). The title unpunctuated could be a command as well as an envoi. Obey, and be enchanted.
Jonathan Meades’s A Plagiarist in the Kitchen (Unbound, £20) is a must for every foodie. The recipes come from Meades’s guts’ and palette’s discernment for people and places encountered. No slouch, he’s tried ’em all, adding (or removing) a pinch here, a soupçon there. One knows he’s right, and there’s no Mary Berry-ish nannying about level tbs.
Charley’s Woods (Zuleika, £20) is the deeply disturbing autobiography of Charles Duff, adopted child of a flagrantly homo-sexual aristo who, dynastically needing a son, married an equally aristocratic, and progessively flagrant, lesbian. These ‘parents’ teased, if that’s the word, the child that his real father was one of a string of famous people. After the inevitable divorce, Duff lived with his mother and her girlfriends and his father turned vitriolically against him. That the author manages to find humour in so tragic an upbringing, and to discover and embrace his birth family, gives new meaning to pathos.
Anyone moved by seeing the tomb, surmounted by her turban, beside the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, of Roxelana — the gift, then concubine, wife, sultana and ‘your lowly slave’, as she signed her letters to Suleiman the Magnificent — will relish her fascinating rise, described by Leslie Peirce, from Ruthenian-Christian obscurity to Empress of the East (Basic Books, £24.99).
I loved David Hepworth’s Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars (Bantam, £20), one of those rare books I could hardly stand to pick up as it repeatedly made me feel quite overexcited, with that oceanic feeling one gets when being driven from a sliproad onto a motorway.
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class edited by Nathan Connolly (Dead Ink, £15.99) won’t drown out the well-bred clamour of those who see the working class as straw men to be fashioned into handy vent dolls, but it’s a smashing start.
The best dose of my drug of choice, the psychological thriller, was Kate Murray-Brown’s The Upstairs Room (Picador, £12.99). With thrillers as well written as this, who needs ‘literary’ novels?
The richest feast for the eye, garnished with sharp learning, is The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920–1970 by Martin Salisbury (Thames & Hudson, £24.95). It’s a study which restores what was once a dustbin throwaway to its proper artistic status. Don’t leave this book on your coffee table. It will be ‘borrowed’.
The most interesting hybridisation of blog into book (‘bloog’?) is Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (Corsair, £13.99). Roxane rhymes with ‘pain’. There’s a lot of pain memorialised here. It’s savagely corrective. Behind obesity like Gay’s there’s almost inexpressible suffering. She blogs on, gallantly.
I’ve always closed Armistead Maupin’s tales of his city, San Francisco, with the warm sensation of what a nice man he must be. Not a term of high criticism, but the reason one looks forward to the next tales. That niceness is confirmed in his anything-but-tell-all memoir, Logical Family (Doubleday, £20). Read and feel how good it is to know this author.
My book of the year is Paul Nash, the Tate’s catalogue (edited by Emma Chambers, Tate Publications, £24.99) for the show that ended in March and is currently on tour. It makes it clear that Nash, who served in the trenches at Ypres in his twenties, was one of the finest war artists of his or any period. ‘The Menin Road’ of 1919 is a masterpiece. So is the eloquent and grim ‘Totes Meer’, painted almost 20 years later. What he saw was, as he said, ‘unspeakable, utterly indescribable’, and he confronted it directly on canvases whose disciplined rhythms and cool pale colours somehow intensify the horror and squalor of the devastation he painted.
And for a speedy read I pick Jane Harper’s The Dry (Abacus, £12.99), a cracking small-town thriller wound tight by desperation in a deadly Australian drought.
In Moonglow (4th Estate, £18.99), Michael Chabon served up yet another wildly enjoyable slice of exuberant storytelling that combined revelatory tales from the wilder shores of American history with the more conventional — but no less exhilarating — satisfactions of a generation-spanning family saga.
Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo (Faber, £12.99), rather unluckily, played the death of Stalin for dark laughs just a couple of months before Armando Iannucci’s highly publicised film did much the same — although, if anything, the book was both funnier and even more hair-raising.
First Love (Granta, £8.99) by Gwendoline Riley provided an incisive and often chilling portrait of an oppressive marriage, as well as an entertaining and often chilling portrait of the narrator’s mother: one of the great comic monsters of recent fiction.
Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature (Fig Tree, £14.99). Funny and only second best to reading the stuff itself.
Hugh Thomson’s One Man and a Mule: Across England with a Pack Horse (Penguin, £20). What a companionable fellow this author is! He keeps travel writing alive, despite reports of its demise. One sees England at its best through the author’s eyes.
Darling Pol: Correspondence between Mary Wesley and her second husband Eric Siepmann, 1944–1967 edited by Patrick Marnham (Penguin, £20). Fabulous portrait of post-war Britain, buckets of gossip and the story of a passionate love affair that stood the test of time. Lucky them.
Astonishingly, the new edition in Pléiade of Casanova’s memoirs (Histoire de ma vie, 3 vols, Gallimard, €195) is the first truly authentic text, with all the author’s Italianisms restored and no prudish cuts. Sponger, impostor, seducer and sometime swindler and cardsharp, Casanova ought to be a repellent figure. Yet the man’s intelligence and charm, the sheer range of his travels and the variety of his experience make this an irresistible portrait of the European 18th century. The ample notes at the back are a marvel of modern scholarship, identifying almost all of the places where he went and the characters that flit across his pages.
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff (William Collins, £25). It is often said that the thing about Conrad which distinguished him from other novelists is that he knew things they didn’t and much the same is true of his latest biographer. Maya Jasanoff is not the first writer to follow in Conrad’s footsteps, but it is hard to imagine that there is anyone better qualified, as historian or reader, to say something so genuinely original about his life and works.
Susan Bernofsky has translated, in often stunning prose, a novel that brings us stories from three generations of a fascinating, articulate family — of polar bears, as it happens. Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear (Portobello Books, £12.99) shows us a changing family living in changing times, as the bears’ relationship to us humans shifts, becoming increasingly apart. It’s inventive, well observed (of its human characters, too), peculiar and thought-provoking
My second choice — similarly under-appreciated — is a new collection of retold Fairy Tales from Hilary McKay (Macmillan, £12.99). If you’re wondering why we need another version of Cinderella, Rapunzel and others, well, you’ve obviously never read McKay. She’s one of the best children’s writers working today, and this collection shows her at her warm, witty, dazzling best. A particular winter treat if you’re a child, or if you aren’t.
Books get overlooked. One of these is Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea from Potemkin to Putin (Osprey, £30) by Mungo Melvin, a retired major general who for years has immersed himself in the place. A graduate of the German Army Staff College, a Russian-reader and author of an acclaimed biography of Manstein, the field marshal who fought the Red Army there, Melvin explains why, to a Russian nationalist, Crimea could never be part of Ukraine. And a lot else besides. It is remorselessly realistic.
Another not to be overlooked is The Bramall Papers: Reflections on War and Peace (Pen & Sword, £25), a lifetime’s reflection on the art and practice of military strategy by one who fought in Normandy in 1944, became Margaret Thatcher’s chief of the defence staff, and as Field Marshal Lord Bramall continued to articulate strategy in the House of Lords until reaching 90, four years ago. Formidably incisive.