These aren't necessarily books that were published this year, though several were. They are books I've read, or in one case re-read, during 2020. It was hard to choose - like many people I've read more than usual during lockdown, and also I've begun listening to books on Audible, a new experience for me and one that now enables me to 'read' two books at once.
So: quite a few historical novels, a gripping thriller set in Oxford, one sci-fiction, six about the natural world and/or our relationships with it, one about reading and writing and one remarkable book about nearly everything! Three of the fiction titles are by good friends. About that I will say that I'd only choose books by friends if I thought they really were excellent reads, and these three most certainly are.
My Book of the Year, though, if I had to pick just one of these, is Maggie O'Farrell's brilliant HAMNET. That's the one I'm saving to re-read as a treat I know I'll enjoy just as much, and probably even more, on a second reading. It's such a superb imaginative feat, fleshing out what little is known of Anne Hathaway (or Agnes, as she is here), so utterly engaging and with rich detail of domestic life in Stratford and a glimpse of the London theatre. And a pitch-perfect ending.
On family evenings the Scrabble came out.
Board on table, racks placed squarely,
Scorer poised with notepad and pen.
Tiles clatter in their bag as fingers grope.
We sit forward in chairs, frowning, plotting.
Eyes flick from rack to board. Serious business.
Letters form syllables or nonsense,
Furtively anagrammed, re-aligned.
A possibility? … if only … next go …
Our collaborative crossword reaches out
To tantalising Triple Word squares at the edge.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Dad grumbles
When his letters won’t oblige;
He likes to win. But then
His attention quickens. An eager hunch,
Theatrical reticence in the placing of tiles –
Five, six - then a flaunted seventh.
All out, for an extra fifty. Fifty!
We trail behind, resigned to losing.
Inside the box-lid, fading pencil recalls
Best score: Dad, 347.
He’s five years dead. We still play;
My own best score nudges close,
But no, no closer. Dad’s record stands.
Ronald Trevor Newbery, 1923 - 2015
A little late, but here it is at last. I read so many excellent books last year that it would have been hard to choose six or so, though I did post my favourites on Facebook as advent books throughout December. Here, though, I'm going for just one. What follows is the piece I wrote for WRITERS REVIEW in the autumn.
What a fascinating book this is! It covers so much, overturning several preconceptions along the way, that I hardly know where to start. So I'll begin at the end,
where Isabella Tree comments on the benefits of natural surroundings for mental health, and the sad fact that many people nowadays have little exposure - through choice or circumstance - to wild
nature. Readers of this blog probably know that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris were spurred to work together on The Lost Words - a beautiful book which
won Jackie Morris a well-deserved Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration - by news that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was ditching such words as acorn, bluebell,
wren and otter to make space for terms deemed more relevant to today's world: celebrity, blog, broadband and suchlike. Macfarlane
and Morris's widely-acclaimed collaboration is a timely and important book, and so in its different way is Wilding.
Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell, inheriting his family estate of 3,500 acres, at first continued the arable and dairy farming already established there, but found that their hard-baked clay soil did not produce good yields. Could there be a way of letting their land fulfill its potential - not for commerce, but for wildlife? Inspired by a Dutch project on land earmarked for industry but then abandoned, they learned how the presence of grazing animals - greylag geese, then large herbivores - had produced surprising results; close grazing kept the water fringes clear and tree growth in check, providing habitat for a wealth of insects, birds and small mammals. It's often assumed that any fertile land, if left untended, will become mature woodland; but, as Isabella Tree points out, this notion overlooks the presence of grazing herbivores such as the ancient aurochs, tarpan and bison which preceded human intervention, later replaced by deer, domesticated cattle and pigs. Perhaps, she thinks, we have the wrong idea about ancient forests. She quotes Oliver Rackham: "To the medievals, a Forest was a place of deer, not of trees. If a Forest happened to be wooded it formed part of the wood-pasture tradition."
Wondering if this minimal-intervention approach would work with their own land, Isabella and Charlie sought grants from English Nature (now Natural England), the government's advisory body. Unlike most applicants for funding they had no clear plan for what was in effect an experiment: their plan was, over twenty-five years, to see what would happen if they fenced their land to make it deer-proof, a major expense, and introduced Longhorn cattle, fallow and later red deer, and Exmoor ponies. As in the Dutch project, they chose tough, sturdy animals that could fend and forage for themselves and withstand all weathers.
Of course the Knepp project couldn't fully replicate natural ecosystems without including apex predators - lynxes or wolves - to keep the numbers of cattle, ponies and deer in check.The Dutch project, leaving weak and elderly animals to die from illness or starvation, had met with justifiable opposition; at Knepp, with the land crossed by footpaths, such a hands-off approach couldn't be justified on humane, aesthetic or even practical grounds. So the grazing animals are culled, and their meat sold. Apparently grass-fed beef is delicious, and pasture grazing is certainly the most environmentally efficient way of producing meat, although it's a luxury few can afford.
The Knepp experiment, now sixteen years on, has produced inspiring results. Iconic species such as turtle dove, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly have moved in; beavers have been introduced, their dams creating marshy wetland which supports wading birds, amphibians and bog plants. The softening of water edges is so important for flood defences, another re-think: rather than funnelling water into hard-edged channels, it can effectively be dispersed and soaked up, to the benefit of pasture and wildlife. Another keystone creature is the humble earthworm, whose importance has been underestimated to the detriment of soil health.
Few individuals will be able to replicate the Knepp experiment - Tree and Burrell owned a substantial swathe of land and were able to recruit expert help and
funding. But I hope their findings will influence government and NGO policy on land management and conservation. Among many revelations, perhaps the most significant is that if we intervene less,
nature can be trusted to restore itself. Whether there's time, in the face of climate breakdown, to attempt this on a wider scale, is impossible to know - we may be too far into our reckless
uncontrolled global experiment with the world's climate and ecosystems.
I'd say that Wilding is essential, even exciting, reading for anyone interested in nature, wildlife, ecosystems and climate change - and I think most readers will find surprises and revelations to make them see the countryside, and our role in it, with fresh eyes. And I don't want to end without giving a flavour of the writing: although packed with information, comparisons and statistics, Wilding also has moments of lyrical joy, such as this description of a nightingale's song: "It throws the ear with unexpectedness ... florid trills, first rich and liquid, then mockingly guttural and discordant; now a sweet insistence of long, lugubrious piping; then bubbling chuckles and indrawn whistles; and then, suddenly, nothing - a suspended, teasing hiatus before the cascades and crescendos break forth again ... these pulsating strains issuing from tiny vocal chords belting out like organ pipes, throwing the music of the tropics into the English night air."
It’s been a pleasure to revisit this story, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing and relive the excitement of those days. Girls on the Up, first published as Andie's Moon, is set in the exhilarating summer of 1969, when Andie’s family comes to Chelsea to flat-sit and cat-sit for her father’s boss. They’re staying just a few minutes away from the King’s Road – which, to Andie’s fashion-mad sister, Prune, epitomises the heart of Swinging London and her dreams of becoming a model. But Andie’s thoughts are on the moon, especially when she meets Ravi and his telescope and learns the joy and wonder of ‘skyhopping’. As I’m old enough to remember those days – like Andie, I was in Hyde Park for the free Rolling Stones concert – it was nostalgic to revisit 1969, the music, clothes, attitudes, expectations and excitement.
Of course we know now that the lunar astronauts would return safely and that others would follow, but then: their chances of a safe return were estimated by Michael Collins to be 50/50. Those are daunting odds!
Oh yes, Michael Collins. Often in schools I show a photograph of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and ask who can name them. Neil Armstrong, someone says. Buzz Aldrin. Then there’s a silence and a pause: or maybe one person can name the third, Michael Collins (in the middle of the photograph above). The reason he’s less well-known is, of course, that he didn’t walk on the moon like the other two. But what he did was just as astonishing and brave – alone in the command module, he orbited the moon. When the module swept round to the far side of the moon, he was out of touch with his colleagues and with mission control. Can you imagine being more alone than that? And his role was crucial to the mission. Just as much as the other two, he deserves to be remembered.
Our view of planet Earth, its atmosphere and ecosystems and what we’re doing to them, has changed drastically since those days – and needs to change. Given the chance to update the Author’s Note for the book, I wrote this:
‘No astronaut has set foot on the moon since 1972, though early this year a Chinese mission landed a spacecraft on the far side: another first. Back in 1969, it was confidently expected that the first exciting steps on the moon would lead to great advances in space travel for humans – but, so far, no habitable base has been set up on the lunar surface. I like to think, though, that during my lifetime we’ll see the first woman on the moon. Who will she be, and where will she come from? She may be a child now, growing up with no idea that she’ll make history.
The Apollo missions produced, almost by accident, a beautiful photograph that’s come to symbolise how precious and fragile our planet is. It’s the photograph called Earthrise, taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 while orbiting the moon. There’s our planet seen as never before, a small blue traveller in the vast silence of space. In the fifty years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon we’ve done serious damage to that vital atmosphere on which all life depends, through pollution and deforestation and by simply failing to realise the dangers of interfering with ecosystems. All this damage has been done in a frighteningly short time, and we know now that we can’t go on ignoring it.
In those years, too, there’s been increasing evidence for the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. But I hope we won’t send humans to live on other planets until we’ve learned to respect and care for our own.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy visiting 1969 and the heady excitement of those first footsteps on a place beyond Earth.’
I'm a little late with this, but here are my best reads from last year - fiction, children's books and non-fiction - not necessarily published in 2018, though several were.
Quite unintentionally I've hit a run of historical fiction - I did read a great many novels with more recent settings, but here are the six that made my top list, of which only the Patrick Gale has anything to do with the present day.
No apology for including friends here; I hope you'll believe me when I say that I wouldn't include books by friends unless I genuinely thought they were worth recommending, and these most certainly are! In Lydia Syson's brilliant Mr Peacock's Possessions, a family takes up residence on an uninhabited island - a new Eden, possibly, but human nature dictates that they bring their own serpents. (Read my full review here.) In The Poet's Wife Judith Allnatt gives an engrossing portrayal of rural life and the difficulties of coping with a delusional but highly gifted husband - the viewpoint of Patty, loyal but struggling wife of the poet John Clare. Cynthia Jefferies' moving and ambitious first novel for adults, The Outrageous Fortunes of Abel Morgan, is set in the seventeenth century and concerns a father and son separated for decades, taking us from Dorset to Istanbul and the West Indies. There's more on WRITERS REVIEW.
In The Purchase, by Linda Spalding, set in late eighteenth century Virginia, abolitionist Daniel Dickinson impulsively bids for a slave boy to help his small Quaker family to settle on uncultivated land in Virginia. The fate of this boy sets in motion a dramatic and terrifying chain of events. Patrick Gale's Take Nothing With You gives a wonderful picture of education in music, sexuality and life from the viewpoint of adolescent Eustace, interspersed with his cancer treatment in the present day which coincides with the start of a new and exhilarating relationship. (More here.)Thin Air is the second of Michelle Paver's ghost stories I've read - both excellent. Here she takes us on a Himalayan expedition in the 1930s, dogged by ill omens from the start.
The Skylarks' War is in everyone's roundups just now as well as on the Costa children's shortlist, and no wonder - it's a First World War story with all Hilary McKay's hallmark economy, wit and warmth, with even the minor characters fully individualised. Adam and Lisa Murray's Corpse Talk is a brilliant idea for a series - various significant characters, in this case all female, are 'dug up' to take part in chat show interviews about their lives. Alongside Elizabeth 1, Joan of Arc and Emily Pankhurst we meet less well-known characters including the Princess Caraboo, resistance fighter Granny Nanny and female Pharaoh Hapshetsut - a great way to introduce children to notable lives.
Finally, another friend. Celia Rees' stories are always clever, inventive and packed with incident, and Glass Town Wars is particularly striking. In the anniversary year of the publication of Wuthering Heights, Celia draws on Emily Bronte's juvenilia, pairing it with gaming technology: Lying in a coma in hospital, Tom is used by unscrupulous 'friend' Milo in an experiment which sends him as avatar into a dangerous game based on Bronte's fantastical Glass Town. Dazzling!
Henry David Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, but contains so much of relevance to today: from mindfulness and the importance of natural surroundings for mental health to the benefits of not eating meat. My WRITERS REVIEW piece looks at this in more detail.
2018 saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, and after hearing Fiona Sampson speak at the Oxford Literary Festival I was keen to read this biography. I knew something of the circumstances of the conception of Mary Shelley's influential masterpiece but had not realised how extraordinary her life was, marked by grief, domestic turbulence and constant travel and relocation. It's a wonder she found time to write at all ... and Percy Bysshe doesn't come out of it well.
Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, is a lovely book to dip into. The gardeners featured include well-known figures such as Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter and Troy Scott Smith at Sissinghurst, inheritors of the work of Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West respectively, each nurturing their garden's spirit without maintaining it as a museum. What makes this book so appealing is the range it covers, from National Trust properties to semi-wild estates where minimal intervention is the rule, and a South Bank community garden cared for by former drug addict Paul Pulford. Leisurely interviews convey the passion (and that's no exaggeration) of each gardener, and gorgeous photography by Charlie Hopkinson makes this a book to treasure.
When Helen Dunmore died in July last year, WRITERS REVIEW posted a joint tribute by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself. This week I was delighted - as were countless other admirers - to hear that this much-loved writer had won the Costa Book Award for her poetry collection INSIDE THE WAVE, following Ted Hughes as the second posthumous winner of this prestigious prize. So I'm re- posting my piece here. You can read the full post, with several comments from others, here.
I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer.
She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your Arms. She was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.
Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism.
She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.
Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: “The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm.”
I’m glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven’t read yet. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.
Four really special books here!
Katherine Rundell has quickly made a name for herself with ROOFTOPPERS and THE WOLF WILDER, but this one, THE EXPLORER, is the first of hers I've read. Here she takes us to the Amazon rainforest in the company of four children, survivors of the crash of a light aircraft. With no way of summoning help they must rapidly adapt, finding shelter and food. What starts off as a traditional adventure story takes on a wider environmental significance when the children meet the Explorer of the title, living alone in a ruined stone city. At first indifferent and even hostile, he teaches them the ways of the forest and later, when one of them needs urgent medical treatment, helps them to find their way out - but is adamant that they must never tell anyone about their encounter with him and the ruins, for the sake of the forest and its inhabitants. There's humour alongside the seriousness in this absorbing story.
I've posted separately about Pam Smy's brilliant THORNHILL, which she's both written and illustrated. High production values make the book an object of beauty, words and artwork coming together to mesmeric effect as two stories, centred around an old deserted house, alternate. Mary, unhappy resident back in the eighties when Thornhill was a children's home, communicates with the reader through her journal, while remaining silent; Ella's story, in the present, is told entirely in black-and-white illustrations. So we are following two silent stories. As they merge, the creepy, almost cinematic effect will have you holding your breath as you turn the pages.
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a treasure of a book in THE LOST WORDS. Taking one creature or plant at a time, they've created 'spells' (Macfarlane) and gorgeous images (Morris) in a book for all ages to hold and wonder at. The 'spells' demand to be read aloud, and are full of vitality, sharp observation and verbal delight: "Should green-as-moss be mixed with / blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold / you'd still far short by far of the Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and gloss of starling wing ... " This book has received wide coverage and rightly so, for its celebration of the natural world and its urgings to all of us to look at and appreciate the other lives around ours, whether we live in countryside or city.
Start reading Philip Pullman's LA BELLE SAUVAGE and you'll know at once that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. It's hard to see quite how he does it, but it's the kind of writing that welcomes you into its world with complete assurance. We're in the likeable company of Malcolm Polstead, whose parents own the Trout Inn on the edge of Oxford, and who becomes intrigued by the infant Lyra, who's being looked after by the nuns of Godstow Priory. Someone's trying to steal Lyra - why, Malcolm doesn't know, but soon he, reluctant companion Alice and baby Lyra - and their daemons, of course - are in danger as floodwaters rise and their pursuers close in. A perfect read for long winter evenings.