My Book of the Year
I might as well say straightaway that my Book of Year is Das Achte Leben by Nino Haratischwili. It won hands down. There were other great books, but this one stole my heart. And much of my time! It’s incredibly long, but divided into parts, so you can read it in sections, a bit like a series. But it isn’t a series, it’s a single novel following the fortunes and (more often) the misfortunes of a Georgian family throughout the turbulent history of the twentieth century. It was recommended to me by a friend when I asked her for a good book in German. I read it in the original German, but it has been translated into English as The Eighth Life. Despite the vividly portrayed horrors of living in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the story is narrated by Niza with a lightness of touch that makes the book very readable. It’s harrowing but also warm-hearted, gripping, and occasionally funny. It deserves to become a classic.
The reading year got off to a great start with the latest novel from Robert Harris. Act of Oblivion follows two men on the run in America, having been found guilty of high treason for the murder of Charles I. Back in London the secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council has the job of tracking them down. This is a cat-and-mouse adventure story with well-rounded and believable characters, exploring the aftermath of the English Civil War.
Another great book was The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne. I think Boyne is an extremely versatile writer, tackling different genres and periods. Like Act of Oblivion, this is another book where fact meets fiction. Set in Russia, the story opens in 1915 when 16-year-old Georgy steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family. As a reward he is appointed bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II. Georgy witnesses the events leading up to the assassination of the Romanovs, and the story offers a possible solution as to the fate of Anastasia Romanov.
I thought it was about time I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I’m very glad I did. I loved this sweeping novel set in 1960s Nigeria. It brought to life for me a world that I knew nothing about.
Ancestry by Simon Mawer was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. I found it a very absorbing read, with beautifully crafted prose. It starts with the question, ‘What is the past?’ It differentiates ‘the past’ from ‘history’ which is ‘the way the past is told.’ Mawer then imagines the lives of four of his real ancestors. There is Abraham who goes off to sea, Naomi who moves to London for work, George who fights in the Crimea, and Annie the Irish bride he leaves behind. Their lives were, at times, unimaginably difficult by our standards, but these people, especially the women, were great survivors. A lovely touch is the inclusion of a Mawer family photo from 1928 at the end of the story. These are the descendants of the main protagonists. The young boy in the photo is Simon Mawer’s father.
I was saddened to learn of the death of Christopher Fowler earlier this year from cancer. He has long been one of my favourite crime writers. But his books featuring the octogenarian detective duo Bryant and May from the Peculiar Crimes Unit are much more than just mystery novels. They are contemporary critiques of the modern world and they bring London to life with a vividness that rivals Dickens. Oranges and Lemons features a series of murders all cleverly connected to the famous nursery rhyme which has more verses than most people realise. I will continue to read the rest of the books in this brilliant series.
The Running Grave is book 7 in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. Although these books are a bit on the long side, I just love Strike and Robin and all the unresolved romantic tension between them. This is quite a dark book where Robin goes undercover in a religious cult in Norfolk and puts herself in real danger. Characteristically, Rowling takes a subject and explores it in great depth. The ending is perfectly balanced on the edge of a cliff, leaving me desperate for the next instalment.
Last year I read The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, only managing to keep on top of all the characters and timelines by taking copious notes as I went along. But it was worth it. This year I did the same with the sequel, Nemesis. I think Jo Nesbo is terrific. Publishers often make the claim that a crime fiction novel is ‘full of twists’ but Nesbo’s really are. His main character, Harry Hole, is deeply flawed and annoys a lot of his colleagues, but he pursues the truth with real doggedness. Nemesis combines bank robberies, shootings, and Harry’s messy romantic past. It also continues a plot thread started in The Redbreast. I will now have to read The Devil’s Star to see how that is resolved.
I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan, and his latest novel Lessons was fabulous. With some biographical elements thrown in, this is the portrait of a man’s life. The defining event in Roland Baines’s life is when he starts an affair at the age of fourteen with his piano teacher. The meat of the novel is Roland’s life as a single parent after his wife has left him to become a great novelist. This book subverts gender stereotypes because the boy is abused by an older woman and it’s his wife who puts her art before her family. Roland story plays out against the backdrop of twentieth and twenty-first-century history. There are some great set pieces involving the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance group, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Covid pandemic amongst other key moments in history.
Just to prove what I said about John Boyne being a very versatile author, I wanted to include The Echo Chamber which I enjoyed very much. It’s a satirical novel about a family that falls foul of social media and cancel culture. As the blurb puts it, ‘To err is maybe to be human but to really foul things up you only need a phone.’ And yes, there is a real tortoise in the story.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was a deserving winner of the Women’s Prize for fiction in 2023. It’s a brilliant retelling of David Copperfield set in the Appalachian Mountains during the opioid crisis. Like David Copperfield, it’s a first-person narrative. It’s took me a little while to adjust to the American voice, but I soon got the hang of it and then I just devoured this book. It was fun to compare Kingsolver’s characters with Dickens’s. The saintly Agnes becomes the kick-ass Angus who Demon mistakes for a boy but is really a girl. The portrayal of a society addicted to opioid drugs is as brutal and heart-wrenching as anything in Dickens’s poverty-stricken London.
I listened to quite a few audiobooks this year, fiction and non-fiction. The best of the non-fiction titles were Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre and Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival by Daniel Finkelstein. Both authors read their own books and in the case of Colditz, I was fortunate to hear Ben Macintyre give a fascinating talk on the subject at Abingdon School. Colditz gives a vivid account of life in the castle, focusing on the often eccentric inmates and their hare-brained attempts to escape. Daniel Finkelstein’s book is a story of survival against the odds, showing how the two monsters of the twentieth century, Hitler and Stalin, almost succeeded in eliminating Finkelstein’s parents. Obviously they survived for Finkelstein to be able to tell their story. The tragedy is that millions didn’t survive.
I think that audiobooks are a great way to revisit novels that you read years ago and would like to read again but just haven’t got time. Here are some that I listened to, bringing back fond memories:
And I continued my love affair with Anthony Trollope read by the wonderful Timothy West. I made the mistake of listening to Phineas Redux after Phineas Finn when really I should have listened to The Eustace Diamonds first, but I still adore Trollope’s characters, his exploration of their foibles, and the way they struggle with the expectations of society. Timothy West reads to perfection.
For a full list of everything I read in 2023, go to Books I Read in Previous Years.