Never trust a writer who doesn’t read. With that in mind, we thought we’d share the best books we’ve read this year – some old, some new. Christmas reading list sorted.
Decline & Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
This kept me amused during an unexpected hospital stay, after my appendix suddenly decided it didn’t like me any more.
The writing is light and delightful, the comedy a mix of the broad – Lady Circumference and her son Tangent, for example – and the delicate.
Like Wodehouse (and there is no higher praise), the plot is as tightly woven as it is lightly handled. Unlike Wodehouse, there’s a genuine and quite startling emotional kick to this novel: the decline and fall is, by the end, remarkably affecting. And I’m now forever in love with the majestic figure of Margot Beste-Chetwynde.
Unlike my appendix, this book will stay with me.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
It was hard to choose which of Sally Rooney’s wonderful books was my favourite – Normal People just pips Conversations with Friends to the post. A book I enjoyed so much I immediately wanted to start reading it again as soon as I’d finished it.
The characters are so well crafted, the dialogue so real, that you can’t help but become intimate friends with star-crossed lovers Conall and Marianne. The ridiculously talented Rooney is only 27 (not jealous at all) and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman
The Black Death claimed a third of Europe’s population. A series of wars, famines, and the Great Western Schism followed in its wake. This is the story Barbara Tuchman tells, in forensic detail, in A Distant Mirror.
Tuchman’s central idea is that the 14th century mirrors the 20th – a time of unprecedented calamity, that forever changed how people saw their world. It’s not a cheery read, but it’s a breathtaking one.
The White Pearl, by Kate Furnivall
You can tell I’m not a writer – my choice is far less high-brow than my esteemed colleagues. This was my first experience of Kate Furnivall, and I’ve since read two more of her books as I enjoyed it so much.
I love the way she weaves in historical facts about lesser-known events (in this case, the Japanese invasion of Malaya in WW2), bringing the atmosphere to life in sharp focus.
A good old-fashioned page-turner, with a bonus history lesson. I found it illuminating and gripping in equal measure.
Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton
I devoured Dolly’s memoir in a couple of days while I was on holiday. It was the perfect beach read – light, funny, easy-going. Dolly used to be a dating columnist for the Sunday Times, and reading about her life is a bit like watching Sex and the City (if Carrie Bradshaw went to Exeter uni).
Educated, by Tara Westover
Westover grew up the youngest of six children in a survivalist Mormon family. Officially ‘home-schooled’, in reality she ran wild in the mountains of Idaho until the age of twelve, then was put to work scrapping metal in her father’s junkyard. How then did she end up with a Cambridge PhD at the age of 27?
That’s the you-couldn’t-make-it-up story that awaits you, and it’s an absolute pleasure. (Fancy hearing what my book club made of it? Listen in to episode 22 of my podcast The Book Club Review.)
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
If you would like to reflect on your own mortality this Christmas, then this book is an ideal read. Paul Kalanithi passed away in 2015 after writing a heartbreaking memoir of his life as neurosurgeon succumbing to a vicious form of lung cancer.
Kalanithi wrote beautifully, with incredible optimism and an honest outlook on what it means to be alive. It’s a visceral juxtaposition of life and death rolled into one. If anything, Lucy’s epilogue will leave you broken.
Now excuse me while I sob.
The Last Days of Detroit, by Mark Binelli
Detroit. The city that gave us Motown, motorcars – and ruin porn. Once the mighty heart of industrialised America. Now, a symbol of its industrial decline. Famous only for the faded glamour of its ruined buildings.
Enter The Last Days of Detroit: A refreshing take on the tired old story of a city in terminal decline. A Detroit native, Binelli writes with streetwise affection for the city he loves. Sure, it’s a story of boom and bust. But it’s also the story of a city that’s being resuscitated by urban farms and young artists.
The Last Days of Detroit is very readable, totally compelling – and a welcome change from the typical ruin porn stories about this once-great city.
More than a million women fought for the Soviet Union in World War II. But until Svetlana Alexievich, few had ever heard their stories.
Alexievich spent seven years travelling across the Soviet Union, interviewing hundreds of former servicewomen – from pilots to snipers, gunners to tank drivers. She spent days with some women, collected hours of recorded material, then organised her transcripts by theme: ‘Of Men’s Boots and Women’s Hat’s’, ‘Of Dolls and Rifles’.
It’s a tough read, but an eye-opening one: regularly shocking, often brutal, and very occasionally hopeful.