The long nights of winter are perfect for catching up on reading.
Here some of our regular reviewers look back at books they have enjoyed over the past 12 months and select their favourites
The best surprise was Toby Huitson’s Stairway to Heaven: the functions of medieval upper spaces (Oxbow, £35; Tablet price £31.50) – all about what went on upstairs in church: singers, candles, organs, libraries, even showering down burning filaments during the singing of the “Veni Sancte Spiritus” at the words “ignem accende”. What larks. It’s all meticulously researched and illustrated.
Alex Preston’s In Love and War (Faber, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50) is the deeply moving and thrilling tale of the resistance fighters who battled Mussolini’s thugs in pre-war and wartime Florence. There are brilliant and funny cameos of Ezra Pound, Norman Douglas and Diana Mosley; but Preston gradually takes you into places of darkness and evil.
How to be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) is a book in two halves, but which comes first? Does the life of a Renaissance painter precede the grief of a contemporary teenager or vice versa? The order depends on which binding you read. Both stories spring from an astonishing fresco; both play with eternals such as love, work and gender. A tricksy novel, for sure, but full of joy.
I can’t remember the last time I went out and bought several copies of a new book, then went around pressing them on every third person I came across, Ancient Mariner-style. But that’s exactly what happened after I came across Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year (Bloomsbury, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) a memoir of her spell as a graduate with an eccentric New York literary agency. Required reading for those emerging from their academic cocoons into the big, wide world.
Geoffrey Parker’s biography of Philip II of Spain, Imprudent King: a new life of Philip II (Yale University Press, £25; Tablet price £22.50) is superb. Philip was hard-working, self-satisfied, and his decisions veered between the brilliant and the bewildering. He was also the most powerful man in sixteenth-century Europe so he has been the subject of dozens of biographies. Parker’s account trumps them all.
Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: living in Britain through Napoleon’s wars, 1793 – 1815 (Faber & Faber, £25; Tablet price £22.50) wins hands-down for me. Evocative, detailed, intimate, and completely absorbing, it draws on the evidence of a huge, superbly controlled cast of diarists, letter-writers etc, with whom the reader suffers, celebrates, rejoices and mourns: by the end, they feel like family.
It takes a rare talent to turn a fragmentary tablet in Akkadian into a gripping narrative of detection, illuminating (among other things) biblical history, the formation of the canon of Scripture, and the art of Mesopotamian boat-building: but Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah (Hodder & Stoughton, £25; Tablet price £22.50) does this triumphantly. A delight, which may well inspire you to dabble in cuneiform.
It’s said that happiness writes white, that it can’t be engagingly expressed. Marilynne Robinson has other ideas: Lila (Virago, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) is about an outsider, tremblingly amazed to find herself part of “ordinary” family happiness. “I can’t feel as happy as I am,” she says, still conscious of its gratuitous strangeness. It’s a fresh, honest insight into life viewed as gift – into the unsmoothness of such a view.
In The House of Twenty Thousand Books (Halban, £14.95; Tablet price £13.50) Sasha Abramsky has brought to life the vanished world of his grandparents, Chimen and Mimi Abramsky, one-time Communists from observant Jewish backgrounds who entertained some of the leading intellectuals of the day in their home near Hampstead Heath.
The latest (127th!) addition to the “New Naturalist” series is David Goode’s Nature in Towns and Cities (William Collins, £55; Tablet price £49.50). Goode’s message is that wildlife (including human wildlife) adapts triumphantly to changing conditions.
I loved the second novel of East Midlands writer Alison Moore, He Wants (Salt, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) about an ageing RE teacher in central England. It’s all beautifully observed, with shades of the late local writer Stanley Middleton, whose novels it was also good to see Windmill reissuing this year. Nottingham is currently bidding to become a Unesco city of literature, and these works show why.
I took great delight in For Public Benefit: churches cared for by trusts (ed. by Trevor Cooper, the Ecclesiological Society, £15; Tablet price £13.50). It describes ways in which, through local ingenuity, a great variety of churches once conventionally serving a parish or non-Anglican equivalent now have renewed life. Rejoice for instance what this means at the once-doomed little medieval church at Mickfield in Suffolk. Amid much else, worship does not cease.
What links St John of the Cross, Raymond Lully, St Francis of Assisi, Chaucer, Roger Bacon, Dr Johnson, and Sir Richard Burton with Nasruddin, Rumi, Saadi, Attar, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam? Sufi mystical thought spanning East and West, Islamic and Christian traditions, according to Idries Shah’s classic The Sufis, reissued this year by the Idries Shah Foundation (£14.95; Tablet price £13.50).
When her father dies, Helen, an academic historian with a passion for falconry, is overcome with grief. She becomes obsessed with the idea of taming a goshawk, and takes one home to Cambridge. She enters the hawk’s world and isolates herself from humanity. Written in fluent and lyrical prose, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Jonathan Cape, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50) is part autobiography, part meditation on grief and death.
I shrieked with merriment at Michael Rudman’s I Joke Too Much: the theatre director’s tale (Capercaillie Books, £12.99; Tablet price £11.70). Fab mixture of show-business memoir (he was married to Felicity Kendal, worked with everyone), deep theatre knowledge and Texan-Jewish – yes, Texan-Jewish – humour.
Frank Browne: a life through the lens, edited by David and Edwin Davison (Yale University Press, £30; Tablet price £27) is a treat: beautiful reproductions of some of the best work of the Cork Jesuit priest and photographer, now back in vogue after several years of neglect. Although once only known for the pictures he took while on board the Titanic on the first leg of its final journey, he is now being recognised for the wit, affection and technical accomplishment of his images of Ireland in the 1930s.
John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins (Jonathan Cape, £30; Tablet price £27) absorbingly charts this Welsh miner-cum-MP’s son transformation into his erudite, patrician self: Cabinet Minister, EU commissioner, writer, bon viveur, husband, father and lover, and co-founder of the SDP. Campbell catches his subject as Jenkins caught Churchill – the personality, the range of interests, the up and downs and achievements, even the earning capacity.
Rohini Mohan spent five years following the fortunes of three Tamils scarred by the conflict in Sri Lanka. The Seasons of Trouble (Verso, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) is a Kafkaesque story of survival in a society riven by ethnic tensions and mutual distrust.
Todd Moss’ The Golden Hour (Putnam, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) tells the story of an imagined coup in Mali, and the efforts of cooperating and competing US agencies to reverse it. The book is not just a cliff-hanger, it keeps the reader hanging on simultaneously to three different cliffs. Moss bids fair to be the Le Carré of the post-Cold-War developing world.
Henry Marsh, consultant neurosurgeon at a London teaching hospital, has devoted 30 years to challenging life’s one certainty. Do No Harm: stories of life, death and brain surgery (Phoenix, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) charts his perilous voyages into hidden worlds. Written with disarming candour, it’s the confrontation of human frailty with aspiration, and achievement, which compels.
The invention of printing transformed the world as radically as the internet. Alix Christie’s debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Headline Review, £13.99; Tablet price £12.60) brings to life the ruthless, secretive figure of Gutenberg through the eyes of his apprentice. A richly satisfying fireside read.
Simon Scott Plummer
Henry Kissinger’s World Order (Allen Lane, £25; Tablet price £22.50) is the fruit of a lifetime’s reflection by the most eminent political scientist and diplomatic practitioner of his age, now in his ninety-second year. Focusing on Europe, the Middle East and America, it is succinctly written and full of penetrating insights. It concludes that the meaning of history has to be discovered, not declared.
A book that brought me much delight this year was Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99; Tablet price £15.30) by Alison MacLeod, the story of a married couple with a single child living in Brighton set in the early stages of the Second World War. Virginia Woolf makes a guest appearance, and the novel has Woolfian undertones, bringing to life as it does the struggle of a woman to find her place and role in a rapidly shifting world.
Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is the best novel I have read for a decade. It is about nothing and everything, the third of a trilogy set in the Midwestern town of Gilead.
A profound reflection not just on the human condition but on the nature of faith, the prose is exquisite and rare in its quality. Rarer still, it is a book about grace.
The team of detectives in Simon Parke’s A Director’s Cut (Darton, Longman and Todd, £7.99; Tablet price £7.20) murder story consists of an Anglican abbot now living as a hermit and his less-than-believing niece who is a police-person. This leads to terrific tension within the team, as you might suppose; and there is also a counterpoint with the painful story of Meister Eckhart. There is also a bishop who is not a villain, but really ought to be. Try this over Christmas.
The English and their History by Cambridge’s Robert Tombs (Allen Lane, £35; Tablet price £31.50) gives an invigorating context to much of our present dispiriting public debate. And do please go back a couple of years for a novel by Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate, £8.99; Tablet price £8.10) a corker about doubt, love, Melville and baseball.
See heaven in a wild flower, said William Blake. But paradise can be closer than that if you have a garden, even a window box. In The Gardens of the British Working Class (Yale University Press, £25; Tablet price £22.50) Margaret Willes reveals how gardens transformed people’s lives and their drab surroundings, providing not only aesthetic pleasures but also exercise and food. If you thought the history of gardening is all Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll, then read this enthralling, highly original history of horticulture.
Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop (Allen Lane, £20; Tablet price £18) traces the origins of Western liberalism back not to Voltaire and his crew, but St Paul and his. It is a fine piece of scholarship, travelling through dark centuries around which most intellectual historians fearfully and silently skirt. Readable, reasonable and theologically alert: if only more intellectual history were like this.
Marlon James’ magnificent new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld, £18.99; Tablet price £17.10), unfolds in Jamaica on the eve of the 1976 attempt on Bob Marley’s life. The author’s imaginative reconstruction of Marley-era Jamaica is scary and utterly convincing, with a James Ellroy-like cast of CIA operatives, hit men and corrupted police. James is one of the West Indies’ brightest young literary stars and a name to watch.
In Killers of the King (Bloomsbury, £20; Tablet price £18) Charles Spencer tells the story of the manhunt – spanning decades and oceans – for the regicides of Charles I. It is shocking, thrilling and epic. Providing enlightenment of a different kind is Jane Gardam’s The Stories (Little, Brown, £20; Tablet price £18) – a stunning collection from one of our greatest writers. The book is worth it just for the gorgeous introduction, but the stories that follow are startling and sublime.
Rescuing Jews in Vichy France was dangerous. Caroline Moorehead’s brilliantly researched Village of Secrets (Chatto & Windus, £20; Tablet price £18) tells the story of a remote plateau in the Massif Central, a place of Huguenot refuge for centuries, where thousands of Jews were silently sheltered under the noses of the Vichy police and the Gestapo. A moving piece of history, splendidly told.
Kirsty Jane McCluskey
Horror Stories: classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones (Oxford University Press, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50) is a beautiful collection of nineteenth-century horror with enough set pieces to educate the novice and enough curiosities to delight the connoisseur. Darryl Jones’ annotations are substantial, but not obtrusive. Best of all, he’s chosen my very favourite M.R. James’ “Count Magnus”, about a writer’s fixation on a long-gone noble who’s not as dead as he seems.
In the centenary year of the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, what better read than Tim Butcher’s The Trigger (Chatto & Windus £18.99; Tablet price £17.10), an odyssey across ethnic and religious boundaries in Bosnia, retracing the steps of Gavrilo Princip, his Serb assassin. History, travelogue and memoir from a writer who covered the 1990s Balkans conflict for The Daily Telegraph.
James Le Fanu
Mary Midgley is a marvel. Now aged 94, she has long been engaged in a battle against the false certainties of the noisy, if regrettably influential, scientistic brigade. In Are You an Illusion? (Acumen, £14.99; Tablet price £13.50) she skewers with wit and forensic skill the logical inconsistencies required by the materialist view that our sense of self and free will must be an illusion generated by the brain to give the impression there is someone in charge. Read, enjoy – and admire.