This year I only managed to read 18 books, which is pitiful given my reading record in earlier years, especially 2018. In mitigation I’d like to offer that for some of 2018 I had been immobilized by a broken ankle so had little else to do except read; and this year I had planned to do more writing.
I did indeed finish the first draft of a book provisionally entitled John Maddox: His Part In My Victory, but on advice from those in the know, I am recasting it as something more saleable, mainly by taking out all the jokes.
But I digress.
Given the smallness of my list, which lacks entries from favorite authors such as Gaiman, Simmons, Dickens and LeGuin, I don’t feel I can select a top ten, so this year you’ll have to make do with a top five instead.
As they don’t say in all the best game shows … in no particular order …
Tombland by C. J. Sansom. Imagine my pleasure when I learned that C. J. Sansom was going to resurrect his fictional Tudor barrister and sleuth Matthew Shardlake, whom we’d last seen as the personal lawyer to Catherine Parr (in Lamentation) and thought, that with the death of Henry VIII, we’d never see again. Tombland is set during the reign of Edward VI, but is rather different from the other Shardlake books. First, it’s less a detective novel (although there is indeed a whodunit) and much more a straight historical piece. Second, it’s set in Norwich, a city I know very well, and which still retains much of its Tudor street plan – increasing my enjoyment. Third, it’s all about Kett’s Rebellion (much of the action of which took place in Norwich and the Lands Adjacent), a period of history concerning which I knew little, and was thus considerably informed; and finally, it’s a whopper of a book. So enjoyable, though, that I didn’t want it to end.
Circe by Madeline Miller is a retelling of Greek Mythology from the point of view of one of its minor characters – Circe, the witch who ensnares Odysseus on the island of Aiaia in the Odyssey. It’s a poignant tale of love and loss, with a great deal of fantastical elements as you’d imagine, and even if you think you know your Greek myths, there are some surprising twists.
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart is, like Circe, a novel twist on a mythological theme. This time the fictional autobiographer is the wizard Merlin, born a prince in South Wales; exiled to Brittany to join the army of Ambrosius Aurelianus, and returns to engineer the conception of Arthur. The author admits that it all comes from The History of the Kings of Britain by that deranged fabulist Geoffrey of Monmouth but it’s none the worse for all that. And given that Britain in the fifth century is almost as entirely free from actual history as is the Odyssey, it’s a wonderful playground for a good historical novelist. Which, of course, Mary Stewart is.
This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay is a memoir by a young man from a family of medics who follows the well-worn path into medicine, makes it to Senior Registrar, and burns out. It is killingly funny, even though you think it shouldn’t be. The message is that we expect our health service professionals to be superhuman, working impossible hours at the cost of a great deal of things the non-medic world takes for granted, such as family life, relationships and the ability to take a holiday. (Add Kay’s Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas as a seasonal addendum).
My Read of the Year is…
The Vorrh by Brian Catling. The Vorrh of the title is a vast, dark forest somewhere in Africa, and the effects it has on a cast of characters who are either intimately connected with it, such as the cyclops Ishmael — raised in a secret basement by robots — or observe it only as a dark shadow on the edges of their consciousness — such as the real-life-yet-fictionalized pioneer of photography Eadweard Muybridge. I have to say that it is one of the strangest books I have ever read — and also one of the most beautiful. The events described are weird, astonishing, ghastly, fantastical and compelling, driven by writing of a quality and texture I have never seen before: muscular, synaesthetic and quite original. Comparisons made between The Vorrh and the works of Mervyn Peake are entirely justified. I am at a loss to say what The Vorrh is ‘about’, or even to summarize the plot, if any. What I can say is that The Vorrh is a book that will live long in the memory. Approach The Vorrh at your peril – once you are ensnared by it is hard to emerge, and if you do, you will be irrevocably changed.