The Rag And Bone Shop – Veronica O’Keane (Allen Lane 2021)

I was taken in by the subtitle “How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us” as well as the image suggested by the title (which itself is derived from a poem by WB Yeats).  Like most of us, I’m fascinated by the workings of memory and Veronica O’Keane with a full and varied career in neuroscience is an ideal guide.

The book falls soundly between an exploration for the general reader and those who are able to absorb all the science.  I did try really hard to grasp the wonders of brain chemistry and function but there were too many amazing bits of brain doing amazing things.  I could follow the gist but struggled to take it all in, having to go back over bits when I picked up the book again, my memory itself perhaps letting me down.

What is fascinating are the case studies from the author’s career and I also particularly liked her bridging of science with art, especially literature, where she credits some writers, amongst them Samuel Beckett and the oft-cited Proust of finding ways of conveying the workings of memory and memory disorders before science had a chance to explore these gut feelings and turn them into scientific fact.

I also very much liked O’Keane’s ability to get us to grasp concepts with examples from her own life – the “prescient memory”, described broadly as the past merging with the present, depicted here as a succession of visual memories as her son left home to go to college and “meta-consciousness” as the experience of her fondness of year-round sea swimming and that transcendent feeling of being at one with the environment which when reading her description becomes fully comprehended.

It’s not intended as a book to help boost memory but there is a little fillip for those of us well into middle age- knowing that you have forgotten something is itself a form of memory, it is when you start not knowing you have forgotten something that could flag concerns.

If there is a star of the show it is the hippocampus, the mysterious sea-horse shaped part of the brain which, like plastic, is fairly adaptable.  London Taxi drivers who have studied The Knowledge have been found to have larger right side hippocampi because this is where the brain has its memory of place.  The left side is for biographical memory which can shrink when a person is depressed leading to potential amnesia, but it is able to reactivate itself.  I found out a lot about this part of the brain and it was fascinating.

As well as the correct workings there’s plenty of examination of when things go wrong and misfires occur (obviously these are the aspects which teach professionals so much about the brain), there’s the history of neuroscience, what happens to our memories and emotions at different parts of our lies and the whole concept of “false” memories is examined as well as a little look into the future of this relatively recent discipline. 

I think it’s a book with parts that will stay with me, memory-wise, and I may want to revisit certain sections but as a whole it is a little overwhelming but that’s to do with me and a lack of basic scientific education rather than the quality of the work here.

The Rag And Bone Shop is published in the UK by Allen Lane on 4th February 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Amazon Adventure – Willard Price (1951)

Whilst in the stacks of withdrawn-from-the-shelves books at Library HQ the other week I discovered a set of Willard Price which took me back over 40 years.  When I was 10 or 11 in the mid 70’s these books were very popular.  As friends raced to read the whole series I don’t think we realised they stemmed from the generation before us.  Paperback editions were given thrilling contemporary covers but the most evocative were the hardback editions we borrowed from the library with cover art and inky illustrations by Pat Marriott.

I can remember being asked to bring in a book for my first day at secondary school.  I took in one of these (not sure which one) as did, it turned out, a significant section of the class, all new to me from my junior classes.  It gave me an immediate sense of belonging and it felt like secondary school might not be so alien after all. (I might have judged this too early!)

Over the years the Willard Price Adventure series have been in and out of favour.  I remember a resurgence in popularity when I started teaching, probably from the next generation whose parents had fond memories and recommended them.  I’m not sure if there haven’t been revised editions to tone down some of Price’s ideas but I’m pretty sure the edition I have just read, in hardback from 1978, would have been as the author wrote it.

A later edition

Canadian born Willard Price (1887-1983) published this first in the series “Amazon Adventure” in 1949 (it must have taken a couple of years to arrive in the UK) and finished the 14th book in 1980 which illustrates the continuing appeal this series must have had.  This debut, as could be anticipated by the title, was very much of its time and I did wonder how I would feel on re-reading it.

What struck me most was considering how the 10 year old me would have responded.  Putting Price’s viewpoints to one side- that the white Americans have a right to pillage the Amazonian rainforest to collect wildlife for zoos, I’m not sure how the me who couldn’t watch TV/films with animals in them without feeling anxious and tearful in case they die (still can’t) would have responded to these tales of hunting and plunder.  Price actually deals with some grim perils which suggest we must have been made of sterner stuff back then.

The extraordinarily capable and knowledgeable teenager Hal accompanies his father on an expedition to the Amazon to collect animals.  Little brother Roger comes too, only a couple of years younger but obviously a victim of second son syndrome as all the expertise father has passed on to Hal hasn’t got to Roger, whose predilection for pranks is often downright foolhardy.

It is so implausible but Price knows how to grip his young audience and despite all my objections to the motives behind this I found myself as drawn in as probably the 10 year old me was.  I would never recommend certainly this first in the series to a young reader, (I’m not sure if they become less controversial) but I liked the amount of difficulty Price heaped onto his young characters, not everyone comes out of the experience alive and the plot device of the raft of animals sailing down the Amazon was at times reminiscent of “Life Of Pi”.  As an exercise in nostalgia I was very involved, enough to consider borrowing the next in the series “South Sea Adventure”.

Amazon Adventure was first published in the UK in 1951.  I read a Jonathan Cape hardback edition.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help vibe book about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

I’ve been meaning to read some Agatha Christie for some time.  I’ve checked back and it was 15 years ago since I read 1949’s “The Moving Finger”.  She was perhaps the main author who turned me into an adult reader as around the age of 12/13 I really got into her books, interspersing them with the less appropriate horrors of James Herbert, “Jaws” and “The Godfather”.  Reading her as an adult I can’t say I’ve ever really fallen in love with any of her titles but it is generally always a pleasing experience.

Recently I spotted the year long Read Christie challenge set up at, the official home for this important twentieth century British author.  The challenge is to read each month a book within a theme, there is a main title specified with other suggestions made.  For January the theme is a story set in a grand house and the choice is “The Hollow” which I have never read.  It’s not too late to sign up for the challenge at the website and receive a Read Christie 2021 postcard to track your progress and take part in social media activities and a Facebook/Instagram Book Club meeting on 28th January.

I found a copy of “The Hollow” available on Borrowbox, the online e-book/audiobook site which is part of my local authority (Isle Of Wight) library membership. (I have returned it now if anyone on the island is after it!) 

I know that my attitude towards Agatha Christie is somewhat quirky.  I have tended to shy away from anything featuring her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot.  I have never seen David Suchet’s famous depiction in the TV adaptations yet I will always watch any standalones that have been filmed and my favourite Miss Marple is not the archetypal characterisation by Joan Hickson, but the 60’s black and white of Margaret Rutherford, or even, which might upset Christie purists further, Julia McKenzie.

Here, however, we are indeed in Poirot territory, but he does not really have that great of a role to play.  “The Hollow” is the name of the country house, specified by my challenge, the home of Lord and Lady Angkatill and it begins with the prospect of a weekend gathering at the property which will be attended by (mainly) cousins and other family friends.  I thought the characterisation here was much stronger than I remembered of this author and I became really invested in those desperate to escape to “The Hollows” for a couple of days and those dreading it.  I really enjoyed the build-up to the murder (not a plot-spoiler, you knew there was going to be one, didn’t you).  I have felt in the past that the investigations (especially when Poirot is heavily involved) can be a little turgid but here much less so.  I think putting the eccentric Lady Angkatell and sculptor Henrietta at the centre of things helped as they are both sparky characters, intent on doing and saying their own thing and not letting a murder in the country house hold them back.

The weaker element here was the resolution which wasn’t as clever as I had hoped and Poirot’s success was largely just to him being in the right place at the right time. I did find my return to Christie after a lengthy absence very satisfactory.  The book was always involving and, although unlikely to be amongst many Christie fan favourites top picks I would have thought, it certainly whetted my appetite for the next challenge.  One month ticked off on my postcard.  February, appropriately for the month of St Valentine’s Day, asks for a story involving love to be read.  I hope February does not pass me by without me experiencing a bit of love Christie-style.

“The Hollow” was published in 1946.  I read the Harper Collins e-book.  Details of the Read Christie 2021 challenge can be found at

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (2020)

This was a title from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” post.  I liked the idea of this but recognised it could go either way.  Get it wrong and it could be embarrassing but I was spurred on to read it by positive reviews and Amanda Craig’s on-cover observation “Miss Marple meets The Crown.”

It has been done very well.  S J Bennett introduces us to a new sleuth for her series (with second title due November 2021) but it is someone we all feel we know well – The Queen.  From Windsor Castle, Elizabeth II indulges in something, we are assured, she has done from time to time during her reign, some amateur detective work.

Here, following a rather lively dine and sleep at the Castle a young Russian pianist is found dead in his room in circumstances nobody wants to share with the Queen.  Unfazed by the position the corpse was found in but distressed by what looks like a murder in one of the Royal bedrooms the Queen begins her investigations alongside those of the official channels of the Metropolitan Police and MI5.

The problem with Elizabeth II as a sleuth is that she can’t do very much.  She has to rely on others to do the door to door investigating and report back to her.  Here it is Rozie, a recently appointed assistant Private Secretary, who is taken into the Queen’s confidence and secretly begins to find things out for her.  This does tend to shift the emphasis away mid-way through the book where the main character’s role becomes passive.  This might become an issue in later instalments of the series but I forgive it this time around.

It works because it is convincing.  S J Bennett obviously knows her Royals and doesn’t overcomplicate things by putting in the whole family.  It is merely the Queen with Prince Philip in a supportive role yet it feels like we are being given titbits on their lives and life in the palace whereas it is just a work of fiction.  The author could have just made everything up but it feels authentic and imbued with a British charm which I very much enjoyed.

This would not normally be the sort of book I would read that often, if fitting it into a genre it is light-hearted cosy crime but I think that this is something which has an impressive amount of sparkle to it.  If the publishers Zaffre could get this book out there it could end up a very big seller, especially if continued lockdowns means we will be looking for something which is both reassuring and different.

The Windsor Knot was published in hardback in 2020 by Zaffre.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic 2021)

And here it is, nice and early this year, my first five star read of 2021.  To be honest I am not all that surprised I loved this book.  I highlighted it as one of the books I wanted to read this year and it’s a book by an author whose collection of short stories “Lot” won the Dylan Thomas Prize and which I rated four stars, acknowledging the potential.

This debut novel is even better.  It is the story of a male couple, Benson, who is black and Mike of Japanese heritage living in Houston.  Their relationship is somewhat rocky and not helped by Mike’s mother arriving from Tokyo for an extended stay on the same day Mike flies to Osaka to connect with the dying father who had deserted the family.  We get two first-person narratives from Benson, sandwiched between is Mike’s experiences in Japan.

Benson is left to forge a relationship with a woman he has never met as they bond over cooking, attempting to find common ground as they share the apartment whilst Mike helps out at his father’s bar, which is his potential inheritance.  The couple’s relationship is tested.

I was drawn in by these characters and their families.  I found children’s day-care worker Benson was especially vividly drawn, Mike seems more elusive which makes some of his actions questionable (including the desertion of his mother which is central to the plot).  It is less spikey than the short-story collection and provoked a real emotional response from me.  It feels modern, is well-written and has provided an early reading highlight for 2021.

Memorial is published in hardback by Atlantic Books in January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Looking Around….

It’s time for my final retrospective of the year where, as I have done the last couple of years, I take a look at other bloggers end of year posts to see what books have really caught their imagination. There seems to be an acknowledgement that reading habits changed this year – some went through spates of not reading much at all and had periods of time when they whizzed through books. Some read less new fiction than normal and re-read more, but that might have had something to do with bookshops being closed for part of the year. There seems to be a much wider range of recommended books, with very few cropping up on more than a couple of lists.

One book which is making regular appearances is the winner of the 2020 Women’s Fiction prize, a title which I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read but never got round to and that is Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” which nets the runner-up place at Random Book Reviews, third place at A Little Book Problem and also amongst the favourites of Booker Talk– enough recommendations to inch this up my to-be-read list.

One of the things I look for are common ground seeing who has enjoyed the same books as me. The only one I found from my 2020 Top 10 was Kiley Read’s Such A Fun Age which Cathy at 746 Books also highlights it saying “not what I was expecting at all….incredibly smart and funny“. She also has me adding a couple of books to my reading list – one I was aware of anyway and one which was new to me. “Tyll”, by Daniel Keldmann, in a translation by Ross Benjamin, was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize and in its original German was reputedly the second best-selling novel in the world in 2006. It’s taken a long time to get over here and Cathy’s observation that it is a joyous mix of fact and bawdy fiction makes it seem an even more tempting prospect. Her book of the year is “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, a book which when she finished it, immediately started from the beginning again. It’s a novella, which I have been sniffy about in the past, maybe this could be the book to warm me to this format .

A book which just missed out on my Top 10, although the author has featured on it before is Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin At The End” . It is the choice of best book for Eva at Novel Deelights. I interviewed Chris a couple of times after his debut novel “Tall Oaks” was published and I really loved his second “All The Wicked Girls“. I said that I felt that British author Chris could have a crack at producing the Great American Novel, there are some this year, perhaps Eva included, who would say that he has already done this with his third book. Also on Novel Deelights list is the author who, probably more than other, people suggest I should read and that is Frederick Backman. Here it is his latest “Anxious People” which is being recommended and that did appear in a few other lists. I do have a copy of “Bear Town” on my Kindle, which is the one people say I should start with, so maybe in 2021 I will develop my own admiration for this author. Other titles that I have in common with bloggers include the gripping (but I think the follow-up was better) “Nine Elms” by Robert Bryndza which is on Fictionphile’s separate crime list, “A Thousand Moons” by Sebastian Barry highlighted by Margaret at Books Please (here I preferred his previous novel) and the book which gave a voice to the victims of Jack The Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five” recommended by Lou at Random Book Reviews.

Bookish Beck had the Booker Prize shortlisted “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor at number 5 on her list. This also impressed me and just missed out on my Top 10, Beck makes comparisons thematically and linguistically to Virginia Woolf which I must admit passed me by although I was moving towards that direction looking back at my review as I said “Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.” So I was on the right lines, maybe this is a book which would benefit from a re-read at some point. Bookish Beck also had another strong contender for the Top 10, “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey in her runners up list and her number one choice was another author who has been recommended to me, Evie Wyld. “Bass Rock” is the choice here and its coastal setting and “elegant time-blending structure” haunted the imagination.

As always there were recommendations I had to add to my wants list- Jen at Books On The 7.47 captured my imagination with Cathy Rentzenbrink “Dear Reader” – a book about books which gave her loads of recommendations and was like “having a great chat with a bookish friend”.

Booker Talk’s recommendation of Lemn Sissay’s “My Name Is Why” and A Little Book Problem’s runner-up “Where The Crawdads Sing” have both been on my radar since publication and I just might give another go to Joseph Conrad whose “Nostromo” was Fiction Fan’s Book Of The Year, when I read Conrad I was much younger and couldn’t get on with him at all, maybe age and experience would change that.

A book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” list has been confirmed as a book I have so far really missed out with Books On The 7.47 saying it was “almost impossible to stop reading” and in the runners-up list from Bookish Beck, but I must admit it was one that I thought I would see on a lot more end-of-year lists and that is “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Perhaps its inevitable arrival in paperback this year and people like me who recently managed to pick up as a Kindle read for 99p will spread the word and it may appear on more (and perhaps my own) best books read in 2021 choices.

Looking Back….Looking Forward

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2021. I managed three out of the ten in 2019, four of ten the year before, let’s see how I did in 2020.

swimminglockwoodbox hillrosegold

Swimming In The Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski  (Bloomsbury) – I read this pre-publication in January and rated it four stars. I found it “an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.” A strong debut novel which attracted good reviews.

Here We Are – Graham Swift (Scribner)- I didn’t get around to this one but I’m still fascinated by its late 1950’s Brighton Pier setting so I am looking forward to giving it a go.

Actress – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)- There’s been reservations on this at the libraries I work in since publication so will either wait for the excitement to calm down or for the paperback. I said of it: “This sounds just the sort of book that makes it into my end of year Top 10.” Perhaps it will in 2021.

Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle)- A debut which I read just before it was published in March. My response was a bit more muted than I was expecting and I gave it three stars. A World War II set country house novel with a touch of the supernatural. I said I “was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. “

The Recovery Of Rose Gold – Stephanie Wrobel – (Michael Joseph)- I gave this a five star review in March and it just missed out on a Top 10 placing in my end of year list. I think coming out when it did it was one of the debuts that suffered because of the closure of bookshops because it didn’t make it presence felt over here in the way it was expected pre-publicaction when it was predicted to be one of the biggest selling thrillers of the year. There is still time for the paperback to change things when it appears this February.

Box Hill – Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – I got round to this novella in June and rated it four stars. I hadn’t read Adam Mars-Jones before and it was not really what I was expecting; “It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century.” My quibble was about it being so short – I felt it could have worked even better if the plot was fleshed out for greater length. I’m a big believer of quality over quantity but felt here that there was a much longer novel trying to escape.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) A sequel of sorts to Barry’s Costa-winning “Days Without End” . I described it as  “far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes“. I missed the epic sweep of the first novel and was a little disappointed by it. I rated it three stars.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder)- One of the big titles of the year which has featured on many awards list and scooped the 2020 Women’s Prize For Fiction yet is one of the titles I did not get around to. Maggie O’Farrell should be one of the authors I catch up a bit on in 2021, I loved the one book of hers that I have read.

Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd (Canongate) – 2020 was a year for rescheduling, in the publication industry as much as anywhere else. This book was due out in June but has been put back until February, so I have obviously not had a chance to see how this author, who seems to be getting better with each book, fares with her first Junior Fiction publication.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)- Details of this book were a bit vague in January, unsurprisingly as it was not due until September. It attracted good publicity when it arrived probably because of the sixteen year gap between this and Clarke’s outstanding “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”. I’m not actually sure how much this book will appeal for me despite it being shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costas and on many end of year lists, but I am still prepared to give it a go.

That’s five out of the ten read which is a pretty good result for me. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2021.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books) (due out on 7th Jan). This American author’s collection of short stories was the Dylan Thomas Prize winner, a big favourite of Barack Obama and made me feel a bit warmer towards the short story format than I normally do. I have high hopes for his debut novel which is about a male couple, one black, one of Japanese heritage whose relationship is tested when one’s mother flies in from Japan to stay at the same time he goes off back to spend time with his estranged, very sick father in Osaka. The Times has said; “Funny and moving… Memorial confirms Washington as a writer not just to watch, but to read now“. Sounds good to me.

The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (riverrun books) (due out on 5th Jan). Another debut which has attracted a lot of pre-publication praise. A historical novel , it is apparently a rich evocation of the Deep South plantations with a bond between two slaves leading to suspicion and tragedy. Comparisons are being made to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Writer Marlon James describes it as “Epic in scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty. The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do and can be.”

Girl In The Walls – A J Gnuse (4th Estate) (due out on 4th March) – Another debut, we are promised here a Gothic, spooky house novel which “plays equally well as sinister thriller and poignant meditation”. Gnuse (a man) lives in Texas and comparisons are being made to Shirley Jackson, I love a bit of Gothic, if well-done and hopefully this will live up to expectations.

Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador) (due out on 4th March)- After what was a difficult year for debut authors it is great to see publishers are still green-lighting first works as this is another debut novel I am spotlighting (appropriate) here. (Although Stonex has published novels under a pseudonym, this is her first in her own name). More atmospheric mystery in a tale of disappearing Cornish lighthouse keepers in 1972. We are promised a gripping page-turner and I am sure we will all welcome a bit of that come March.

Hot Stew – Fiona Mozley (John Murray) (due out 18th March). First time round Mozley was Booker shortlisted for “Elmet” which was my favourite of those I read in line for the 2017 prize. That had a naturalistic, elemental feel but here she has changed direction with a very urban novel centred on a Soho novel. It is described as “rumbustious” which her first novel certainly wasn’t so this could end up very much further enhancing her reputation.

Many Different Kinds Of Love – Michael Rosen (Ebury Press) (due out on 18th March) – Regular readers to will know of my great affection for Michael Rosen and we almost lost him in 2020 when he was struck down by coronavirus. Subtitled “a story of life, death and the NHS this is a book of poems, reflections and nurses’ medical diaries. it is said to celebrate “the power of community and the indomitable spirits of the people who keep us well” which sounds like a pretty essential read to me.

Kitchenly 434 – Alan Warner (White Rabbit) (due out 18th March, which is looking like a great day for quality publications) I loved this British author’s “The Sopranos”. It has featured on my Book Of The Year Top 3 on two occasions but amazingly I have never got round to reading anything else by him. This may very well change that. It is about a butler of a rock star and publication blurb suggests it is like “Remains Of The Day with cocaine and amplifiers!”

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) (due September) – After the stunning “Underground Railroad” and the Pulitzer Prize winning “Nickel Boys” we get a 1960’s New York setting and a lively heist crime.

People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze) (due September) – There will be a lot of focus on this book in the early autumn following the critical and commercial breakthrough of “Queenie“. We don’t know much about it yet other than it is about estranged half-siblings coming together.

Diary Of A Suburban Lady – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir) (due October) – I knew she had a novel in her! TV columnist and writer of “Bookworm” the best ever book about children’s fiction will put out her debut novel, described as a comedy, and if it is anything like the rest of her work it will be laugh-out-loud funny, inspired by EM Delafield’s “Diary Of A Provincial Lady.”


There you have it, ten books spread fairly well throughout the year from ten different publishers. Will these big the big titles of the year or will I be revisiting them at the start of 2021 saying “What happened to this one?” In the world of books you never know ………

What You Have Been Reading – The Top 10 posts of 2020

One positive aspect of this very strange year as far as I am concerned is the much greater volume of readers visiting me here at The figures show well over double what I have had in previous years, so I’m starting off with a big thank you to all of you who have continued to stop off at and to those of you who first stumbled on the site at some point during lockdown.

Here is my annual list of what you have been reading, the 10 posts this year that have attracted the most attention. Don’t ask me to explain why certain posts end up being more popular than others – after nearly 6 years of doing this I don’t have the faintest idea. You now have 741 posts to choose from, so these have done very well in rising to the top. Over the years the most popular posts have been fairly consistent but this year there are 7 new entries onto the top 10, but only one was first published in 2020. Once again. I have no idea why this is all how it is but I thought it would be fun to just run down the 10 posts with links to the original review should you wish to find out more (just click the title). The figure in the bracket refers to the posts position in What You Have Been Reading 2019 post.

10 (-) 20 Of The Best – Shirley Bassey – Number 80 in my Essential CD countdown. This year saw the great Dame Shirley Bassey getting a Top 5 album chart placing with what is reputed to be her final recording setting an Official Charts record of being the first female recording artist to get a Top 40 chart placing in seven consecutive decades. That is an extraordinary achievement and the new album gave her the highest chart position she had attained for 42 years. Perhaps it is statistics like these that made people want to find out about her back catalogue. This budget CD from the Music For Pleasure label spans from 1960-73 and has most of the big hits. In the UK it can be bought new for £9.63 from Amazon, or used for £0.01.

9(-) Very – Pet Shop Boys – This 1993 Parlophone album made it to number 45 on my Essential CD countdown and was their (to date) only UK number 1 album. It is the one with the orange bubbly cover which contained such gems as their cover of “Go West”, “Yesterday When I Was Mad” and “Can You Forgive Her?” In 2018 it was reissued with a bonus disc of remixes entitled “Very; Further Listening 1992-4. It seems to be easier to find this than the original CD which I own.

8(-) Behaviour – Pet Shop Boys – I’m delighted that people are working their way through my Pet Shop Boys reviews. I had this 1990 Parlophone release at number 91 in my Top 100 listing. Perhaps their most rounded pop album it contains “My October Symphony” and “Nervously” two of their very best non-single tracks together with the big hits “So Hard” and “Being Boring”. This was also reissued as a Further Listening Double CD package but the original can be currently bought on Amazon for £13.74 and used from £7.43.

7(-) A Natural – Ross Raisin – A four star 2017 novel which I read and reviewed in 2018. It’s a tale of a young gay football player with more soccer between its covers than in anything I have read before. I said of it; “this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.” I did acknowledge the story telling and the sheer skill of the writer and was very impressed by it. In fact, it is a book which does quite often come to mind so it did resonate with me. It could be read as aversion therapy for anyone considering a career as a professional footballer!

6(-) Lets Groove: The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire– This is really a re-entry as my number 30 in my Essential CD list has been bouncing around my most read lists since I first published it in October 2015. On last year’s Five From Five post to celebrate 5 years of the blog I counted down the five most read posts of all time and this was at number 5 with the highest total of visits of any my 100 Essential CD list. A 17 track 1996 compilation which would prove an excellent introduction for this group for the very bargain price currently at Amazon of £3.08 and from £0.60 for a used copy.

5(6) Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood & Mary Killen – This was posted in 2018 and has hovered around the Top 5 most read posts for most of the time since. Giles and Mary from “Gogglebox” should maybe consider putting pen to paper again as the interest in them in still there.

4(-) Sanditon – Jane Austen & Another Lady – I gave this a five star review for this 1975 publication when I read it in 2019 where it ended up at number 3 in my end of year list. Australian-born author Marie Dobbs was extremely successful in carrying on from the fragment of the novel Jane Austen left when she died in 1817. I read this because of the Andrew Davies TV adaptation which I also enjoyed, a significant number of you have wanted to find out more about this book and/or the TV series this year.

3(7) Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer – First posted in March 2018 when I placed the late, great Donna ‘s 1977 release at number 85 on my 100 Essential CD lists. For the second year running this has been my most read of the reviews on that list. Despite its slightly awkward “Cinderella” concept this double album resulted in a much broader scope than ever before with some great tracks from the Moroder/Bellotte/Summer team. It is well worth the £7.15 price currently on Amazon (used from £5.52)

2(-) A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom – John Boyne – A 2020 publication which I read and reviewed just as it came out. This was a high-concept work which I described as 52 mini-novels requiring a vast amount of historical research. I gave this book 4 stars, which pained me a little as Boyne is a huge favourite of mine and his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is one of my favourite books of this century. It’s still a very good read and is extrarodinarily ambitious.

1(4) Scott And Bailey – I have no answers. In January last year when I looked at my five most read posts of all time this was sat at number 3. It is a review from the beginning of the final fifth series which began on ITV in April 2016. It just shows how well-loved this much-missed TV series starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp was. Over four years on and it has reached the summit for this year.

Where Are You Reading From?

The Top 10 countries for visitors of

  1. UK
  2. US
  3. Belgium
  4. Germany
  5. Netherlands
  6. Canada
  7. Australia
  8. Brazil
  9. Singapore
  10. Argentina

Wherever you are reading from I hope you have found something to entertain you during a year which has been difficult for all of us. I look forward to your continued support in 2021.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – The Top 5

Continuing my countdown of my top 10 Books I read this year.  For numbers 10-6 click here and to see the full review just click on the highlighted title.

5. The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (John Murray 2008) Read and reviewed in December


This is the second year running that Michael Cox has been at number 5.   Last year a re-reading of “The Meaning Of Night” (a former Book Of The Year) was also in this position.  This is the sequel that I didn’t even know existed and although it might not be quite as good it does form an exceptional two books series, and sadly, novel-wise, that was it for Michael Cox who passed away within a year of this publication.  It can be read as a stand-alone but would be so much better tackled soon after the debut.  The author was excellent at getting an authentic Victorian feel and a kind of shadowy, elusive atmosphere pervades his work which I find really impressive.

4. The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read and reviewed in January)


I finished reading this on New Year’s Day 2020 and it left an impression on me which has lasted throughout the year.  Of course, I didn’t know when reading it how its dystopian flavour would resonate with me through our world events.  This is an English translation by Stephen Snyder which originally appeared in Japan in 1994. I said of it;  “It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember.” It’s also a rare thing of a dystopian novel where people are actually nice to one another as ” here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.

3. Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday 2004) – Read and reviewed in April.


Kate Atkinson is an author who just seems to miss out on my end of year Top 10 (apart from 2016 when she got the runner-up position with “Life After Life“).  I thoroughly enjoyed the other three books I’ve read of hers and I thought I’d give this previously 4* rated book another go.  The whole of this year’s Top 3 was read in the sunny first lockdown outside in the sunshine which may have just influenced my decisions a little or more likely show how appreciative I was of good fiction at that time.  Second time round for this book I absolutely loved it and I can’t think why 15 years ago I didn’t give this a five star rating.  Still, I’ve put that right now and it marks a second appearance for this author in my end of year Top 3.  I said;  “What stands this novel above much crime fiction is the sheer quality of the writing, a richness of cultural references which makes the events feel totally real. There’s so much in Atkinson’s writing, an ability to turn from humour to tragedy in a couple of sentences in a way which feels so plausible and convincing. ” I re-read this because I wanted to get cracking on the Jackson Brodie series but to date I still haven’t got round to reading more.  I should make that a reading goal for 2021.

2. London Belongs To Me – Norman Collins (Penguin Modern Classics 1945) (Read and reviewed in June)


This was another re-read,  but not since I was a teenager.  It was one like “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” that made a big impression on me at the time, but unlike that novel hasn’t sat awaiting re-reads on my shelves for decades.  I read a library copy at the time and memories flooded back when I saw this Penguin Modern classics edition on a Book Bus bookshop during the Ventnor festival in those innocent festival-going days of 2019.  I described it as a real warm hug of a book which made it a very valuable book in a year when hugs were pretty non-existent.  True, it has a soap-opera feel and there is the odd expression and viewpoint which would jar with the modern reader but this account of a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington from December 1938- December 1940 brought me a lot of pleasure this year.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)


For the second year running it is an American woman who takes the top prize.  What was I thinking of reading this during the most tense part of lockdown?  I read a book about a cruel disease which decimated communities in the midst of a pandemic!  Perhaps not the best reading choice I could have made but perhaps it intensified what I read and what I read was superb.  Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. Excellent characterisation and I said of this book:  “The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.” The investment I had with the characters was very powerful; “you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is.” A very deserved Book Of The Year win for Rebecca Makkai.  I must seek out her three previous novels in 2021.

As I enter her name into my special Hall of Fame, here are the other books which have made the top spot going back to 2008.

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

This year there were more five star reads than I could fit into my Top 10 so special mentions go to the three books who missed out on the list – “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020), “Blonde” – Joyce Carol Oates (2000) and “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” – Shirley Jackson (1962)

Happy New Year to you all, let’s hope for a less challenging year and that there will be lots of great reading in 2021!