It’s becoming a New Year’s Day tradition that I do a post about my reading over the previous year. Once again, it’s seen a lot of books being read – 95 in total – and the Goodreads website provides a nice graphic that sums it all up and picks out some of the key books, which is what I’ll also do here.
First by way of explanation, I’ve always rated my books based on the following rough assessment – 1=Didn’t enjoy it, 2=It was OK, 3=I liked it, 4=I really liked it and 5=It was excellent. That means that even a middling score of 3 is actually a positive view of a book rather than anything negative. A book does however need to work really hard to get a 5 and over the last five years I’ve only handed out 11 ratings of 5, with four of them being in 2016. So that suggests a year of really good book reading, but it’s actually felt like more of a middling to poor year with a handful of real highlights, all four of which were very different books.
When I read Walk the Lines by Mark Mason I described it as a book that felt it had been written specifically with me in mind. I find London fascinating. I also find transport history fascinating. But most of all, I love the idea of exploring places on foot that are new to me. This is exactly what Mark Mason does as he finds himself walking each London Underground line on the surface and in the process finding bits of London he’s only ever travelled underneath before. He then writes it up combined with a series of amusing observations. And this is exactly the sort of thing I love doing, not just in London, and so it’s no surprise the book appealed. What did disappoint me was that I felt it could have been so much longer. You felt he could have written a whole book about each line.
My next book is surprising. Not just that I gave it five stars but that I read it at all and it’s Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I’d been aware of it ever since it won the Samuel Johnson Prize but whilst there are often books on their shortlist that have an immediate appeal this wasn’t one of those. Reading a true story about someone who decides she wants to raise and train a goshawk isn’t a subject matter that would be of obvious interest to me. I gave it a go after much encouragement from my friend Katie who fell in love with it, and I did too. I should say that this book doesn’t pull any punches and can be quite gruesome in places (it’s probably not a book for vegans) but it draws you in and you really start to feel a bond with the goshawk in the same way that its author does where she starts to feel, understand and react to its moods and habits. I guess it’s the brilliance of Helen Macdonald’s writing that makes it work and for a time after reading it you also want a goshawk of your own.
In contrast my next book is a lighthearted funny read and it’s Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly which is another true story but this time around from a British journalist who reluctantly moves to Denmark when her husband is offered a job at Lego. There’s a whole genre of books around people who move from Britain to a foreign country and they range from the deadly serious anthropological in tone to ones that feel like a xenophobic mocking of foreigners. What this book does is look at the genuine differences and challenges of living in a different country, getting to know their ways (there’s also a moving from London to a rural area narrative too), and falling in love with the country at the same time. It is however all written in a lighthearted humorous style that made me laugh out loud (few books do) and I’d love it if Helen Russell followed it up with another book on the same subject now she’s been there a number of years.
Finally, a book that has been heavily promoted for the whole of 2016 and I’ve been wanting to read since it came out – Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. What is great about this book is not only that it’s about geography, maps and geopolitics, (all of which make it an easy win for me), but that it explains many of the challenges, conflicts and attitudes of countries around the world in a way that makes you think “I sort of knew that, but now you’ve explained it to me in the way that you have it’s really obvious.” It’s a fascinating and yet quite simple book and should be required reading for anyone who enjoys having strong opinions on the state of geopolitics at the moment.
One surprise in 2016 is how the proportion of books I read that are crime fiction keeps going down. It may simply be that making much more use of the library has made me try out more of a variety of genres and so I’ve not fallen back on my usual reading as much. It’s also hard to pick out any particular crime novel that I’ve read this year as my favourite as none have really stood out and I’ve tended to simply continue reading more by authors with whom I’ve long been familiar. If I had to pick out any it’s The Murder Room by PD James, a writer who I loved when I first started reading crime fiction but despite being one of the top authors in the field I only picked up again just over two years ago. I’ve also continued my love for the books of Barbara Nadel and Robert Galbraith.
My political reading has been surprisingly small this year. That could be a reflection of me wanting lighter reading rather than getting too bogged down with detailed political thoughts or biographies at a time when I despair of politics more than ever. The best read though was Steve Hilton’s More Human. Although a well known adviser to the Conservatives, he brings his reputation for free thinking and an open mind to this book which provides an alternative series of ideas for government and policy. Whilst the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive programme following a specific ideology, it is perhaps surprising the issues he cares enough about to devote whole chapters to, such as animal welfare. Whilst I don’t agree with a number of his ideas and I sometimes struggle to see how he can rationally make some of the proposed policies fit together, it is easy to read and most of all quite thought provoking.
I went through an enjoyable phase early in 2016 when I read consecutively a number of quite contrasting books all about the history and character of London. The specific ones that I’d recommend include Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis, London’s Boroughs at 50 by Tony Travers and Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author. This was followed by more history but this time outside London with Renishaw Hall by Desmond Seward which was for me a mixture of local, national and literary history. Much later in the year I read another fascinating history of a prominent family but with an added mystery thrown in with Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman & Paul Newell Clark. Finally two more that have stuck in my mind long after reading them are Rose George’s interesting book on the world shipping industry Deep Sea and Foreign Going and Bernadine Evaristo’s fun but enlightening book Mr Loverman about a secret relationship between two elderly Caribbean men living in Hackney.
One of the downsides in my year of reading has been an increasing tendency to get in to a particular theme of books or build a pile of books that I feel I must work through and that I should stick with come what may. It has made some of the, otherwise enjoyable books that I do want to read, feel, at times, like a chore and a challenge to be got through rather than something I love doing. If I have one resolution for 2017 it’s to be prepared to drop a book I’ve started reading or return to the library something that I have yet to start if for some reason I am starting to lose the passion for it. I must remember that I can always pick the book up again later if I want to and stopping reading it now isn’t accepting defeat but may just mean that it’s not the right time to be reading that particular book.
My New Year’s resolution of twelve months ago was to finally start writing the book I’ve always wanted to write. Again it came to nothing. Although I signed up to a free online creative writing course time, personal circumstances and energy levels meant it never happened. For that reason I’ll stick with my earlier resolution on reading better rather than making a new one on writing my book, although that will always be there at the back of my mind.