Welcome to anyone who makes time in his or her life for the love of reading, alone or in a Book Group or Reading Group. This is one woman’s personal collection. I hope you will find something to enjoy here if like me you are always asking “What shall I read next?” and are grateful for every: “If you liked that you might like this!”. And if you are a writer, thank you.
John Banville: Athena
A clever highbrow lyrical observation of low life results in a clear and cool rendering, dreamy and sharp at the same time, provoking and engaging a reaction from the reader, but not of warmth. The descriptions of paintings are a great pleasure.
John Banville: The Sea
The finest writing, describing the exorcism of deep grief through the rooting around in old memories, enriched with subsequent layers of experience and understanding, reaching an ultimate quieting of the turbulent and strong emotions evoked.
William Boyd: Fascination
These inventive short stories contain so much that they feel like full novels. Superior craftsmanship, observant and wise. The humour is intelligent and redeeming, forgiving the errors of human nature by pointing out the amusement to be gained from viewing them through the author’s frame.
Melvyn Bragg: The Soldier’s Return
Moving, faultlessly executed, character and place visually depicted, people’s inconsistencies sympathetically noted, unspoken communication subtly conveyed. Serenely skilful, but it failed to engage me.
AS Byatt: Possession
A demanding and deeply satisfying investigation into “the truth of the human heart” and a superior “attempt to convert a bygone time with the very present that that is flitting away from us” (Nathaniel Hawthorne).
Patricia Cornwell: the Dr Kay Scarpetta crime series
Patricia Cornwell’s narrative style is, above all, clear and straight. She does not create a dramatic density, whether of language or of plot detail, in order to rack up the sensations of fear or apprehension or terror. Quickly and convincingly she sets a realistic scene after scene, bringing the random grubby details of everyday life into contrast with the gruesome and the inexplicably psychotic. We, the readers, find ourselves in the position of trusted colleagues. If there is a new fact she will tell us first, perhaps earlier than the detectives or the lawyers, or the victim’s family. Dr Scarpetta’s emotional life forms a delicate background, underlining her sensitivity to the gruesome and the psychotic, and her compassion towards the victims, their families and friends, and others caught in the fall-out or victims in other ways. Patricia Cornwell’s heroine believes that we reap what we sow. She would like people to be better people. There are some formulaic elements which one registers as one progresses through this series, but I do not begrudge them.
Cressida Connolly: My Former Heart
This novel carried me away with its layer upon layer of precisely nuanced emotion, capturing the needs and wants of women’s loves with an acuity that moves between sweetness and pain. Written with a realism that is imaginative and penetrating, it draws you further and further in to a world that the author has created and is the world of every woman who has ever loved.
Rachel Cusk: The Lucky Ones
A different voice, a thorough opening up and detailed observation of emotions; her fascinating insights make a poetry out of ordinary life.
Helen Dunmore: Your Blue Eyed Boy
Superb plot, excellently paced, but not quite as appealing to me as some of her other books. Dunmore is good at conveying the atmosphere of the coastal marsh, the weather, the domestic relationship. Her depiction of children is sensitive and real. Her accidental deaths are always convincingly accidental, however many there are. She examines guilt. The swimming cleanses guilt. The abandoned and the abandoner both feel guilt.
Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter
Plot, characters and writing of a very high standard; a chilling exploration of cause and effect and responsibility in the growing up of two children in a changing society.
Robert Edric: The Sword Cabinet
In this intriguing story featuring the classic magician’s sword cabinet illusion the writing mirrors the deceptive effects of the magician. The exotic and the banal are mixed together: the showgirl’s sequins in the cold dressing room; the shimmer and dazzle of the show and a mundane life of bills to be paid. The masterly dialogue, using just a few words and changes of tone, is anchored in occasional brief references to some object or action. There are no extra details, just the action viewed as if through a hand held camera. A run of short chapters escalates the excitement, like the magician whipping up the audience’s anticipation. In the end the magician’s tricks are merely tricks. Loss and longing are precisely noted.
Anne Enright: The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch
A book to keep going as long as you can. When you open the pages you are in a hot air balloon, dipping down to the detail and smoothly up again to the wider view. Longings and expectations and disappointments and maturing wisdom are woven into the heat, the smells, the physical sensations, the sense of place and time, of the bustling South American setting framed by the cool logic of Scotland, the point of reference of one of the characters. Very good indeed.
Anne Enright: What are You Like
Observation; conversion of daily details into a rich experience; elevating the ordinary into something you want to linger over; details of other people’s lives given a resonance that gives permanence to the transient; clever use of brand names, unexpected adjectives and adverbs. Such a lot of people’s lives condensed into this solid paste. Immensely satisfying. Note a particularly fine piece of writing about a cupcake on page 238.
Anne Enright: The Gathering
The family gathers to grieve a son but there is more to be gathered in. Details build up of a close sister and brother relationship; seemingly small insubstantial details, gathered randomly and given focus by this death which impels an urgent need to understand what happened before the line of death was drawn; where exactly was he and what had brought him there. The focus falls on her brother and pushes her other relationships out of the way. She must look at things she has not faced, and accept them so that she can work through to the healing phase of grief. The search for the meaning in a shortened life does not arise in a life lived through to a predictable end. Why does a shortened life give cause for rationalising? The size of her family creates a crowd in which feelings can disappear, but that could have happened in any family. She looks for cause and effect in the landlord and tenant relationship, as predator and victim, but was it the landlord who was victim of an unrequited passion, fanned by the object deliberately continuing to tug on a silken leash, the boy an innocent victim, or was he? Do we know ever who was right and who was wrong, oppressor or oppressed, exploiter of a situation or circumstances without preparation? Does the abuser have knowledge or understanding of the effects? The old and the new – the old Ireland, priest-dominated, women as victims of endless reproduction without question; and the inevitable economic consequences of hand-me-downs and neglect and making do. Learned acceptance, learned victimness: once learned does it ever get lifted? Contrast the new Ireland: the mother of two can have sex for pleasure, and offer freely a non-procreative sex act; time is bought with money; the old house was extended piece meal to provide more sleeping space for an increasing family but today a house with two children has its walls knocked down and the pale colours of the open plan rooms do not need to take any account of work-dirty clothes or children fighting. Death switches on a light and everyone in this family is subjected to the same harsh and neutral light at exactly the same time, no matter what each of them has turned into in all the years since they left home, all the turns, directions, changes of direction, opportunities lost or gained, taken or ignored, that have taken each of them away, further and further, anchored though, forever, in the childhood memories that are the only things left to bind them. The first death of an adult sibling, at any age, marks a new phase in a family, more so perhaps than the loss of the first or of the second parent. A deeply felt book, exquisitely executed.
Louise Erdrich: The Antelope Wife
Intense and resonant writing, every word placed accurately in the pattern like the beading that the Indian women in the story sew. It has to be only the words she has selected. No other word would ever do. There is one short section, a handful of paragraphs, where this is not the case and this shows up the rest of the book for its brilliance and sheen and power, again like the beads that are a recurring motif throughout. Each character is precisely rendered in his or her individual speech. Erdrich is searching out the patterns in her long view of six generations in a wide family: accidents of birth; the significance of names; responsibility and ownership within family relationships; the good man (the master butcher in another book, the master baker in this one); the well-intentioned snagged on their own short view and consequent lack of hope; the power of the bottle; the flimsiness of family structure underpinned by the strength and endurance of love; the longings that propel us forward. “We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string …. the needle flashing over the horizon.” Erdrich sees further over the edge than we do; she has an insight into the native American holistic view.
Louise Erdrich: The Master Butchers’ Singing Club
This is the kind of book that I want to go on reading for ever, never reaching the end. I read it more slowly than usual so that I could reflect on each part and enjoy the resonances and the poetry. A deeply felt philosophical masterpiece. A wonderful book, full of wonders: a finely drawn picture of an era, a group of people, a set of circumstances. Erdrich’s language pierces through every detail however mundane, to produce a striking and resonant clarity. Images and scenes from the book will linger with me forever like scraps of films seen long ago. It is about love and devotion: within the family; between friends; between colleagues; love of native land, love of adopted country, maternal, paternal, fraternal, adopted familial love; and the poignant love between parent and child when the child does not know the identity of its parent. Love is loss, hope, generosity, forgiveness, selflessness, loyalty, respect, persistence, truth, family bonds. The denial or opposite of any of these is destructive. It is a family saga in which the families are made up or disintegrate and the wider community takes the place of the family. The randomness of birth, life, death, risk and survival, within the community, is depicted as enriching. The butcher and the undertaker follow their natural processes. Death is a chance event which intrudes and changes, breaks up the present. The characters unfold through their actions, their manner of speaking, the recognition of how that person would carry out an action. The realism and the poetry are interwoven. Sharpness, economy, depth, a pride in skill. After reading this book for the first time I closed it and held it quietly and reverently for a while. I was a different person.
Frances Fyfield: The Playroom
This dark thriller is scary and challenging. A psychological crime like this, particularly with the threat of harm to children, would not be my usual choice, but lots of well-constructed detail to savour and the carefully deceptive pace make it a very effective and enjoyable read.
Sue Gee: Thin Air
Sue Gee is the thinking woman’s Joanna Trollope. Sensitive observation, generous and warm, good comedy, characters very individual and full of surprises. A well-told tale.
Linda Grant: Still Here
Not quite as stunning as her “When I Lived in Modern Times”, after which anything would be an anti-climax, so I wished I had read this one first. An absorbing, searching observation of relationships between Liverpool Jewish professionals.
Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection
The best quilt is the one where the seams are not meant to match, but people overlook it, think it is wrong. The bridge is condemned but looked at another way has merit and beauty and so it is rescued. The woman’s beauty moisturising routine nets the butcher. Effort and craft are rewarded. Effective descriptions of the heat and dust; a thrilling image of a “cut and paste” of the bird song on the air.
Alice Hoffman: Local Girls
A deceptively light read, most enjoyable, a warm and observant depiction of small town lives in America, careful and caring, always connecting the background and the foreground, suggesting depths, wistful, real, felt.
Eva Hoffman: The Secret
Set a few years into the future this thoughtful novel coolly explores some interesting philosophical and emotional landscapes while maintaining the gripping tension of a cleverly told story. It is subtitled “A Fable For Our Time”, underlining the author’s intention to draw a moral in her depiction of the development of a child’s separate identity and the acceptance by parents of their passing to the next stage of their lives. Moods are subtly observed and captured.
Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty
Close observation holds your attention and becomes almost mesmeric. What will we do when homosexuality becomes so mainstream that we lose our engaged bystanders, the Jameses, the Forsters, the Toibims, the Hollinghursts? Who will then stand apart but within, lovingly recording the surface detail and the depths beneath? This saga, across, five years of a newly graduated man’s life, a time of some of the greatest challenges and changes we can expect, covers family life, individual lives, external events, social mores, the class system (the old one and the new one), the coming out of homosexuals and the start of the AIDS crisis, in a finely-drawn selection of detail. Among some wonderful set-piece scenes which repay lingering re-reading, an interview in the MP’s study near the end stands out, so packed is the moment-by-moment depiction of every nuance and shade of reaction. These 500 pages are filled with lilting delicious comedy, learning worn lightly, sensitivity to different and parallel levels of communication between people. I could not always visualise described layouts and occasionally felt that a scene was in the author’s head but had not been conveyed to me, eg I was lost in the geography of the house in France, its terraces and pools, but it seems ungrateful to carp when the entertainment is this good. I do not feel that it is intended to go deeper than it purports, but it is a very good read indeed. The characters and situations lingered on in my mind after I had closed the book, as if they were people I had known.
David Malouf: The Conversations at Curlow Creek
An unexpected reflective introspection, beautifully rendered over the space of one night in two very different lives, different but united in the harshness of 19th century Australia. The poetry of the style and the strength of the plot are a virtuoso combination.
Katherine Mansfield: Bliss and Other Stories
These perfectly formed short stories are like brightly coloured miniatures in an art gallery. The author’s choice of format for her stories produces a fast paced series of scenes, very visually rendered, sometimes covering a very short space of time, perhaps a few hours, one story at least probably covers half an hour. Each story ends with a sense of a line having been firmly drawn or a door firmly closed on the scene, so that one imagines the characters continuing their progress but one is satisfied that one has seen and understood enough. The stories are about characters whose feelings surprise them or hinder them or are unrecognised by them. These emotions are depicted through sharp observation of reported speech and of unexpressed inner feelings and thoughts, with revealing and sometimes comic results arising from the natural discrepancies. The author (and therefore the reader too) sees more than the characters do themselves, as in Jane Austen. Sharply observed and cool but not detached. Timeless classic writing.
Armistead Maupin: Tales of the City
Absorbing, funny, engaging, charming account of life in a recent time that is already historical. Clever plotting, characterisation and description. I could not put it down.
John McGahern: Amongst Women
This is a thoughtful account of the later part of an Irish man’s life within his family, in which the pain of the harshness of the environment, both physical and spiritual, which has informed the Irish character for generations, is faced and observed unsentimentally with understanding and beautiful writing. Reading this book helped me understand his That They May Face the Rising Sun.
Andrew Miller: Oxygen
The writing searches deep into motivating fears under the skin. The language does not draw attention to itself because the expressions are so perfectly right. The characters are real. Tawdry detail takes on a poetry because of the context, because of the whole picture. The less appealing details are a shading around the main features of the picture. They need to be there. An interesting, thoughtful and reflective book.
David Mitchell: Black Swan Green
A story about a young schoolboy that is about the young schoolboy in every one of us. Most enjoyable to read, surprising, funny, reassuring, very good.
Brian Moore: The Magician’s Wife
The linear chronological story builds up suspense, quietly gathering detail to construct mood and atmosphere, suggestion rather than fact. A convincing portrait of the woman and a similarly sensitive observation of the motives and beliefs of the two men. The ending is consistently enigmatic. You feel that the story is still going on after you have left it. A superb book.
Marta Morazzoni: The Alphonse Courrier Affair (translated by Emma Rose)
A plot that is embedded in our psyche, dramatic because elemental, quietly observing and identifying feelings that the characters are not necessarily aware of. It is set in France at the end of the 18th century but the same story goes on for ever. The authorial presence in the narrative frames the simple passionate story and adds some amusing and entertaining quirks. A convincing portrait of a friendship. The author’s delicate sense of humour rounds out the details of the characters’ everyday lives as a foil to their feelings. A credit to the translator that it reads like an original. Translators of this quality need wider recognition.
Toni Morrison: Jazz
The warm liquid feel of the music, its expression of need, its absorption in the expression itself of the wanting, not the thing wanted or lost, the music of 1920s America. Jazz improvises, follows the heart, motifs are picked up and given different treatments, and everyone is a soloist some time. The writing reflects the music, gives respect to pain, endowing it with sensibility and meaning. Those who suffer, grow. The best music comes out of pain. The depth of feeling and acknowledgment of feeling shape the identity the motherless child has sought. A wonderful book.
Toni Morrison: Paradise
Another book that traces the America of today back to the struggles of its immigrants to survive and to construct communities and to find meaning once the basic needs have been met. A poetic, deep and beautiful examination of the genesis and development of a distinct culture and the key influences of the characters of the individual members of that community. The details are carefully observed and lit against a coherent backdrop of the larger picture of a history of a whole people. Paradisical!
Andrew O’Hagan: Personality
The first part of this book is richly entertaining with its observant recall of a way of life that was full of change and yet not at all aware of how those changes would develop and be passed by themselves, a wistful and evocative depiction, with some of the most effective and amusing dialogue I have ever read, drawing you always into the midst of what is happening. As the story progresses the themes and symbols deepen, the emotions mature, and we see how much the individual personality depends on the mirror of its audience. The dialogue, the characters, the descriptions, and the plot all combine in equal measure of controlled deftness to add up to an excellent read.
Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys
An excellent, moving, sympathetic picture of a family bewildered by its pain, its members individually seeking their way out and rising up to the surface again. Absorbing, observant, very well written.
Joyce Carol Oates: Beasts
I read this in one sitting. A short, slow-burning but intense firework. A brooding atmosphere develops as an excellent twisting plot unravels. The reader is drawn in, almost becoming a participant, unwillingly but stickily mesmerised. Oates never writes a clumsy phrase. Every word works.
Joyce Carol Oates: I’ll Take You There
Immensely strong writing, boldly tackling particularly intimate private emotions. Oates controls the narrative, skilfully unpeeling revelation by revelation, as with an awful curiosity the reader gradually realises that nothing is to be left unspared, unspoken. The heroine is an extraordinary character, a university student dealing with what she perceives as handicaps from her childhood background, learning about love and learning to learn. She finds the journey to love is a hard and painful one, and the author does not flinch from any aspect of it. Oates reveals the universality of acknowledging and living with our needs, moving on through and out of the pain. The last sentence of the book confirms that the heroine has grown up and closed the circle of love.
Michael Ondaatje: Anil’s Ghost
A sensitive, lyrical story, conveying intense and complex emotions. Here is a paragraph that gives an idea of this writing: “How would he sleep in the night with her name between him and his wife? Even the tenderest concerns between this couple would contain her presence like a shadow. She didn’t want that any more. To be a mote or an echo, to be a compass unused except to give his mind knowledge of her whereabouts.”
Amanda Prantera: Capri File
A joy to read. Perfect timing; a sustained balanced pace; very visual writing; a whole view conveyed in the selection of particulars; gobbets of learning flatter the reader, rewarding the observant. Prantera is not too controlled or far-reaching in manoeuvring the plot, just one step ahead, the next page only just out of reach, each new email a step up on the emotional, sensing and intellectual planes, all steps the same height, the end of each one a chance to draw back and recover. Prantera enters into a relationship of complicity with the reader, identifying with you on several levels of communication.
Amanda Prantera: Strange Loop
Having ascertained from the back cover and the opening paragraphs that this was a Gothic novel I gave myself permission to fail to read it through to the end, on the grounds of the genre, without detracting from my respect and admiration for one of my most favourite authors. There was no need for this caution. The intelligence of the writing, the smoothness of it, as though it had been written at a single sitting, persuaded me to forget my prejudiced attitude towards a perceived obstruction. The narrator’s character is expressed perfectly in the writing style. The pace is perfect, as it always is with Amanda Prantera: she plays out the rope of her plot to you at just precisely the measure that you need and want. There are times when she makes me feel like a small child being rewarded with sweets for finding and registering her nuances and markers. It is an intimate communion. A completely satisfying and rewarding read.
Amanda Prantera: The Young Italians
This was the first book of Amanda Prantera’s that I came across, after seeing a reference to it in a newspaper review which must have given me the idea that this was an author I would take to. I was intrigued and completely hooked on the first reading, consumed it too quickly, and appreciated a later sedate and savouring re-reading. An exquisite author.
Amanda Prantera: Proto Zoe
This author’s love of language shows in her original metaphors that never draw attention to themselves. She does not describe emotion so much as place you where the emotion is being felt. The narrator is generous towards her past, looking back at painful episodes of a young life through a reflective, thoughtful window, distilling the memories to a wistful recognition of universality and common sympathy that lessens the hurt. Each chapter is very different and to be savoured independently. You pause between each one. Observant, brave, confident, elegant (even on the subject of horses’ ailments), above all, this book is interesting. Prantera revels in the quaint and curious without making it seem weird or wonderful. So many stories and settings, each rendered very visually. You are there. This book is completely entertaining.
Amanda Prantera: Don Giovanna
The author displays such warmth towards all of the characters. Another gem from this inventive and experimental but consistently reliable author.
Amanda Prantera: Letter to Lorenzo
A polished and perceptive journey through the pain of loss and betrayal. This story builds up in generous but significantly selected naturalistic detail a picture of an engaged life and the varying qualities and textures of its relationships. Even the bit parts have depth. The philospher’s grief and hurt evolve and mutate to wistfulness and release in a natural process. A surprising exuberance propels the plot, and an unexpected, but good, ending provides a delicate resolution. Clever fluent prose; a superior ability and a superior read.
Carol Shields: Larry’s Party
The opening chapter is tremendous and would have made a perfect short story. The rest of the book takes the concepts further and, while beautifully written and appealing on many levels, for me it was a kind of watering down, a slight disappointment, but still a great book.
Anita Shreve: Resistance
Deceptively simple story telling, featuring the believable messes that we find ourselves in despite trying to do the best thing. Difficult choices result in betrayal. A different setting from her other books helps to highlight the moral maze.
Edward St Aubyn: Mother’s Milk
Very clever, funny, taking enormous but (to me) entirely forgivable liberties with verisimilitude, charting new territory in the depiction of emotions, some very serious reflection going on under the bright wit. Requires the reader to go with the flow and you might not be in the mood.
John Steinbeck: The Pearl
A simple classic fable, about instincts and survival, an impression that the tale has been told many times but that this might be the definitive version, written with graceful strength. Anchored in a few small but solid carefully selected details of the characters’ lives and appearances, repeated rhythmically and elaborated like musical motifs, building up a timeless fragment of society that seems to mirror all of society. The sympathy is with the poor and oppressed people despite their being prey to their needs and desires. Those needs and desires are what propels life forward. A sad story but a satisfying read.
Colm Toibin: The Master
An excellent fictional rendering of a part of Henry James’s life. Levelly paced. Calm, sympathetic observation of influences on and stimuli of the creative process. Great humour. Forsterian wariness and warm detachment. The outsider is the American who is confused about his emotional responses to others. The shades on his spectrum keep moving up and down: acquaintanceship, friendship, desire. Toibin challenges the stereotypes. James, the American, is more forgiving, more tolerant than the English.
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