My top ten books of 2015

As promised, here are my top ten books of 2015, in no particular order…

97814736186951. Everyone Brave is Forgiven: Chris Cleave. This war story begins in 1939 when eighteen-year-old Mary North ‘leaves finishing school unfinished’ and signs up for the war effort. Assigned to the unglamorous duty of London schoolteaching, she meets and falls in love with education administrator Tom, who is questioning his own purpose after his best friend, Alistair, signs up to fight. I wasn’t convinced there were any new riffs to play on the story of Britain’s home front, especially not through the eyes of young lovers, but Cleave reinvents familiar scenes of bombing, army training and ambulance driving with consistent skill, and deftly lines up a series of surprising twists without ever cheapening the genuine emotional impact of his story. I’ve reviewed the novel in full here.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven will be published in April 2016.

51tU1wGVI+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Station Eleven: Emily St John Mandel. I feel I’ve come a little late to the party, but I loved this beautifully-written dystopian novel, which I’ve reviewed in full here. For me, one of Mandel’s crucial gifts is in making us understand why her characters are so drawn to the invented world of Station Eleven, as well as sparingly but brutally depicting the horror of their everyday lives. Not a novel about the power of art to make everything all right, but a novel that demonstrates that art will not save us while not diminishing its importance to us in the slightest.

Unknown3. A Little Life: Hanya Yanagihara. I don’t usually choose a single book of the year, but let’s face it; this was my book of the year. Often deeply flawed on a line-by-line level, A Little Life demonstrates the extraordinary power of structure and, simultaneously, the importance of hooking a reader on your characters. Once we engage with Jude, we won’t stop reading until we know what did happen to him and what will happen to him, even if finding these answers takes us on a horrifically brutal journey. A Little Life is also brilliantly constructed, grasping for the trappings of an entirely different sort of novel altogether then discarding them only after we are already sucked into its world. I’ve reviewed the novel in full here.

hero-portrait-the-life-and-death-of-sophie-stark-jacket_anna-north4. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark: Anna North. The story of an avant-garde film director, fragmented into distinct narratives which are related by five of the most important people in her life, turns out to have so much to say about creativity and identity. This brief novel is astonishingly easy to read and occasionally strays close to slickness, but I found that it gradually got under my skin. I’ve reviewed it in full here.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark will be published in February 2016.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 25. Ready Player One: Ernest Cline. What a guilty pleasure! I know nothing about computer games or 80s pop culture, but I was completely gripped by this futuristic tale of a gamer’s quest through a virtual reality version of the internet to find three virtual keys that will gain him untold riches. I loved it so much that when I reached the final page I turned back to the beginning and read it all over again, something that I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Also, that title – what’s not to love? Cline’s second novel, Armada, is not nearly as immersive, but still great fun.

hhhh-by-laurent-binet6. HHhH: Laurent Binet. This was the first title selected for the reading group #storypast, and at first I was dubious. A quasi-biography of leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich is not the sort of thing I usually read, and Binet’s narrator struck me as instantly irritating, full of half-baked ideas about what separates history and fiction and far to fond of creating elaborate rules for his own Heydrich biography which he immediately broke. But about halfway through, I started to appreciate what Binet was really doing. It helps that the writing – translated brilliantly by Sam Thompson – is consistently stunning. I’ve reviewed the book in full here.

415+khFbQQL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_7. Dear Thief: Samantha Harvey. I usually struggle to recommend a novel purely on the strength of its writing, but Harvey’s precise, intelligent, consistently evocative prose is a huge part of what makes this series of letters to an absent friend work so well. Through the voice of her narrator, Harvey conjures up a complex triangle between our three central characters, but also muses beautifully on the importance of the past. Now out in paperback with a much better cover (the image I’m using is from the hardback edition). I reviewed this novel briefly here.

4157FKvg76L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_8. Into the Woods: John Yorke. This consideration of ‘how stories work and why we tell them’ is written by a screenwriter, and almost solely uses examples from film, television and theatre, but this doesn’t stop it from being relevant to anyone who works with stories in any context, and (I would argue) anyone who is interested in why some stories work and some don’t. Why do long-running drama series inevitably founder in their third season? Why is it so hard to pull off a successful film sequel? Why was Holby City rubbish and now is brilliant? (I may have slightly exaggerated the last point). From a novelist’s point of view, the section on characterisation is rather perfunctory, and at some points, utterly wrong; Yorke argues, for example, that backstory is largely irrelevant because we audiences want to believe that the protagonists are ‘us‘, and the fewer details that make them obviously separate people, the better. I would argue (as Yorke himself does, puzzlingly, at the start of the book) that the whole point of writing fiction is to make the reader emphasise with characters who clearly are not us, although I would agree that any backstory needs to have relevance to the present-day conflict. However, the vast majority of this book is spent on structure, where Yorke comes into his own; his advice is incredibly useful, and unfailingly intelligent. Thanks to my Curtis Brown Creative tutor, Erin Kelly, for the recommendation!

214235259. Us: David Nicholls. Like many, many other people, I loved One Day but I actually liked Us even better. Nicholls manipulates our sympathies with incredible deftness as we follow the story of a failing marriage; our narrator, Douglas, is desperate to save his relationship with wife Connie, who has announced she will be leaving him after a final family holiday in Europe with their difficult late-teenage son, Albie. Douglas, an utterly strait-laced and inhibited man, is an unusual narrator, but that’s why I loved him, and although some professional reviewers disagreed, I thought that having such a conventional protagonist was hugely refreshing. To speak to the points I made above about Into the Woods, it’s easy to make readers sympathise with your protagonist by pitching him or her against a cruel and unfair world, but much more interesting to create somebody who is sympathetic, but who is often wrong. The Petersen family dynamics feel absolutely real, and I found myself siding with Douglas, Connie and even with Albie at different points in the narrative. And without giving anything away, the scene at the school quiz night is one of the most pettily tragic things I’ve ever read.

978033052989110. Tender: Belinda McKeon. I finished this timely read just as gay marriage was legalised in Ireland, which was joyful news after reading a novel that highlights the repression and stigma faced by gay men in the Dublin of the 1990s. I loved McKeon’s first novel, Solace, but Tender is possibly even more captivating as it precisely charts the development of the complicated friendship between Catherine and James. Catherine prides herself on accepting James’s homosexuality, but she also uses him to form her image of herself as a newly liberal, confident woman as she moves through her undergraduate years, with painful consequences for both of them. I’ve reviewed the novel fully here.

Reading Stats

I’ve read 76 books this year, which compares poorly with 2014 (81), 2013 (102), 2012 (90) and 2011 (99). I think my ultimate record as an adult is 2008 (119) when I was an undergraduate and had lots of time. I have no chance of beating that record any time soon, so I will aim next year to read 100 novels, or at least to halt the downward trend.

In terms of diversity, I read 51 books by women and 25 by men, which is a typical % for me. It’s also notable that I rarely read novels by men, so most of that total is non-fiction. There is no especially good reason for this; I enjoy the books that I read by men and half of the books in my top ten are by male writers, so they are actually disproportionately represented this year. More importantly, considering the persistent whiteness of the publishing industry, I read only 9 books by writers of colour, which is pretty poor. I intend to begin addressing this next year in a more systematic fashion (starting with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which looks fantastic.)

On the blog in 2016

DSC02255Past record indicates that I’m not very good at keeping to precise schedules for this blog, but here are some of the things you can expect me to be talking about in early 2016…

My favourite books of 2015

First things first, I’ll be putting up my usual list of the top ten books I read this year on 31st December. Previous lists can be found here:

2011 * 2012 * 2013 * 2014

Upcoming book reviews

I’ll be kicking off with a review of Chris Cleave’s forthcoming novel Everybody Brave is Forgiven (April 2016) which I’m reading and loving at the moment. I’ll be also be reviewing Roberta Bivins’s new monograph, Contagious Communities: Medicine, Migration and the NHS in Post-War Britain (2015).

Special posts

Two posts I’ve been promising for a while will finally be written:

  • Is GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire feminist?
  • Re-reading my teenage diaries

Continuing with the teenage theme…

I’m starting a new project; I’m going to be re-reading novels I hated when I was a teenager and seeing what I think of them now. This obviously excludes novels that were obvious rubbish, or novels which I know I won’t have changed my opinion on (nothing could induce me to read David Copperfield, War and Peace, or Vanity Fair again). The first three candidates are:

  1. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird [obviously to be followed by a first reading of Go Set A Watchman]
  2. Emily Bronte. Wuthering Heights
  3. Michel Faber. The Crimson Petal and the White

Happy holidays!

A vale of tears

61GXMNHp7iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When sentencing the killers of sixteen-year-old Becky Watts in November 2015, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down in tears. This was seen as so unusual it was reported in the press, although sympathetically. The chief investigating officer defended him: ‘The judge was addressing the family and reacted in an entirely understandable way. He’s a human being and not a robot. It does not affect his integrity or the exemplary way in which he conducted the trial.’ While this statement is obviously supportive, it is clear that some explanation was perceived to be required for the judge’s tears, despite the horrendous nature of this particular case. In mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century Britain, however, crying judges were not nearly as notable. As Thomas Dixon relates, one such judge, Sir James Shaw Willes, cried when hearing the case of a mother who had poisoned her baby: ‘at one time he buried his face in his note-book and shed tears and seemed almost unable to proceed with the evidence.’ The tide was turning by the 1850s, and Willes’s outbursts were criticised; earlier, ‘weeping judges were a regular feature of public justice.’

What has changed since the mid-eighteenth century to make the crying judge such an unusual figure? Although Weeping Britannia covers a remarkable range of case studies, the descriptions of these displays of emotion from the judiciary were how I first encountered Dixon’s work (he gave a fantastic paper at the Cambridge Cultural History seminar a few years ago). The idea seems so counter-intuitive from a modern perspective because we associate judges with impartiality, objectivity and reserve; qualities that we no longer associate with tears, hence the chief investigating officer’s insistence that Dingeman’s integrity was not compromised. But one of the key messages of Dixon’s book is that the ‘stiff upper lip’ was a brief, modern British phenomenon that dominated only the years 1880 to 1945, and that before (and now, after) that period, ‘masculine’ qualities such as dignity and objectivity were not compromised by a more emotional style. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) makes a predictable appearance, but Dixon also examines earlier examples, such as the weeping of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. More subtly, he argues that we need to unpick the cultural meaning of tears in these earlier periods, challenging our assumption that tears are always linked with emotion rather than reason; for example, in his exploration of the mid-eighteenth century philosophers who argued that tears were the supreme expression of rationality, distinguishing man from the animals. ‘A tear is an intellectual thing,’ asserted William Blake.

Weeping Britannia is very accessible to general readers because of the division of the book into relatively self-contained case studies that are easy to dip in and out of. On the whole, this is pulled off very skilfully, without compromising the integrity of the argument as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the very first chapter on Margery Kempe; this felt isolated from the central concerns of the book, and chronologically, it is also removed from even the earliest of the other case studies by more than a hundred and fifty years, the biggest leap that Dixon makes. Nevertheless, I can see that it was included as a kind of counterpoint to what is to come. Although I understand why the book was written the way it was, as an historian, I’d love to read a lengthier exploration of some of the case studies here; crying judges would be high on my list, but the chapter on wartime British cinema seemed full of relatively untapped potential as well, especially if Mass Observation’s studies were used more extensively. Nevertheless, this book is a crucial contribution to the still relatively undeveloped field of the history of the emotions, and like other offerings in that vein, its greatest usefulness is perhaps to provide a refreshing new perspective on debates that have grown rather dry.

Personal Statement (2004)

hannah&Ibbq

In my first year at Cambridge.

In 2004, I applied to read history at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and was accepted. I was recently digging through my old computer files and found the personal statement I used for my application. This was an especially interesting read for me, as having been involved in undergraduate admissions for history at Oxford for the past two years, I’ve read a fair few personal statements. I’m not sure if students nowadays receive more guidance, but the statements I’ve read seem to fit into a certain format that I certainly haven’t followed with my personal statement, which is distinctly – odd. My comprehensive school gave me no help other than suggesting I mention lots of extracurricular activities (wrong) so this may explain some of it, but I think I was being deliberately maverick as well.

This statement should certainly not be used as an example of anything, even though I was offered a place. It is probably a very good example, in fact, of how not to write a personal statement. Why am I posting it, then? Well, I think it’s easy, as an admissions tutor, to get very impatient with the cliches that many students trot out in these pieces of writing. As I wrote this piece, I know that some of the bits that seem most trite (‘we’re defined by the time we live in and everything that happens to us’) were the most heartfelt. The eighteen-year-old girl who wrote this frankly weird statement felt that she was addressing people who would really understand her academic interests for the first time, after feeling that nothing she cared about was really valued at school, either by her peers or by her teachers (although I had some fantastic teachers who were definitely an exception). I remember being excited about my Cambridge interview because I genuinely believed it would be a chance to talk about the things I loved (like everyone else, I was totally overcome with nerves when the time came, though!). I suppose I’m posting this for those who make the decisions, rather than those who are applying to university themselves, to say: be kind. Don’t judge too harshly.

***

It is not so much a question of why to choose to study history at university than of how it is possible to avoid it. It dawned on me a year ago that all subjects are history in one form or another, as everything is past unless it has this moment been discovered,[this is the worst part!] and so it seemed the best choice to bite the bullet and do history itself. Of course, it also helped that I love it.

I read so much and so often because I find it fascinating to get inside other people’s heads, and history is about that same thing, why people are the way they are and why they do the things they do. I can’t help having a personal philosophy which says to me that we’re defined by the time we live in and everything that happens to us. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives, and history lets us take a few steps away and try to see the influences which work on other people in other times. 

I am particularly attracted to studying history at a higher level for the opportunity to examine a wider variety of time periods. My reading outside my A Level syllabus has focused around the role of women in the 19th century. This is partly because I’m two-thirds of the way through writing a novel which centres around a Victorian girl, and obviously want to make it as accurate as possible. However, as well as searching out the pernickety little details I needed, I was also interested by the way society changed over time in this period. I’ve enjoyed researching this in such depth, but now I would like to acquire a breadth of learning as well. I’ve chosen to research the early years of Elizabeth I for my coursework, and I particularly enjoyed studying The Liberal Party: 1899-1918 last year, as it was the first time I’d examined political history in depth.

 

I’ve always liked the idea of doing my own research, and I was lucky enough to be allowed to visit the Barnardos archives in Barkingside during the summer holidays, to research the Girls’ Village Home, one of Barnardo’s early projects. As I’ve located one of my characters there, I needed to get the details right. This was an amazing experience as it was the first time I’d really worked with primary source material, and I was allowed to look around the site and visit the photographic archives as well as the library.

 

Creative writing has always been my major hobby since I wrote my first ‘book’ at age six. It was about goblins.[I need to write another book about goblins.] Since then, I have won various competitions, including, most recently, third prize in the Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, run by Christ Church College, Oxford, for which there were more than 800 entrants. Apart from writing, my other major hobby is drama, and I have been a member of the Theatre Royal Bath youth theatre for nine years. I love putting together productions and working with other enthusiastic people, and we’ve experimented with many different forms of drama in various workshops over the years, including stage fighting, circus skills, mask work, monologues and directing. This summer, I played Mrs Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, which had audiences of over a thousand in total. This was a particular challenge as the performances were open air and often the weather conditions were rather adverse, but we managed to keep going. [This was obviously going to be extremely relevant for a history degree.] Amongst many other things, I have also taken part in the BT National Connections scheme, which involves productions of new plays by youth theatres throughout the country.

 
I enjoy debating and joined the debating club at my school for a chance to argue
legitimately. We have debated various topics, although due to uniformity of opinion, I often had to volunteer as devil’s advocate. I have also been known to help in the year seven history class, where I’ve liked observing the way history is taught to that age group and the way the pupils react to different approaches.

 
I will conclude this by reiterating my statement at the beginning; history is everything, and everything is history. Now, too, is this personal statement. [I honestly think I just got impatient with the concept of the personal statement at this point!]