Dear Life by Alice Munro


Dear Life is just so…Canadian. I mean that as a genuine compliment, by the way. It’s just so considered, moderate and lovely.

Nothing that extraordinary happens in this collection of tales. Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro writes of characters who are farmers, teachers, clerks, and housewives. Played across these snippets is the spectrum of hope, happiness, melancholy, disappointment, anger, and confusion arising from everyday situations. As a collection, they form something lovely from very basic ingredients.

Individually, they are beautifully written in meandering, gentle prose and are elegantly constructed- concise but with exactly the amount of colour to capture character and feeling. Each is just enough to satiate but not too much that you don’t want more.  Munro’s best writing is as a child or adolescent- her narrators have a touching naivety about them.

The best are the last four; she calls them autobiographical in feeling if not in content. The one called Night is particularly special- a sleepless young girl finding peace in the still of the night. It is the pinnacle of Munro’s skill in elevating the ordinary, in a most un-showy Canadian manner.

Read: To gently soothe you to sleep at night

Christodora by Tim Murphy


Welcome to the Christodora- a charming historic building in East Village, New York, witness to decades of life. Residents include a young artist couple with their adopted son and an old down-and-out man, using young lovers as an antidote to deep depression.

Tracing their antecedents and stories back and forth over four decades, the book becomes less about the building itself and more about a setting where societal issues like activism or gentrification are played out, where art is created, where addiction creeps into lives.

I think the best parts are those about the AIDS activists, a subject I don’t know much about but whose pioneers fill me with deep awe. This is a part of history that is gradually being forgotten or disregarded as the struggle is considered ‘over’. It’s also a good, easy-to-understand fictional depiction of how class, sexuality, and race intersect in minority or political movements.

It’s a lot to take in. The book is lengthy from a richness and attention to period detail. Sometimes thematically it doesn’t tie neatly together. Which is fitting because like its historic namesake, Murphy’s novel is complex, charismatic and bursting with anarchic free spirits.

Read: For a slice of New York history

A Column of Fire by Ken Follet


Reading A Column of Fire is to swashbuckle your way through the important historical moments of Reformation Europe. We witness the French Wars of Religion, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the attack of the Spanish Armada, and even Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Follet squeezes a lot in.

I loved the first two books of the series. The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were original in that they accessibly showed the intersection of religion and everyday life within small Medieval communities. They really demonstrate the power of good historical fiction to both illuminate and entertain.

This riffs off similar themes: Protestant merchant’s son Ned Willard falls in love with Catholic local entry Margery Fitzgerald. Religion and social mores divide them and so we follow the course of their (inevitably exciting) lives, amongst those of a whole cast of other characters.

Fans of the first two books might feel disappointed as this feels quite a different style. Because of the huge scope, some of the narrative suffers as reader attention is spread too thinly and not much action happens in Kingsbridge, diluting the bubbling community feel that made the first two immensely readable.

As a stand-alone, it’s as entertaining as watching pirates plunder a ship with all guns blazing (perhaps because that’s an actual scene for the book). Which is to say, very.

Read: For an armchair Tudor adventure

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


Imagine hearing voices in your head- a cacophony of people all burbling away at once.

No, you’re not going insane, you’re just reading Lincoln in the Bardo.

The multiple-voices style takes some getting used to but, once you’re in, the rhythm the effect is startling, charming and invigorating. Saunders’ experimentation pays off with great momentum.

The Bardo is a place between life and death where souls reside. It is liminal, a half-life purgatory where ghosts try to cling onto their lives in perpetuity. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie dies and thus the President visits the Bardo to grieve, watched and narrated by the community of spirits.

If it sounds deeply tragic and feverishly morbid then that’s correct- it is. There’s a dead printmaker obsessed with his young wife, a grotesque young man with multiple eyes and limbs who has committed suicide, a dead civil war soldier on the rampage, a mute violated slave and many others. Surprisingly, it’s very funny because of some sharp sitcom-esque humour.

Not everyone will like this. There is a trite moment around emancipation and slavery. Some characters are easier to listen to than others because of their vernacular. It’s very stylised. Saying that, it’s easy to criticise someone for taking a risk and the rewards here are great.

Read: For a great example of experimental contemporary literature.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst


The appropriately named Nick Guest is a student living with the family of an Oxford chum, the Feddens: aristocratic matriarch Rachel, Conservative MP father Gerald, unstable daughter Catherine, and golden boy Toby. Their beautiful Notting Hill home is the setting for the coming-of-age of a young gay man in an era of AIDS scares, Thatcherite politics, and 80s hedonism.

Nick is drawn to the family through his obsession with beauty, whether in the gorgeous young men he fancies, heart-wrenching piano concertos, exquisite furniture and china, or the elegant rituals of the upper classes. He’s not quite a guest but not quite a lodger, part parasite and part helpmeet, entwined with the life of a family-not-his.

Hollinghurst’s novel is a tribute to Henry James, the master of drawing-room subtleties. This is both good and bad. Bad because it feels like not a lot actually happens in this rather long book other than subtle conversations and side-eyed appraisals, which is really why I gave up halfway through The Portrait of a Lady.

On the other hand, Hollinghurst cunningly applies James’s critical all-seeing eye to raucous weekend country parties or cocaine-fuelled romps, stuffed with meaning and nostalgia. He’s precise in capturing feeling and mood, producing beautiful set pieces and evoking pangs of empathy for the curious Nick perpetual-Guest.

Read: For longing glances and unspoken feelings

Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore


What would a dinner party at Stalin’s house be like? While reading mainstream history, my mind turns to mundane questions: what food would he serve? Should you bring a bottle of wine? The private lives of famous historical figures are always interesting but even more so here because of how ideologically driven and puritanical the Soviets were.

This is the premise of Sebag-Montefiore’s book- the hidden lives of Stalin and his revolutionary elite. It’s a fascinating domestic portrait of men with famous names like Kruschev, Molotov and Beria, and their lovers, families and enemies. They spy on and manipulate one another around their living rooms or on idyllic holidays, with Stalin as the ultimate puppet master. It’s weird reading about men who’ve sent millions to the gulags lovingly playing with their children.

It spans about a century to show the breadth of Stalin’s machinations and the evolution of the inner circle, but the nuance is usually captured in the multiple small details, resulting in some slow chapters around the war. Not one for a USSR newbie but, once you’ve read your school history, this is a rich exploration into the boundary between the state and the self in the Soviet state.

Read: To understand the do’s and don’ts of a Soviet dinner party

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho


The Alchemist is super famous. It has cult status globally having been translated into 70 languages. It’s one of Will Smith and Madonna’s favourite books. Even Bill Clinton was snapped with a copy under his arm.

I can see why but it’s the absolute antithesis of what I like to read. The Alchemist is about an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of a treasure buried under the pyramids in Egypt. He travels on his quest, guided by The Alchemist.

This is an allegorical book, in the style of a myth. It is crammed with religious symbols, meaningful encounters and divine intervention. There’s a lot of Capitalised Concepts throughout, like the Personal Legend each of the characters is trying to live out, or the Soul of the World. The signalling annoys me- I want to be able to draw my own conclusions from fables. I hate all the heavy-handed symbolism and mystical nonsense.

I have absolutely no doubt that the tales and lessons within are life changing and important. I can see why it has very universal global appeal but actually reading it is like being forced to listen to someone talk about all their star sign readings.

Read: if your horoscope isn’t giving you enough life advice

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451 is a product of McCarthy-ism in 50s America, but in an age of Fake News, bingeing on Netflix, and mobile-short attention spans it could not be more relevant.

Guy Montag is a fireman. He’s estranged from his bored housewife. He is diligent and hardworking. However, his job is not to put out fires but to light them to burn books. In this dystopian world, books are outlawed, knowledge is erased and mindless TV entertainment distracts the populace. Montag has a secret though: a scant library of a few books, a dangerous act that is the beginning of his resistance.

Ray Bradbury is a man after my own heart. His obsession with books, writers and libraries far surpasses my fairly sizeable passion- he claims to have written the most about these topics than any other writer.

My theory is that voracious readers don’t become the best fiction writers. I am too stymied by the thousands of styles and intimidated by the pantheon of great authors that my prose becomes derivative and confused. Bradbury is clearly the exception as Fahrenheit 451 takes this influence and channels it into a flurry of burning passion, creating something original from a patchwork of quotes and ideas.

Read: To think about censorship and the freedom of ideas

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s story of Okonkwo, an important man in the Nigerian village of Umofia, whose world is changed by the coming of colonial Britain in the 19th Century. It is a novel about society, African identity and pride, and of course colonialism (pre & post, for all you literary theorists out there).

The book felt uneven as I read it- the beginning is slow as it takes time to immerse yourself in the culture and customs of the country. I’d managed to confuse village elders and miss the significance of a ritual. There were moments where I asked ‘what’s the point of this bit?’

Without wanting to give too much away, the ‘point’ is the ending. Only having finished it can I see how powerfully the structure works. The whole book builds to a cruel crescendo- it is only the benefit of hindsight that throws the the tiny minutiae of the Igbo people, Okonkwo’s life, into sharp relief.

The folkloric, oral storytelling of most of Achebe’s tale turns on a sixpence, shocking you as we move abruptly into Post-Colonial Nigeria. Ironically considering how historically enriched the text is, the use of Igbo words and speech rhythms and proverbs were revolutionary making Things Fall Apart a pioneer in Modern African fiction.

Read: For another perspective on colonialism.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


The Language of Flowers is the most hipster book I’ve read in 2017. Which could be complimentary or insulting depending on what you think of hipsters.

Claire, an angry, damaged, frightened orphan, comes out of a care home to sleep in an urban park. She has trouble communicating, choosing to isolate herself or to give flowers to indicate meaning instead. She starts work as a florist and runs into someone from her past. The archaic and nearly lost language of flowers becomes the running theme of the book as we learn more about her former foster family and childhood.

It would be very easy to call this a shallow, stylish story, something angsty and photogenic for the instagram generation. There is something lovely and poetic about flowers so as much as I want to be super cynical I can’t. I am softened by some visceral reaction to their scent and petals- in the same way that I am softened to this story despite being dubious about the love story, some of the characters or Claire’s personal development.

So as gimmicky as it is in some ways, the flower dictionary idea is charming. There is something wonderfully Victorian, romantic and whimsical about hidden meanings in flowers. So much so that apparently I’m prepared to read a whole book about them.

Read: For a millennial coming-of-age