Struts and Frets

Entertainment & Media Television, film, print, theatre, etc.

This month I’ve watched a bunch of interesting things, so this post is more like an old-school Abbi review blog:

The most intense Come Dine With Me episode ever: Macbeth, Sandra Voyter, Dorian Gray and Héctor
The most intense Come Dine With Me episode ever: Macbeth, Sandra Voyter, Dorian Gray and Héctor


Specifically, the production starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma and staged in a great big warehouse in Canada Water. It’s very evocative. The set is scorched by a burning vehicle, assaulted by the sound of missiles and – at an appropriate moment – the walls are even soaked in blood.

What’s it about?

You probably know this one: Lord Macbeth, an 11th century Scottish general, learns from a trio of prophesying witches that he is destined to become King of Scotland. At the urging of his ruthless wife, he promptly kills the current King Duncan to speed things along, kicking off a bloody cycle of murder and madness.

Hot take: Lady Macbeth is not a nice person
Hot take: Lady Macbeth is not a nice person

Idiocy analysis

I’m very fond of Macbeth as a play (thanks, multiple English teachers!) but Macbeth the character is unforgivably stupid. He should be the only character with an ironclad motive not to murder the King, given that he is the only person in the world with supernatural assurances that he will inherit the crown anyway(!) and everytime I watch him yield to Lady Macbeth’s emasculating schtick I am internally screaming for him to grow a brain and/or backbone and just calmly point this out to her. But no. Macbeth is the guy who sees the path of a wildfire inexorably approaching his house and rushes in with a can of petrol to try and commit insurance fraud.

Who did you see it with?

Kira, who suggested we get tickets last year! Hat-tip to Annie who recommended an excellent Mexican spot in Surrey Quays to grab beforehand.

Have you changed your mind about this play since childhood?

The witches on trial (via DALL·E 2)
The witches on trial (via DALL·E 2)

No. In fact, in school I wrote a defence lawyer’s speech on behalf of the three witches arguing that they “have not murdered, or even requested or suggested murder” but “simply predicted a chain of events which can be interpreted in many different ways”.

I added that it was “of course, regrettable, that Macbeth turned to murder” but noted that – in their second encounter, when Macbeth comes back to the witches looking for more predictions – “the witches had every right to mislead a murderer, if the intention was to lead to his downfall, and if it was in the public good. They simply aided Macduff in his fight, in an unorthodox way”. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was asked to write this. I just remember feeling aggrieved on behalf of the weird sisters.


A low-budget 2007 Spanish sci-fi thriller film (originally Los cronocrímenes).

Watch closely!
Watch closely!

What’s it about?

Through his binoculars, middle-aged Héctor spots a woman undressing in the forest opposite his home. Intrigued, he goes off to investigate and accidentally stumbles into a casual time-travel loop with deadly consequences.

Idiocy analysis

My steadily growing impatience with time travellers who don't read the manual
My steadily growing impatience with time travellers who don’t read the manual

Héctor, much like Macbeth, is not a smart man. If we tastefully set aside the question of why he chooses to sit on a deckchair in his back garden staring at some secluded woodland through binoculars (everyone needs a hobby, I guess) the main problem with Héctor is that he has clearly never watched a single time-travel film in his life. Not even Back to the Future.

As a result he is unforgivably slow to understand the basic concepts, even when another character draws him a Time Travel for Dummies diagram in marker pen, and goes out of his way to alienate everyone he meets. The only saving grace is that he does eventually get the hang of things, even by that point he has blood on his hands. More of a bumbling idiot than a mad plotter.

Who did you see it with?

Nobody, although since Katie recommended it (as a sequel to fellow low-budget time travel thriller Primer) she got my real-time reaction.

Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet’s Oscar-winning French film (Anatomie d’une chute), which you should definitely watch if you haven’t already because the more people to swap theories with the better.

What’s it about?

Anatomy of a Fall.
Anatomy of a Fall

Superficially, a courtroom drama about whether Sandra Voyter, a successful author, murdered her husband in their French chalet while their son, Daniel, was out walking the dog through the snow. But in fact (spoiler alert!) it’s impossible to know, and so the film is really about our own perceptions of two people in a marriage, culture and language (she is German, he is French, they speak English) and the stories we all construct to make sense of a consuming, fragmentary world.

But… honestly, I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s also just a lot of fun to watch as a whodunnit and then spend hours arguing about it with other people.

Idiocy analysis

Everyone here is too smart and thoughtful for any idiocy, although the French legal system does come across as bafflingly obtuse. To my mind, it’s extremely clear that – even if you’re sure she killed him! – the evidence is all circumstantial supposition and never even approaches ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ territory, so I’m not sure what they’re even doing in a courtroom. I’m sure this reflects an overly-romantic image of English prosecutors, though. In reality Sandra would probably still be stuck in a backlog and waiting for the case to reach trial.

Who did you see it with?

My mum, after a crab-laden dinner at Big Cheeks Thai, on the night she stayed over. We had to pause several times for discussion breaks.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray

Sarah Snook’s amazing one-woman performance in which she plays all of the characters from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel.

What’s it about?

Dorian Gray is young and beautiful. He falls under the corrupting influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a cynic who advocates hedonism with a string of one-liners which would do extremely well on any social media platform today. Frustrated that he will grow old while his portrait will stay youthful, Dorian sells his soul in return for keeping his good looks forever and allowing the portrait to age in his place. It doesn’t go well.

Idiocy analysis

Well, Dorian himself is obviously not going to win any prizes for wisdom, but that’s the whole point: he’s a naïve innocent who quickly becomes selfish and cruel. But the real idiots are surely the story’s Victorian critics, who first tried to censor the homoeroticism (not very successfully) and later attacked Wilde, including in court, for the book’s indecency and immorality. Guys: please try to follow along to the end. The hedonist ends up dead.

Who did you see it with?

Kira, although this time it was my idea. And yes, of course I wouldn’t have gone had it not been for Succession, but Sarah Snook delivered with huge energy going into such a range of characters. The staging also really leaned into a knowing commentary on modern life, especially with Snook’s livestreamed selfie videos, which I thought served the story well.

At times, Matthew seemed to be collecting evidence in case I tried to murder him
At times, Matthew seemed to be collecting evidence in case I tried to murder him

Other highlights of March include: another wonderful evening with Karol at Tayyabs in Whitechapel, a truly delicious date night with Randi at a fancy tapas place (still thinking about that black squid rice), the unbearable tension of the nail-biting Lewisham mayoral by-election and a gentle evening of Carcassonne with our neighbour Adrienn.

I also administered lots and lots of ‘Life in the UK’ practice tests for Randi in the run-up to her exam – final spoiler: she passed! 🥳 – which occasionally veered into such pure pub quiz territory (e.g. where was Handel born?) that we couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity. Finally, on Friday night I took Matthew on a spooky night tour of the Waterlink Way, followed by dinner and music at the Honor Oak pub. The next morning I headed up to West Hampstead to hang out with Josh and Cora and to return Cora’s cat, which I accidentally stole last time I saw them!

Once again, it’s time for my annual reading review, i.e. the moment when declining to rate any books on Goodreads is finally rectified. It hasn’t been a peak reading year, to be honest, with a lowly total book count of 28 (my lowest since 2014) and a failure to find that one standout story which really whisked me off my feet and took me somewhere dazzlingly, thrillingly new. Nevertheless there are a lot of good, solid entries below, with lots to recommend if you’re making your own plans for 2024.


I’m usually pretty good at picking my first book of the year, but ended up with very mixed feelings about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s definitely a novel I’m ‘supposed’ to like, but it took me over a month to slog through it and with such a large cast of characters it’s irritating to deal with the unnecessarily added complexity of having to puzzle out exactly who is speaking (which is often unclear). That said, it’s also the kind of book which improves on reflection and, after reading some helpful reviews, I came to appreciate this portrayal of Thomas Cromwell – a self-made, wry, pragmatic rationalist – as some kind of anachronistic emissary from modernity. Mantel is also very good at conveying the human drama of Tudor politics, particularly in the scenes with a humiliated, angry young Mary.

One of my honeymoon reads was Death’s End, the final entry in Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. It’s a brilliant series, of immense scope, and the third book continues to explore complex science fiction concepts over many future eras of humanity, including a memorable section featuring three densely metaphorical fairy tales which continue to haunt me. In fact, there’s an inescapable melancholy to a lot of this trilogy – difficult to avoid when you’re dealing with the end of the universe, I guess – so if you’re looking for an uplifting location to read the very last page, I can heartily recommend (from personal experience) that a heated pool overlooking the magnificent forests of Guatapé, Colombia will do the trick.

Another (quite different) honeymoon read was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This is a highly enjoyable, fast-moving page turner with an intriguing set-up: former Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now a recluse, handpicks a young, inexperienced journalist to spill her life’s secrets to. But why her? Spoiler: there is a shock ending, which is all part of the fun even though it feels awfully contrived. There is no shock ending to Woman at Point Zero – a very different kind of book – first published in Arabic by Nawal El Saadawi in 1977. But it’s written with bracing clarity and can be read as a gripping page turner of its own, even though you know from the very beginning exactly what will happen to Firdaus. Based on a real person, she is female prisoner condemned to death for murdering her pimp who nevertheless retains her own fierce dignity as she tells her life story.

I was not overly impressed by The Committed, a sequel to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. A thriller is supposed to have some thrills, but everything is weighed down by a lot of laboured intellectualism and compared to the original book it left me cold. On the contrary, A Visit from the Goon Squad is the Jennifer Egan book which I should have read last year when I plumped for Manhattan Beach, and I’m grateful for Todd and Carolyn’s quizzical raised eyebrows in convincing me to go back and try this one out instead. I enjoyed this a lot more, even though the punk rock / music industry setting was not initially appealing, and I appreciated the unusual interlinked short-story structure to the book once I understood that’s what was happening and I wasn’t just struggling to keep track. Also, as soon as I finished I immediately thought that it would be really useful if somebody had made a diagram of how all of the characters and storylines intersect, so kudos to the many people on the internet (here’s a good one!) who have of course already done that.

Confession time: I don’t think I will ever be the right target audience for Lauren Groff’s Matrix. I did try! In fact, the omens were good when I started on the intriguing first chapter, curled up on a comfy chair in the top floor of Chicago’s Open Books bookshop. What’s this? Lauren Groff’s new book is set in a 12th century English abbey? But try as I might, this study of intense religious mysticism and slow-burning sexuality was never going to make my list of favourites, even though I can recognise it as objectively good writing. To embarrass myself further, I even paused reading it halfway through to binge on the newly-released Comoran Strike instalment, which is a bit like sneaking out of the back of a high-end Chicago restaurant to go eat at Chick-fil-A. But, man, it was good.

The Running Grave is easily categorised as ‘the one where Robin infiltrates a cult’, which (a) keeps the tension very high throughout, (b) is a good strategy to plausibly prolong the Strike/Robin relationship, (c) is occasionally tiring and you wish she would just get out sooner. Less so than the last book, but I still found the ending a bit of a problem: everything seems to collapse and resolve itself more quickly than you’d expect, and there’s no big showdown with the cult leaders. Of course, all of this is quickly forgotten with the big cliffhanger ending… which I do fear will be easily glossed over again at the start of the next book. We shall see.

I do understand and respect those who no longer wish to read JK Rowling. For me, the most extreme example this year where the personal failings of the author really intruded onto the work itself came when reading Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Asimov’s sexism shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read his books (although the extent of his personal criminality is awful) but in this story his refusal/inability to write a realistic female character in Noÿs Lambent really undermines a promising sci-fi concept. Anyway, this book is the story of the ‘Eternals’, an elite, arrogant organisation who meddle in humanity’s timeline and, intriguing, also facilitate commercial trading between different eras. So, think of the ‘Observers’ from Fringe with a little dash of the WTO thrown in for good measure. Despite the character flaws, I appreciated the Cold War-era vibes (this is definitely a critique of central planning, amongst other things) and the philosophical charge of the book’s final line.

For a more sophisticated imaginings about politics under the guise of science-fiction, try Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed from 1974. Anarres is a moon orbiting the planet Urras. Resources are scarce, but society is successfully organised under an anarcho-syndicalist model after being founded by a one-off set of idealistic colonists from Urras several centuries earlier. I do believe there is a strong case for authors to write utopias – not just the more common dystopias – and this classic of the genre is a very credible attempt to explore a somewhat-believable anarchist utopia. Guin does a superb job at balancing a genuinely attractive form of communism with the reality of how utterly crushing it would likely feel if you were not brought up in it, and I think the interwoven nature of politics and culture is the real point of this book. The relationship between Anarres and Urras also made sense to me, and the language and worldbuilding is top class: the ‘dispossessed’ of the book’s title are poor but also reject possessions, unlike the ‘propertarians’ of Urras. The plot itself, as so often in these types of books, is less compelling.

In contrast to Le Guin, Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is a much more ‘standard dystopia’ and I found it a little rote. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well-written and a perfectly compelling read, but the implementation of PACT (Preserving of American Cultures and Traditions Act) felt cartoonish and contrary to everything we know about how American society actually works. In this novel, the US is rapidly transformed (by ‘The Crisis’) into a deeply repressive, authoritarian state with virulent racism directed against Asians. My issue is obviously not that there isn’t a lot of racism against Asian Americans already (of course there is), nor that a society couldn’t transform at frightening speed (of course it could) and, of course, everybody knows the American state has form when it comes to enforcing racism through terror. I just didn’t buy this telling of it. American society is so noisy and fragmented that a clean, wholesale transition to this New Order is too unsubtle, too straightforward, and not hypocritical enough. That said, and maybe this sounds contradictory, I did really enjoy reading it. So please read it too, and then we’ll see if I’m the only one who feels this way.

The Man Who Died Twice – the second in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series – is a fun read, but I do think his instinct that all his characters are so arch and ironic all the time ends up undermining the individual characterisations. It also removes jeopardy when everyone manages to be suave and unruffled in the face of all threats. Well, I say that, but most characters remained pretty unruffled in Agatha Christie’s cracking The Body in the Library and it was still excellent. I also chuckled to myself at her insertion of a character praising Agatha Christie as one of the great crime authors of the day… so maybe I should just fully accept the Thursday Murder Club books on the the same cosy terms.

Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was very enjoyable. To steal brazenly from another review, her characters “zig where you’d expect them to zag” and I found that to be very true: there’s something about her writing which sends these relatable human moments into unexpected directions. This year I also went back to Ishiguro (but I really am running out now) for An Artist of the Floating World, which is set in post-war Japan and centred on an elderly painter whose former reputation is now tarnished by his actions during the war. This is exactly what you’d expect from Ishiguro and nothing less: unreliable narration and memories mingled with guilt, denial and misdirection about the past.

By challenging all of my skills of emotional repression, I have successfully subsumed any desire to read the third in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy into a Schrödinger’s box of anticipation: it won’t be there until I look. In that spirt, I enjoyed his yet-another-diversionary novella, The Narrow Road Between Desires, as an evocative ride through a day in the life of Bast. It helped that I hadn’t read the short story of which this is a slightly-longer revamp. Talking of novellas, this year my Rivers of London diet was limited to the new Winter’s Gifts sidequest featuring FBI Special Agent Kimberley Reynolds. This was fun (giant tentacles emerging from the ice!), but let’s be honest and agree that Kimberley is a weird mishmash of American stereotypes which don’t quite come together as a convincing person. Oh, and on New Year’s Eve I snacked on Philip Pullman’s The Collectors, a spooky short story from the worlds of His Dark Materials with little hints about the early life of Mrs Coulter.

Finally, I had a lot of fun with Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, and am still impressed by the little twist in our assumptions about the timeline which is revealed near the end. To summarise the conceit: a secret society of Cambridge academics, with a nostalgic yearning for the lost greatness of European society destroyed by WW1, find a way to send ex-solider Hugh Stanton back in time to prevent the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and then, for good murder, kill the Kaiser. Spoiler: this is not a good plan. One slight issue I have with this book is that I think Ben Elton wants to skewer the ‘Great Man of History’ school of history in favour of wider social and economic forces, but then his actual plot ends up making the ‘wider social and economic forces’ brigade look like a bunch of idiots since minor historical changes (again, spoiler alert) end up having utterly massive implications. So the real lesson ends up being ‘obviously you can’t just fix the twentieth century by shooting the German Emperor in the head’, which I think we knew already. But who cares? It’s super fun and I want a turn with the time-travel history-messing toy now.

Oh, and one evening – inspired by Angela downstairs, I think! – Randi and I decided to read The Importance of Being Earnest out loud as a piece of old-fashioned entertainment. I enjoyed this, and we should do it again, but next time we should either pick a two-handed or rope some other people into joining us so we don’t have quite so many characters to cover…


Beyond Weird was my first non-fiction book of 2023, and in my mind is indelibly linked to the physical sensation of reading it from a hammock on the front porch of our homestay in Colombia, after the sun went down, on the first night of our trek. For a funk-inducing guide to quantum physics and the deep mysteries of nature, this felt very appropriate. Quantum physics is a common subject for popular science books – precisely because it’s so weird and counterintuitive – and although this book strives to move beyond the clichés (hence the title!) there’s still something shocking about, say, the double split experiment – no matter how many times you’ve read it before. Anyway, this was a great book and highly recommended whether you’re new to this world or not.

Joanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is one of those books which I picked up as a recommendation from The Ezra Klein Show years ago and finally got around to reading this year. It’s also one of the most ‘history’ history books I’ve read in a while: sticking to a carefully defined domain (physical violence in the US Congress during the antebellum years) and inspired by a close reading of a primary source (the diaries of Benjamin Brown French, a clerk in the House of Representatives). French himself is an interesting figure precisely because he himself is historically insignificant and largely goes with the flow, starting off by seeing the abolitionists as a radical, disruptive influence and then slowly shifting as the political realities shift around him. These type of people are, of course, much more common than the few unusual characters who usually make it into popular political histories.

Anyway, my main takeaway from this book – and this may not shock anyone – is that it doesn’t actually seem that Congress itself was inherently violent, at least for the time, but rather that the representatives of the South in Congress were unusually and exceptionally violent! Given that they were representatives from a monstrous society based on plantation chattel slavery this doesn’t seem all that surprising, but I think it’s worth pointing out since it reminds me of the equally absurd equivalences drawn between Democrats and Republicans in Congress today. Whatever you think of them, they really aren’t just neatly symmetrical mirror images of each other.

Skipping forward to much later American politics, Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq is, well, exactly what the subtitle says it is. This is very much a personal story of individual decision-making and organisational politics gone wrong rather than a big-picture geopolitical account. As a result, some of the most interesting parts (at least to me) are those things which might have broader lessons for organisational culture. For example, I was intrigued by Bush’s management style: he wanted brisk, efficient meetings where the people under him presented a consensus view which they had already hashed out between themselves. In the context of the Iraq War, this seems obviously dangerous, as it was far too easy for complications, caveats and opposing views to be squashed before ever coming close to the President. Then again, I can easily imagine the opposite style being critiqued elsewhere for its meddlesome micromanagement! (Sigh… this indecision is why I’m not destinated to write the next bestselling airport book for aspiring middle managers.)

I bought Africa Is Not a Country in a bit of a bookshop panic: that feeling when you’re overwhelmed by choice, overwhelmed by all of the books on your to-read list already and just want to take a punt on something unexpected. It paid off, because this collection of essays by Dipo Faloyin was an absorbing read, covering topics from the profoundly negative legacy of nineteenth-century European borders in to today’s intensely competitive West African rivalry over how to make the perfect jollof rice. His wider point, which is not new but always worth making, is to push back against very harmful and totalising narratives of the entire African continent. Of course, the only way to do that successfully is to familiarise more readers with specific people and places.

As a meta-point: Faloyin’s background is as a senior editor at VICE and you can really tell that he grew up writing for online audiences. I wish more non-fiction book authors would embrace the flexibility which results from this style. The chapters in this book vary dramatically in both tone and length, with no attempt to enforce an unnecessary consistency. If the chapter is done, it’s just done.

I laugh at myself when it comes to Homage to Catalonia, which is (of course) George Orwell’s first-hand account of his time spent as a volunteer fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Famously, this doesn’t include an awful lot of fighting, and Orwell successfully captures the sense of boredom, frustration and futility which pervades the conflict. In the original edition, Orwell includes two ‘background’ chapters about the wider political situation and the internecine feuds between the Communists backed by the USSR and Trotskyist groups such as POUM, which is the group that Orwell himself had joined. Later, Orwell requested that these chapters be moved to become two appendices at the very end of the book, and apologetically notes that future readers may find them outdated and uninteresting. Most modern Goodreads reviews seem to agree, but for me these were by far the most interesting part of the book! I’ll take obscure political manoeuvrings over a description of what it’s like to get shot in the neck (spoiler: unpleasant) any day.

I hadn’t seen any TV series or film about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, so Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster had the advantage of giving me all the facts and characters afresh. It’s a totally compelling thriller with so many sad and shocking stories, especially when a piece of personal heroism or self-sacrifice turns out to have been completely pointless. The moment which stuck with me most vividly came soon after the explosion when three engineers are investigating the state of the reactor, pass through an airlock, stare right into the core of the reactor and – within seconds – are suddenly exposed to utterly fatal doses of radiation. Worse, at least one of them is a veteran of nuclear submarines and immediately understands that he is now doomed to die, and soon. It’s chilling.

As a veteran listener of Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales podcast, the immediate cause of the accident is also so familiar. A series of small mistakes, bad decisions and the understandable desire to just get a routine late-running test over and done with: all things which, on their own, wouldn’t have amounted to anything but just so happened to come together that night in the most awful way possible.

Finally, a massive thanks to Kira for gifting me I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country. This is a collection of journalism by Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian reporter for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper who is now barred from returning to her home country after covering the war in Ukraine. In the book, short autobiographical segments are used to preface much longer essays from her career, covering everything from squatters living in Moscow’s huge, abandoned and very creepy Hovrinskaya Hospital (since demolished) to a community of sex workers working overnight by the side of a highway and her own brutal experiences of attending Gay Pride marches in Russia. A very moving collection.

Finally: a (very slight) reversal in fortunes for my reading total! This year I managed 30 books, up from 29 in 2021, and the only thing it cost me was my peace of mind after spending New Year’s Eve immersed in a claustrophobic Gothic thriller. But more on that later…


It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but once again the first book I read this year – Fatherland, by Robert Harris – turned out to be one of my favourites. First published in 1992, this was Harris’s debut novel and the one which made him famous, no doubt driven by our perpetual collective fascination with Nazi history. Fatherland is a classic of alternative history, set during the 1960s in a victorious Nazi Germany which diverged from our own timeline after 1942. The use of real people and events from our common history until that point makes this imagined world feel chillingly familiar, and the story itself is a captivating detective thriller which, at its heart, is more interested in unearthing the (real) events of the Wannsee Conference than solving a totally fictional mystery.

While my first Robert Harris novel was a hit, my first Jennifer Egan novel – Manhattan Beach – was more of a miss. Indeed, Todd and Carolyn were surprised that this was the one I picked to read, and the book’s promised intrigue was never really parlayed into a strong emotional connection to the characters. For me, the most moving section was when Anna – the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard – dives successfully for the first time. I had similarly mixed views about The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s book about an American missionary family living in the Congo. The fact that the four daughters are a little too cleanly well-defined, bordering on caricatures, made the story easy to follow but less good than it could have been. It also felt like the climax arrives prematurely, with the family’s great disaster and subsequent exodus concluding long before the final page.

One book I did love in 2021 was The Three-Body Problem, and the second book in the trilogy – The Dark Forest – was also incredibly good. I found it slower to get into at first – it took me a month to finish! – but overall Liu Cixin avoids the classic middle-book problem by adding an impressive cocktail of new ideas and concepts. Quick summary: faced with a slow-moving but overpowering invasion force, humanity devises the Wallfacer Project to give four individuals (‘Wallfacers’) incredible unchecked power to work on secret counter-strategies. Added to this are ‘Wallbreaker’ opponents, hibernation into the future and – ultimately – a crushingly dark explanation for the Fermi Paradox from which the book gets its name. I’m so excited for the final installment!

This year I also made a return visit to Octavia Butler’s two-part dystopian ‘Parables’ series for Parable of the Talents. This is relentlessly grim and depressing, with a level of violence which can feel gratuitous and inescapable. Nevertheless, there’s a deep cleverness in how Butler presents Lauren, the original book’s hero, as a delusional cult leader through the retrospective eyes of her daughter Larkin. How are we supposed to feel about Lauren, really? Butler is deliberately ambiguous, but for me I couldn’t shake the feeling that her single-minded dogma might still be basically correct. And if you read the book this way, the final chapter – where humanity finally takes a small, shaky, horribly imperfect step towards Lauren’s spacebound future – is a moment of hope. I was also fascinated by the scraps of information available on Butler’s aborted third book in the series, Parable of the Trickster, which exists only as dozens and dozens of false starts in the archive. Such a tantalising glimpse into what might have been.

Solaris was a gift from Tash and a really interesting book to think about, especially since we know that the author, Stanisław Lem, didn’t think much of the English translation. The basic science-fiction concept of a vast, mysterious, sentient but unknowable ocean planet is compelling, but it can be difficult to keep the pace through the first-person narrative, and the lengthy academic biographies of the Solaristics are very boring. (And yes, I do realise they’re supposed to be.) Once I finished the book, though, I was struck by a rebellious feeling that humanity actually acquits itself rather well. Solaris is partly about the inherent limits to our capacity to understand something truly alien, and the point of the tedious academia is to show that science is – to some extent, anyway – doomed to stumble around in our anthropomorphisms forever. But actually, a lot of the theories and observations made by the scientists feel like they are useful pieces of a puzzle, and do contain some truth, even if a neat and tidy explanation (or mutually satisfying alien ‘contact’) is never reached. So, no need to be so pessimistic!

Sadly, it’s also true that the obvious racism and sexism in Solaris is grating, even if the book still stands up as a whole. Things are less clear for Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, which bumbles along as a light-hearted social satire (unassuming scholarship student Paul Pennyfeather is kicked out of Oxford after becoming an innocent victim of some drunken toffs, before finding a teaching job at a rundown boarding school) until the appearance of a black character, Chokey, at the school sports day. Repeated use of the n-word follows. I’m not trying to censor the book out of the universe, and – in fact – the ignorance and bigotry of the white characters is partly (but only partly) what’s being lampooned. The point is more that Decline and Fall is supposed to be a comic novel which makes you laugh, but comedy is hard to transplant out of its own time and for a modern reader this whole section is a serious wrench.

The obvious comparison to Waugh is Wodehouse, although he’s much less interested in social critique and more about the comic foibles of individuals. Still, the most memorable moment in Much Obliged, Jeeves – written in 1971, and one of the last Jeeves stories ever told – is when Wooster is persuaded to go canvassing at a general election. Given that these books usually take place in a totally sealed-off pseudo-Edwardian bubble, it was a very strange moment of collision with a more modern world.

If we’re going for controversy, this is probably the moment to say how excited I was for the next book in the Cormoran Strike series – The Ink Black Heart – even as the author’s public persona becomes more and more unpleasant. To state the obvious, this is a review of the book – and not of JK Rowling – which was as engrossing and page-turning as ever. It’s not the best in the series, though, with a few moments which felt fundamentally unbelievable (e.g. Robin’s physical recklessness) and some backpedalling on the central Robin/Strike relationship which seems to reverse some of the progress last time. Moreover, and without giving anything away, I’m still not entirely clear on the villain’s motivations for acting exactly when they do. That said, there are some standout moments – the absolute best is when the tissue of lies around one sympathetic character suddenly falls away and the crushing cruelty of the true situation is exposed.

OK, time for an unambiguously great book: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. This was a birthday gift from Oliver and Abi, but seeing as it features multiple Jewish weddings – including the Hora – it was the perfect book for me to be reading this September. The story is a fairytale about debt and obligation set in a beautifully atmospheric medieval kingdom, and I could almost feel the chill of the frost in the air as I read it. The characters are striking and memorable, and the whole novel is a potent blend between the outright fantastical elements and the Jewishness of the main character, Miryem. Together with Fatherland I guess my winning theme this year was stories set on this borderline, which is also true of Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World. This is a strange one. Self-described as a ‘work of fiction based on real events’ where the ‘quantity of fiction grows throughout the book’, this is a collection of essays / short stories / other things about the inner struggles, torments and ‘genius’ of some great twentieth-century scientists. Weirdly brilliant and fascinating, and maybe best thought of as both fiction and non-fiction much like the wave/particle duality.

I’ve been waiting for the first obvious “book written during Covid-19” and Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility was it. The time-travel concept is not hugely original, but it’s a short story which doesn’t overstay its welcome and I certainly enjoyed it. (Plus I discovered later that one of the timelines is a spinoff from The Glass Hotel, which I haven’t read yet, but am now intrigued about.) A more unusual time-travel book was This Is How You Lose the Time War – nicked excitedly from Katie’s flat – a lyrical and poetic love story which was nothing like what I expected, but in a good way. This style of writing doesn’t always play to my strengths as a reader but I could still admire the beauty even if I don’t linger on the words long enough to truly soak them in. Plus I like to imagine Red & Blue out there in the universe together still, chased but uncaught.

Deep down, I think I always knew that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wouldn’t do it for me, in part because the golden era of comic books in 1940s New York doesn’t resonate enough as a backdrop to compensate for the ponderous writing style. I am sure that this is a ‘good book’. But it’s also a long book, and I just didn’t have much to say about it afterwards. (Although now in my head it is melding with Manhattan Beach, which is kinda fun.) A more recent attempted entry into the ‘great American literature’ canon is Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, which – as always with Frazen – I found very readable and enjoyable even though I didn’t think it was peak-Franzen. Main complaint: the plots all end a little abruptly, with the final chapter making it seem that the relationship between siblings Clem and Becky was The Defining Theme of the whole novel, which wasn’t what it felt like along the way. Still, this is but the first part of a multi-generational trilogy so I’m sure there will be more to develop, and I’m here for it.

I liked The Thursday Murder Club. I did. I have no snobbish objection whatsoever to Richard Osman writing a series of fun, popular murder mysteries about a group of retirees who solve crimes. My problem is – and I know this makes me a terrible person – I can’t help but get annoyed when old people play the we’re-too-old-to-follow-the-rules schtick. And I know that this objection doesn’t even make sense! There isn’t an ameteur detective of any age in any book who just sits patiently and does what the police tells them – otherwise there wouldn’t be a story! So, I get it. The problem is me. But still, I liked Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders more. This is her take on the serial killer trope (“basically an episode of Criminal Minds” as one reviewer writes on Goodreads) and it’s all very good and clever and intricately worked out. Ahh you think they’ve figured it out? Ahh but they haven’t yet. But don’t worry, Poirot will save the day.

Forward the Foundation was the very last book published in Asimov’s Foundation series, although it’s a prequel and the last chronological book – Foundation and Earth – is the one which will hold the last word in my mind. A Kind of Anger was exactly what you want from an Eric Ambler Cold War-era spy thriller, and my only worry is that I’m about to run out of Eric Ambler Cold War-era spy thrillers. Fathers and Sons (Turgenev’s Russian classic from 1862) was probably more funk-inducing for me to read than it would have been before my own father died, which added an extra layer of sadness to this (very good) tale of young nihilism and the growing divide between generations.

Amongst Our Weapons was a pretty good entry in the Peter Grant canon, although I agree with the general clamour for more Nightingale to feature in the books again. And then, sure, it’s true I only read The Slow Regard of Silent Things because I didn’t want to totally forget about the Kingkiller Chronicle world as we all wait for the much-delayed-maybe-never-coming third book. The author is at pains to stress, repeatedly, that you probably won’t enjoy reading it because it’s a short character study on Auri – a young woman who lives underground and has a deep bond with inanimate objects – without much of a plot. But I won’t take the bait. I did enjoy it. It was a good character study.

And finally – just in the nick of time – I rounded up this year’s reading to a satisfying total with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle. There’s a spark of electricity running through this Gothic thriller, and the opening hooked me in immediately. Written in the unsettling narration of eighteen year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, there are dark undercurrents, deception and self-deception behind the mystery of what exactly happened, six years prior, to leave almost all the other Blackwoods dead. Recommended.


The first non-fiction book I read this year was Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy, which has a special place in my heart because (a) he pulled a copy off the shelf to give to me when I went round for tea last year, (b) it sits proudly on my bookshelf next to Melissa Benn’s School Wars. Mandler and Benn have been a double-act in my life for many years now, locked in a perpetual field of agreement and disagreement, but a few months ago they both messaged me separately (within hours of each other… it was really cute) after finally meeting in person, and I felt very happy to have been a small conduit between two of my big education influences.

Anyway – none of that tells you anything about the book, it’s just some personal colour I forgot to include in previous blog posts. Where were we? Ah yes, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, which is a somewhat confusing title for this pretty upbeat, positive story about British mass education since the Second World War. The key move is to take a ‘demand-side’ view, and Mandler’s point is that the country’s population has consistently shown a powerful, democratic desire for more and better education. This pushes elites to respond, often with hesitation and reluctance, despite a perennial fear that we’re just about to bump up against the mythical upper-limit of people who might ‘usefully’ benefit from wider participation. It’s a useful corrective to the traditional top-down story of ideologically-driven ‘reforms’ from both the left and the right, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sticking with the more academic end of the spectrum, I also enjoyed Helen Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century even though, as the title suggests, it’s much bleaker in tone. Truth be told, I don’t remember all of the threads of her argument but – if you remember one thing from Thompson – it’s the centrality of energy supplies and energy markets. In 2022, after the Russian shock to European gas prices and resulting political fallout in the UK and elsewhere, this was an easy lesson to remember.

On a very different note – although I can just imagine Helen Thompson in my ear pointing out how the whole Silicon Valley ecosystem was driven by the era of cheap money – it’s impossible not to be hooked by John Carreyrou’s Theranos thriller, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Part of the fun is that the story of the book itself is also the story of Elizabeth Holmes’s downfall. Often, you finish a book of contemporary non-fiction thinking “that’s so awful and intractable” whereas this year was the very year of Holmes’s guilty verdict and sentencing. Anyway, if you’ve been living under a rock: Elizabeth Holmes tries to emulate Steve Jobs with a fake-it-till-you-make it approach to blood testing. But they never do make it, resulting in potentially catastrophic harm to patients, while anyone raising the alarm is hunted down by a company with a particularly ruthless streak. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read this book already. But if you haven’t, it’s quite a ride.

Bill Bryson’s One Summer was quite different to what I was expecting, but nonetheless a fascinating tour of what was making waves in America during the summer of 1927. I like how it makes you realise how transient culture is: what is huge and important today may be totally forgotten tomorrow. Going much further back, I really did enjoy The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. Sure, it is a little baffling for the author to pretend that he’s just invented the concept of exploring the past in the present-tense. People have fantasised about this for a long time. But while it isn’t novel, it is fun – especially for someone who never studied this period. From memory, I think I decided that my best bet would be to try and find a well-functioning monstrary. That is, if I’m not killed by one of the many ‘hilarious’ acts of random violence or cruelty which (allegedly) abounds in the medieval world.

I thought I had taken better notes on Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists, but I did not. So it’s a difficult book to review because, of course, there were many different ‘early Greeks’ and they held many different views. Many were, dare I say, not as all-encompassingly terrible as Plato was. Most were, unsurprisingly, very sexist. Which brings me neatly to my final non-fiction book of the year: Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, about the “male as default” thinking which still pervades many aspects of our lives, including in critical data about the world.

I’ll come right out and say that this is a really good book, which is why I’ve seen others recommending it many times since it was first published in 2019. At the same time, it’s also a book where its real power lies in reaching beyond the small audience who will ever read it cover-to-cover. That’s why the anecdotes about car crash dummies modelled exclusively on male bodies, snow ploughing designed for male travel patterns and (in the most infuriating chapter of all) potentially life-saving drugs which unknowingly have entirely opposite effects on men and women all seem so familiar: it’s because you’ve heard them already in newspaper columns, podcasts and conversations inspired by the book.

Of course, a lot of its wider brief – especially on women’s unpaid care work – is hardly news to anyone who’s read anything similar before. But it would be a bit churlish to blame Perez for the intractably sticky nature of the problem. And this is a particularly good account, with a practical tone which balances an acerbic critique with practical, politically actionable changes – rather than the hand-wavy ‘any change will be illusionary until society is totally reimagined’ framing which is sometimes found in the final chapter of a book like this. I do wish we could have a moratorium on the kind of sentence where an author explains that, although change X will cost £Y, it would actually pay for itself over time because of Z. There’s almost no policy proposal which couldn’t be written in those terms, and the formulation is designed to hide trade-offs which are usually lurking in the background. But that’s one of the reasons this is such a good book. At heart, it’s a democratic argument – a majoritarian argument – because given that roughly half of humanity is female, the potential upsides to making better trade-offs are so enormous they will always be worth perusing. Even if it feels like you’ve read it before.

The slow decline of my reading total continues, with only 29 books completed in 2021. That said, writing my annual recap has left me feeling pretty upbeat about the quality of books I got through this year. So if you’re looking for inspiration, I hope you find something which intrigues you in the selection below!


The first book I read each year often sticks in my mind and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is no exception. I chose it as a deliberate palette cleanser from sci-fi and fantasy, and despite a lack of alien invasions this character-driven novel about the intersecting fates of a group of teenagers who meet at a summer camp in the 1970s never felt slow. Sadly, it did strike me as a little unbelievable that the wealthy Wolfs would be so terrified of a rape trial for their son Goodman given how unlikely a conviction would be, and I would have liked to have learnt a little more about his accuser Cathy. But overall it’s noteworthy how fresh these characters and relationships have stayed with me over the year.

I put off reading Purple Hibiscus for a while because I was told it was intensely sad, but actually there’s plenty of hope in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel too. It’s a tighter, more contained book than Half of a Yellow Sun (still my favourite) about a fifteen year-old girl, Kambili, whose family is kept under tight control by her professionally heroic but domestically abusive father. Its beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading another novel in a Nigerian setting. Also, I have so much love for Aunty Ifeoma who takes care of Kambili and her brother for a portion of the book.

The obvious thing to do with Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water is to compare it to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, his first book, and conclude that it’s nowhere near as gripping as that. But, judging on its own merits, this is still a fun blend of detective and/or supernatural horrors set in the evocative, claustrophobic world of a seventeenth-century ocean voyage. Klara and the Sun, meanwhile, is up there close to the best of Ishiguro even if, deep down, you start to wonder if all Ishiguro novels are shades of the same story. In this variant, the perceptive-but-not-fully-understanding protagonist is an ‘Artificial Friend’, Klara, who cares for a sick fourteen year-old child, Josie. It’s a haunting and beautiful story, with themes of loss, sacrifice and love, and if you’re already a fan of Ishiguro you’ve probably read this already anyway.

This year I completed N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy with The Stone Sky, and this remains one of the most outstanding series I’ve ever read. I’ve also nearly finished Asimov’s Foundation series with the first of his two prequels, Prelude to Foundation. You’re never going to read this for the complex plotting or characters – who always hop from place to place in search of something – but the story continues to bind the whole series closer to Asimov’s Robot books in a satisfying way. Talking of sci-fi series: in 2021 I also completed Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers novels with Record of a Spaceborn Few (featuring the human community of the Exodus Fleet trying to hold on to its traditions) and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (strangers trapped by circumstance at an interstellar rest stop). The former was probably my favourite plot-wise for its clever interweaving of the characters’ stories, but I do hope the author changes her mind about the latter being the ‘final’ entry in the series and writes more at some point.

Sometimes you get lucky about when and where you read a book. I had Prep on my list for years as a recommendation from Melissa, but didn’t happen to pick up this emotionally intense coming-of-age story until I was sitting in Randi’s parents’ sunny back garden and had the time to fully immerse myself. Lee Fiora is a fourteen year-old Midwesterner who ends up at an elite, monied boarding school in Massachusetts. As you might expect, she struggles to find her place and excels at self-sabotage, so much so you want to shake her and tell her to stop messing everything up. But I really enjoyed reading it and found it a refreshing change from more high-concept books.

In Singin’ & Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, the third of Maya Angelou’s fictionalised autobiography, things are finally looking up for her! This volume especially connected to me with its background on the George Gershwin song Summertime, which I’ve always known but didn’t realise came from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess or that Maya Angelou (who acquires the name in this book) performed in its 1950s European tour. On the topic of American history, reading Golden Hill (on loan from my mum) made me very curious as to whether early American colonies actually celebrated Guy Fawkes night to any great extent. It took me a while to get into its impressive but slightly showy writing style, but over time I enjoyed following the mysterious Mr. Smith and his troublesome stay in New York. I also got close to guessing the ending.

I didn’t want to read A Very British Coup until Corbyn was no longer Labour leader (too painful) which means we’ve now passed the second wave of interest in this 1980s political thriller, originally written as a Cold War-era warning on how the murky British Establishment would bring down a socialist Labour government committed to unilateral disarmament and NATO withdrawal. Basically, Harry Perkins is an all-round decent bloke who somehow becomes Prime Minister without much scheming (which seems unlikely) and then assumes he’ll have free reign to implement a bucketload of highly controversial policies, all at once, without deigning to engage in the messy business of actual politics where you do deals, form alliances, pick priorities and choose between difficult trade-offs.

Obviously, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Harry when his government is brought down through unfair, underhand and conspiratorial means. But at the same time, gimme a break. Even Bevan realised he would have to make peace with GPs to create the NHS. There’s also an infuriating sequence early on when Harry picks a British-made power plant from a close-to-bankrupt company over a cheaper American alternative, explicitly on the notion that there was “nothing to choose between the two… on safety grounds” (his words!) and then gets unbelievably lucky when the American option turns out to be prone to meltdowns. Good for him. But what’s the ideological takeaway here? Protectionism works because British power stations couldn’t explode? What’s his American equivalent supposed to do then?

The Kreutzer Sonata was a recommendation from Kira to demonstrate Tolstoy’s misogyny. I’d say it delivers on this pretty heartily, which makes it all the more baffling that this plea for abstinence as the only alternative to violence, jealousy and murder was published by Penguin in their ‘Great Loves’ series. The Stranger is Albert Camus’s short, gripping 1942 novella in which the main character drifts inexorably towards the guillotine. Given that it’s 2021 I probably should have started with The Plague, but that can be next. Serpentine was a short-but-sweet entry in the His Dark Materials universe, and a nice glimpse of Lyra growing up, albeit laced with sadness given the state of her relationship with Pan by the time of The Secret Commonwealth. And I can’t say anything about Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves except that I fear the moment looming when I officially run out of cheerful Jeeves and Wooster pick-me-ups.

After a long break, this year I also returned to the original detective who begat all others with the short story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Even though Doyle had already ‘killed off’ Holmes in The Final Problem and was bullied into bringing him back, I actually got into this more than the previous stories and it felt like Doyle had really hit his stride with his beloved characters. (See, Becky Chambers, there’s a moral here for you.) Also, Holmes’s complaint that Watson is always “looking at everything from the point of view of a story” and choosing to”dwell on senstational details”, thereby ruining the instructive potential of his examples, is hilariously meta. Pleasingly, Agatha Christie’s first story featuring Miss Marple, The Murder at the Vicarage, pays tribute to Sherlock Holmes with a couple of sly nods. I both loved and feared Miss Marple herself, and while I wouldn’t want to be her neighbour I will definitely check back on her nosy investigating skills.

Parable of the Sower is the first of two instalments in Octavia Butler’s famous dystopian series. It’s a fairly gritty, near-future version of dystopia: this is an undisguised America of 2024 in which society has completely broken down into violent enclaves rather than a post-apocalyptic allegory with strong fantasy themes. The hero is a tough, determined teenager – Lauren – with the rare ability of ‘hyper-empathy’ which causes her to feel the physical pain of others. To be honest, I found the ‘hyper-empathy’ element to be the least interesting strand in an otherwise engaging narrative as Lauren leads a small group of survivors from her destroyed community along the US highway system to found a new community and expand on her religion of Earthseed, and I’m excited for the next volume.

This was an exciting year for me in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, as I finally came up to date with the latest books by reaching False Value and, for bonus content, the novella about Peter’s cousin What Abigail Did That Summer. False Value is an important moment for the series, since the last book had wrapped up the long-running plot threads, and it was nice to be able to start afresh with some new characters and a high-tech corporate setting ripe for parody. As a gullible idiot, I genuinely started by thinking Peter might have left his job and taken up private security work rather than be posing as an undercover agent. But of course he hasn’t. Meanwhile, Abigail’s adventure with the foxes of Hampstead Heath was a delight – especially as I started reading it the day after Christmas at Kenwood, so the Heath was all fresh in my mind. More, please!

I normally end this section by gushing about a novel which is already widely recognised and highly acclaimed. This year is no exception, I’m afraid, but if Liu Cixin’s brilliant The Three-Body Problem is still sitting on your to-read list then you should absolutely give it a try. Somehow, this book combines physics and Chinese history into a clock-ticking thriller, producing a philosophically rich but simultaneously page-turning read. Perhaps you’re getting a sense of how hard it is to describe this thing, but that’s what makes it so good. For a start, it taught me about the actual ‘three-body problem’. There’s also a building sense of metaphysical horror right from the start, which is acute and deeply felt, that the universe may not be scientifically observable. The sequences inside the ‘Three Body’ video game are memorable even though they should be tedious, the use of nano material as a weapon made me wince in pain, and the ending sets up an epic confrontation to follow in subsequent books. If you enjoy science fiction, don’t delay. And if you’re still unsure, Barack Obama provides the endorsement on the cover of the English edition.


I have a feeling that nobody reads this for the non-fiction recommendations. This year, a lot of my non-fiction brain was taken up with Tocqueville’s 1835/40 Democracy in America (originally published in two volumes) which is fairly… long. It’s good – Tocqueville is famously perceptive – but it’s not a quick read with a single theme, and you should absolutely form your opinions of Tocqueville from a deeper analysis than a paragraph or two on a blog. That said, everything he says about the power of judges and lawyers in the United States is ferociously on-point, as is his conclusion to the first volume which reads like a movie trailer for the Cold War a century later. In the second volume, Tocqueville also warns of the emergence of a new, business-driven “industrial aristocracy” and then a dangerous form of political stagnation, where a “state of restless agitation [in] the sphere of small domestic concerns” effectively shuts down any developments in the public sphere until it’s too late. There’s a reason that people on all sides of politics still read and admire Tocqueville.

Tocqueville and Democracy in America form one of the chapters in David Runciman’s Confronting Leviathan, which tells a story about the modern state in twelve parts from Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) to Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Reading this was actually a bit of a cheat, because it’s essentially just the printed version of the first series of Runciman’s Talking Politics: History of Ideas podcast from 2020. I loved that series, and still remember a lot of it, so going through it again in book form was just an excuse for me to relive an old pleasure. I have no idea how easy this book would be to follow if you were coming to it fresh, but somebody should try it out and let me know! TLDR: everything in politics comes back to Hobbes.

I also read Michael Taylor’s The Interest, which is a little weird to write about since Michael was a friend at uni. Thankfully, it’s a really good book about the abolition of slavery, or – as more accurately given by the subtitle – “how the British establishment resisted the abolition of slavery”. Michael states plainly at the beginning that he’s trying to tell the capital-P British Politics story of elected officials, newspapers and lobbyists rather than a wider, far-reaching narrative of the transatlantic slave trade which couldn’t possibly fit a book this size. Seen through that lens, this is a revealing and searing examination of how exactly the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came to be, and the gargantuan amounts of money involved in payments for slave-owners.

Reading Hans van de Ven’s China at War was basically a mistake. It’s a great book, I’m sure, but required too much existing historical knowledge about China – which I don’t have – to make this blow-by-blow account of the varying Nationalist and Communist fortunes between 1937 and 1949 stick. Mostly I’ve just learnt that I need to read another book about China. Adam Tooze’s Shutdown, on the other hand, is obviously a much easier read when you’re still living through the pandemic history he describes. The main takeaway here was to confirm that we all got really, really lucky when Trump nominated Jerome Powell to the Federal Reserve.

The first non-fiction book I read this year was Bill Bryson’s The Body. Most of the detail hasn’t stuck with me, but I do remember it as a typically entertaining, rollicking guide through human biology from a reliable guide – and that a great majority of us are probably suffering from some vitamin D deficiency. Finally, I ended the year with Steve Richards’s The Prime Ministers We Never Had which was a Secret Santa gift from Tash. This is a fascinating tour through the careers of ten (technically eleven, since he lumps the poor Milibands together) almost-Prime Ministers including Rab Butler, Barbara Castle, Michael Portillo and Jeremy Corbyn.

The chapter on Ken Clarke is an interesting reminder of how Thatcherite he was, while honestly I think Michael Heseltine comes out the best as a lost opportunity for the country, at least from the Conservative side. But you’ve got to love Barbara Castle, who not only set up the Overseas Development ministry (shades of Elizabeth Warren here) but later, as Minister for Transport, introduced both speed limits and breathalyser tests for motorists – saving countless lives at a real personal cost to her in terms of the death threats she received. I’d pick quite a few of these options over the Prime Ministers we actually got.

When lockdown began I did think that one silver lining might be having more time to myself to read. It didn’t really work out that way – sitting in the same room all day just isn’t that stimulating, I guess – so I’m closing out the year with a total of 35 books read which is a little down on last year. Still, I covered a lot of good books which I’m excited to share here, albeit with a heavy dose of comfort from reading ongoing series which I was already invested in. Mild spoilers below!


I spent the whole of January reading The Wise Man’s Fear, the second installment in Patrick Rothfuss as-yet-unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy. The first book was my favourite read of 2019 and while the sequel was still very enjoyable it definitely suffers from ‘middle book syndrome’ of neither establishing the characters nor providing a resolution. Large chunks of the book feel like a frustrating side-quest which deviates away from the central story (the scenes with the Fae in the forest being the worst) but, of course, I will still be jumping on the third book with delight whenever it finally comes out.

Continuing with series, this year I reached the chronological end of Asimov’s epic Foundation saga with Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. The former was better, building to a wonderful climax where the Laws of Robotics suddenly re-emerge after a long, long gap: a cool and rewarding feeling of joined-up-ness with the first Asimov novels I started all the way back in 2014. The problem with the latter book is that – although Asimov has never been a character writer – Trevize is actively obnoxious enough to be distracting. There’s an amazing tease at the end, however, with the reappearance of Daneel, a decision to unite the galaxy against potentially hostile external forces and a hint that perhaps they are already among us. It’s a little sad that this is as far as Asimov went, although I’m looking forward to rounding off the series with his two Foundation prequels.

I also concluded Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic trilogy with MaddAddam, which started really well but then went a bit heavy on flashbacks. To some extent this makes sense – things don’t tend to progress much in post-apocalyptic worlds – but it prevents character arcs such as Jimmy and Amanda from progressing as much as I’d have liked. Still, this was a great trilogy overall which doesn’t punish readers for taking a break between books. For a sequel which I enjoyed even more than the original, though, there was Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit: the second in her Wayfarers series. I just immediately fell into this book – the same enthralling and optimistic world as the first one, but with a much stronger plot drive. It’s easy to praise sci-fi for being ‘dark’ but it takes skill to create something lighter without being lightweight, and I’m grateful for it.

And then there was The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the young adult Hunger Games trilogy. It was a decent enough read but suffers from the same problem as the Star Wars prequels: you already know that young Cornelius Snow’s journey is going to end in tragedy and evil, since he’s Cornelius Snow, so a lot of the book is spent just sorta waiting for that to happen. Plus his character does seem to swing a little wildly (even allowing for being a teenager) and the ‘romance’ with his Games mentee, Lucy Gray, is very creepy indeed.

In case you think all of my series are sci-fi and fantasy I also finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels this year with Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. They all blur together in my head as it’s all one long story, but I do remember feeling satisfied by the callback of the lost dolls at the end. Annoyingly I failed to make any notes about The Sympathizer but I was impressed by this North Vietnamese spy story (shades of Angela Carter about the Hollywood filming scenes) and unimpressed by my predictable failure to guess the identity of the commissar to whom the narrator is writing. Talking of spies: Eric Ambler is the gift who keeps on giving, years after Simon recommended him, and Epitaph for a Spy is another reliable interwar thriller of an ordinary man thrown into the deep end of espionage. The perfect pick-me-up.

When the country first went into lockdown it felt like the right moment for some familiar ‘London during WW2’ background vibes which Everything Brave Is Forgiven delivered well. To capture contemporary London I used to turn to Zadie Smith but sadly she now lives in New York and – perhaps this is Chicago rubbing off on me – I found the more New York-y episodes of her new Grand Union short story collection sparked some generic irritation in me. My favourite was ‘Big Week’… perhaps because it’s set in Boston instead.

Never mind, there are always London-based classics like Dickens’s Great Expectations to raise the spirits. Although we analysed the opening scenes to death in GCSE English I had never read the full book (or any Dickens novel) until now, and I’m so glad I finally did. He’s far funnier and snappier than I’d expected – in fact, reading this made me realise how perfectly Armando Iannucci captured the tone and humour of Dickens in his David Copperfield adaption. It is, of course, Dickens’s characters which shine brightest and it may or may not say something terrible about me that my favourite was the lawyerly but impressive Jaggers. It was also fascinating to learn about the controversy over the novel’s ending. The fashionable opinion seems to be that Dickens’s original, more downbeat ending is superior but, to me, the poignant final scene between Pip and Estella (which I had totally misremembered and was expecting to be a straightforward happily-ever-after affair) stays on just the right side of hopeful. Perhaps this is a strange comparison, but it reminded me of David Brent’s final scenes in The Office. Anyway: in conclusion, Charles Dickens is great.

I’ve loved so many of Ray Bradbury’s short stories but Fahrenheit 451 disappointed me. Counterintuitively, it’s more about the long-term effects of mass media on a population than the deliberate censorship which the title suggests, but it just didn’t click for me and suffers in comparison to 1984. Kafka’s The Castle, another classic, could also be frustrating but ultimately felt more meaningful. Kafka is very good at conveying the futility of the main character’s endless chase for what is simultaneously unobtainable and unimportant, and his writing is so immediately recognisable… although nowadays I can’t help but be reminded of Ishiguro which is a little backwards! (Side note: you know it’s been a stressful day of work when you sit down on the sofa and think “ah, yes, some Kafka is what I need”.) Meanwhile, landing straight in the “this is so much better than I thought it would be – why didn’t I read this long ago?” bucket is the 1950s British sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids. The triffids themselves are perfectly nasty creations: carnivorous plants which will give you nightmares.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s new novel after a long wait, was fantastic. I read it avidly in a few sittings and as it percolated around my head afterwards my admiration only grew. It’s a hard book to describe but has echoes of the famous Peter Capaldi Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent – a haunting, dreamy puzzle of a book with a complex, paradoxical message about innocence and faith which I could imagine really struggling with but absolutely loved. Gilead, on the other hand, is a book about faith which I deeply admire but cannot quite connect to in the same way. Written as a series of letters from a sick, elderly Reverend to his young son, there’s nothing for me to criticise or critique – and I do sense the meditative beauty – but at the end of the day it’s something like Piranesi which really sticks with me.

I was also engrossed by the latest Cormoran Strike novel, Troubled Blood, staying up late on the sofa to keep reading it while trying not to get too creeped out. Sadly the ongoing controversy around JK Rowling casts a shadow over the communal enjoyment of a series like this, but within the fictional world of Strike and Robin it is always exciting to be amongst old friends and see their relationship moving along. Similarly, it was nice to be back with magician copper Peter Grant in Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping. I’m now at book seven which felt like the end of an era, with resolutions (perhaps!) for both the Faceless Man and Lesley May. Still, there’s more to come, which is just as well since the brief outing of German policeman Tobias Winter in The October Man novella proves that Aaronovitch really can’t let go of Peter’s narrative voice even if he tries.

Finally, though, I’d really just like to sing the praises of NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, or at least the first two parts (The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate) which I read this year. Where to start? These books have been on my to-read list for a while but especially so after her worldbuilding podcast episode with Ezra Klein. And it’s true, the worldbuilding is incredible here: from the big-picture – a geothermically unstable supercontinent where a persecuted few have the power of ‘orogeny’ to manipulate seismic events – to the smallest details. There’s no ‘Mother Earth’ here: it’s Father Earth, or Evil Earth, although my favourite example of these worldbuilding touches has to be the customary drink ‘safe’ which reacts to foreign substances by changing colour. But Jemisin hasn’t just created an intriguing world – there’s also a rip-roaring plot, an epic, tragic, multi-millennial intrigue and characters who are complex, layered and believable. It’s not all easy reading; the violence is well-written enough to make me flinch. But I have really savoured these books so far and cannot wait for the finale.


If I only had one non-fiction recommendation this year it would be Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, which traces the history of the racial wealth gap in the US through the prism of “Black banking” and “Black capitalism” initiatives. It might seem odd to focus on these small and often troubled banks given how miniscule they are as a share of the overall economy, but Baradaran’s whole point is that the policy obsession with these concepts (most recently as ‘Enterprise Zones’) is a wasteful detour because they simply can’t function as normal banks which multiply wealth by lending out money. Anyone familiar with the racial wealth gap – and holds it carefully apart from ‘income’, which is very different – will know that it always comes back to segregated housing, particularly Black homes which did not appreciate in value or benefit from federally-backed mortgages. I loved this book for many reasons, one of which is its careful academic grounding in politics and economy of the US, so readers should avoid copy-and-pasting its conclusions to the UK or elsewhere. But the relationship between housing, banking and credit is deeply significant in Britain too and worth reading about in detail.

My mandatory entry in the ‘Political Thought’ series this year was Max Weber’s Political Writings, which I looked forward to because Weber is a legend and everyone has their favourite Max Weber quotes. (OK, perhaps not everyone.) In the run-up to his most famous essay on ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics’ – which is well-worth reading alone, particularly if you’re lucky enough to have David Runciman’s explanatory lecture appear in your podcast feed at exactly the right time – I pocketed my own nuggets: on purity politics (“the right… to enjoy the intoxicating thought that ‘the world is full of such dreadfully bad people'”), the inadequacy of referendums (“most conflicting reasons can give rise to a ‘no’ if there is no… process of negotiation”) and non-parliamentary systems (“the voter is deluded as to the true identity of the person guilty of maladministration”). I’m not saying I read Weber solely to confirm my own biases… but who can resist indulging a little along the way?

Sticking with a politics-heavy year, I also read John Bew’s long but worthwhile biography of Clement Attlee, Citizen Clem. Attlee is a bit of a weird figure in British politics because his legacy is totemic, and many different groups now claim his legacy as their own, but unlike Churchill or Thatcher it’s hard to get much of an impression of what Attlee as a person was really like. In his day he often cut an uninspiring, uncharismatic and compromised figure – indeed, you get the sense that Bew is constantly apologising for picking someone so ill-suited to a heroic biography. The constant sniping from Attlee’s contemporaries, whose political heirs now appropriate his image, would have made this book too painful to read before Starmer’s election as Labour leader. But now there are glimmerings of hope that the real tradition of Clement Attlee, as he actually was, may yet emerge in British politics once more.

Gang Leader for a Day is unusual for a book about Chicago’s housing projects in that it’s (mostly) not written to shock. Set in the Robert Taylor homes (since demolished, but the aerial photos remain breathtaking for how large and other-worldly they were) it has some fascinating insights into the economics, management styles and gender dynamics of the gangs which operated there. (I was particularly struck by the minimum wage rates for frontline dealers.) Meanwhile, in North Korea, A Kim Jong-Il Production is less insightful but is gifted with the incredibly strange true story of the kidnapping of a famous South Korean movie couple so that they could make films for Kim Jong-Il. I hadn’t realised just how many kidnappings were orchestrated from North Korea and will never forget learning about Kim’s personal global film piracy operation so that he (and he alone) could enjoy foreign cinema.

Finally, Katie gifted me Randall Monroe’s brilliant What If? for my birthday, or “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions”. It’s the kind of book which makes you want to interrupt other people’s reading with interesting facts (sorry!) but the two which really stuck with me are the all-female species of salamander who reproduce asexually but use a courtship ritual with male salamanders from related species as a simulated ‘trigger’ to breed and Randall’s musings on how throwing a ball is actually really hard. No, seriously, the length of time for nerve impulses to travel down your arm is much longer than the half-millisecond timing error which would cause a baseball pitcher to miss the strike zone…