London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd published by Chatto and Windus.
This book is a love letter to the greatest city in the world and a pleasure from start to finish. Peter Ackroyd’s sentences arrest you with their beauty. There is a rhythm to his writing that sweeps you along from one golden nugget of information to the next, never overloading you, always beguiling you. The richness of his tone and the imagery he creates are a joy, so much so that I didn’t want to reach the end.
Waiting for Hitler - Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion by Midge Gillies
published by Hodder and Stoughton.
A fascinating account of the summer of 1940, a summer quite unlike any other in British history. Midge Gilles perfectly captures the growing tension as the people of a nation waited for an invasion everyone thought inevitable. Ordinary lives were turned upside down and the extraordinary became normal. Britain on the Brink is the perfect subtitle.
You are left with two overriding thoughts after reading this book. The first is how unprepared we really were, the second is wondering how modern generations would fare in similar circumstances. It is a book that makes you think and a book that makes you grateful.
Among You - The Extraordinary True Story of a Soldier Broken by War by Jake Wood published by Mainstream.
The title grabs you first. It never really lets go. Nor should it. What follows is an unflinchingly honest account of a city trader who was also a member of the Territorial Army. The moral bankruptcy of the banking world and the vacuousness of a society obsessed by celebrity and reality TV shows is thrown into sharp relief against the horrors of war as the author succumbs to PTSD.
Jake may once have been a banker and a soldier but it is very clear from this book he is also a writer. His words are powerful and moving, his imagery sharp. I hope he writes the promised novel. I will definitely buy it if he does.
Both Sides of the Fence – A Life Undercover
by David Corbett published by Mainstream Publishing.
Given the plethora of stories of undercover police officers overstepping professional and sometimes moral boundaries, this book is a compelling account of what it is like to live with the stresses and strains of deep undercover work and the unique challenges a double life can throw up.
The tension of such an existence particularly as an operation reaches its climax must be mind-bending. I was left wondering whether those personalities best suited to coping with undercover work are perhaps not the most stable of individuals to begin with whilst steadier characters perceived as a safe pair or hands and thus a more likely choice for such work would be more likely to buckle over time in comparison to their less conventional colleagues.
The Great Train Robbery - Crime of the Century - The Definitive Account by Nick Russell-Pavier and Stewart Richards
published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson The Orion Publishing Group.
The Great Train Robbery is a crime that a lot of people, even those born well after the event, think they know a lot about. This book goes behind the headlines to tell the story in full from the robbery itself to the police investigation, the trials and beyond. It also provides an absorbing account of the attitudes and mores of British society at the time. Occasionally it gets a little bogged down in minutiae but given the scale of the undertaking I think that can be forgiven.
What struck me time and again was how sometimes the smallest of decisions taken in a split second led to consequences well beyond anything that could have been imagined.
The Bridge by Maggie Hemingway
published by Sceptre Hodder and Stoughton.
The Bridge is a fictionalised account of what may have inspired the Victorian painter Philip Wilson Steer to create his painting of the same name. On the face of it this is a tale of an illicit Victorian love affair suffocating under the constraints of the age but it is also a sensory delight to immerse yourself within and enjoy.
Set on the Suffolk coast during one summer, Maggie Hemingway imbues her novel with such a depth of feeling and passion that it becomes something very special. So redolent are the descriptive passages that I could see the sun shimmering on the water as I read, I could taste the saltiness of the sea air on my lips and feel the warm wind blowing over my skin. Like a magical time machine the book transported me to a seaside summer every time I opened it.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
published by Victor Gollancz Limited.
I am a huge Du Maurier fan. Jamaica Inn is possibly her best known work. Atmospheric and suspenseful, it brings you Cornwall in the raw; beautiful and terrifying, its characters moulded by the bleak moorland and the treacherous coastline.
Dangerous and dark, you will never view this ancient land in quite the same way again after you have read it.
Ferney by James Long published by BCA by arrangement with Harper Collins.
A beautifully engaging and beguiling time slip novel that draws you into the bucolic English countryside.
Mike and Gally are looking for a dream home in the country. They find it in a Somerset village. Along with an old man called Ferney who seems tied to the house. Gally and Ferney have a connection beyond rational explanation, a love that has endured down the centuries which we discover as their story unfolds. In the present day they are at very different stages of their lives so it is hard to imagine a happy ending but with reincarnation no one really dies, they just begin again.
These characters live on long after you close the book.
Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon published by Pan Books in association with Collins.
At the height of his game, Sidney Sheldon was the master. A fantastic storyteller who could take you on a thrilling and often suspenseful ride through exotic locations peopled by fascinating characters.
Bloodline is my favourite Sidney Sheldon book. A cracking story, skilfully told. The narrative drives you on to the end of the book so desperate are you to discover who is threatening Elizabeth.
I couldn’t put it down and when I’d finished it, I wanted to read it all over again.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
published by Fourth Estate Harper Collins.
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
published by Fourth Estate Harper Collins.
There isn’t much that hasn’t already been written about Hilary Mantel’s towering novels set in Tudor England following the life of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s style is Marmite; some love it, others struggle to get on with it. I was initially thrown by her distinctive narrative but within a couple of pages it no longer jarred and I was swept along by the verve and dynamism of the writing.
The beauty of the writing is something to behold.
Bird by Bird (some Instructions on Writing and Life) by Anne Lamott published by Anchor Books a Division of Random House.
Wise and witty, this book gives a lot of practical advice in a way that is easily digestible. Full of emotion and humour it gets to the heart of what it is to be a writer. How many times have I recited the title to myself when feeling overwhelmed by writing, work or life? Too many times to remember making it worth the cover price alone.
Books about writing
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
published by Pelican Books.
A thought provoking and enthralling book which started life as a series of lectures. The sections on plot and patterns and rhythms within novels are particularly engaging. Once you learn to recognise and appreciate these patterns and rhythms within a novel you will never read, or write, in the same way again.
From Pitch to Publication (Everything you Need to Know to Get your Novel Published) by Carole Blake published by Macmillan.
In many ways the pre-eminent guide to traditional publishing, covering every aspect of the industry. This book reminds us that publishing is a business with a bottom line and whilst writers are often idealists they have to be realists too. If you take one thing from this book it is the need to be professional in all aspects of your writing life.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White published by Longman.
I have many books on grammar. Some of them I have even read. This one I refer to again and again. The finer points of grammar can be a chore and, I admit, not my strongest suit. That said, I hope, by studying this book I will learn by a process of osmosis if nothing else.
Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham published by Penguin Books.
This is a book aimed at readers but nevertheless carries invaluable lessons for writers too. It is a set of essays examining ten universally popular novels and the lives of the novelists who wrote them and seeks to throw a light on how the novelists’ lives informed their work. Absorbing and interesting.