Best books of 2019

Photo by Abee5 (CC BY 2.0)

Another year is drawing to a close, and it’s time to look back at the books we have read and pull out some of the best.

Thank you for contributing to this list and making it so varied. I was delighted to see several books in translation this year. Some of you sent in mini-reviews, which are always welcome. (And I see one of you has been taken up with Harold Pinter’s plays!)

The books are arranged by category, the year they were published (for translations, I’ve used the year of the publication in English) and then by author.

Links lead to reviews on this blog. The links on the three travel books listed (all by women this time) lead to my reviews to Women on the Road. In cases where I don’t have direct links to these books, you will need to scroll down the page to find them.

What were your favourite reads this year?

Hope this list gives you ideas for books to read in 2020. Happy reading!

Contributions by Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Keith Stimpson, Kristine Goulding, Paddy Torsney, Rishad Patell, Sally-Anne Sader, Sarah Waller, Suroor Alikhan, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Finh Ramsay.


Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (2019)
The return of Jackson Brodie: really enjoy reading about this detective who has a very quirky but humane side to his character.

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (2019)
This is a really ambitious debut novel, which explores currents of historical change in a grand setting.

The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia (translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) (2015, English translation 2019)
Her first book to be translated into English, it is set during the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 1900s. There are a lot of characters, but the main character is a very lovable mute with special gifts who has always been surrounded by bees since he was found by Nana Reja abandoned under a bridge. A lovely read and beautifully translated.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Torczuk (translated from Polish by Antonio Lloyd-Jones) (2009, English translation 2019)
By the Polish author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A woman living alone in a forest observes the events unfolding around her as hunters are killed. Are the animals taking their revenge? Unusual and intriguing. It’s not just a whodunit, it’s also about animal rights, nature and astrology.

Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
A forensic account of life in a reform school for boys in the Jim Crow era, and a friendship between two of its African-American inmates.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)
A retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
There’s a reason this won the 2018 Booker Prize for fiction. None of the characters are named, none of the settings are named, none of the conflict is named, and yet it’s so clear that this is a personal, deeply emotional story about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The protagonist starts as an average, unnoticeable teenage girl, trying to hide her boyfriend from her mother. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes “interesting”. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. It’s a story where inaction causes all the tension and silence speaks louder than words.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
The story follows Washington Black, a field slave working on a Barbados sugar plantation. Chosen by the eccentric brother of the master, Titch, to be a manservant and to assist in building and testing a flying machine, the character of Washington grows and develops in parallel with Titch as Washington becomes more human. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe. While a compelling and touching story, I have read The Book of Night Women and Underground Railroad too recently to not draw parallels—and for Washington Black to fall a bit short.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
A fantastically relevant retelling of a classical tale for the #MeToo era, and just a rollickingly gripping underdog story.

Warlight by Michael Ondjaate (2018)
Michael Ondjaate’s inimitable prose tells a story of love, betrayal and a lost childhood in post-war England.

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
A group of Native Americans head to a powwow; each of them has a different motive for being there. The chapters move between the people and reveal a web of connections between them. A powerful book by a Native American writer. 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
The story follows the life of the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, an outcast living on the brink of society in a marsh in North Carolina. When a popular local man is found dead, rumours spread of her involvement. The story jumps between the present and the past to unravel the mystery, with a haunting background of the natural beauty of the marsh and a love story intertwined. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, the characters are engaging but the environment is its own force in the narrative.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Sadaawi (translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright) (2013, English translation 2018)
A man in Baghdad, is appalled at the way blown-up bits of bodies are left to rot. Determined to give them a proper burial, he collects body parts so he can create a man. Maybe then this “man” can get a proper burial. But the spirit of a dead man, looking for a home, inhabits the creature and brings him to life. A brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
A Korean woman goes to Japan just before the war in Korea and the Second World War. The book follows her as she grows old. There was so much I didn’t know about Koreans living in Japan. Beautifully written.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017)
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, Elmet is set in rural Yorkshire in the present, although it could have taken place a hundred years ago. John, a paid fighter, struggles to protect his two children and to save the home he built himself on his ex-boss’s land. It is beautifully written and worth reading, but it is a grim story.

The Sultanpur Chronicles—Shadowed City: Achala Upendran
In her first novel—and the first in a series—Upendran has created a fantasy world based on Indian and oriental myths. A delight.

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) (2014, English translation 2017)
I am not usually a fan of short stories, but Murakami packs so much into each story that you do not feel short-changed.

Conversations with Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney (2017)
You’re inside the mind of (the very young) Frances as she talks about her life and her friends, all in one breathless go.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)
The early days of Maoist China make a panoramic backdrop for this family saga, where a young woman goes in search of a father, but finds a lost history.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Charming book about a Russian aristocrat who is forced to live in a hotel. In this confined space, he watches the changes in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The Gap of Time: William Shakespeare’ The Winter’s Tale Retold: A Novel by Jeanette Winterston (2016)
Winterston’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. Love, jealousy and abandonment—she gives a new life to these familiar themes. Winterson writes beautifully about people and their attempts to muddle through life. I’m really enjoying these modern reimaginings of Shakespeare.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk (2015)
The words of the novel weave their way around the protagonist and her life, without ever getting inside.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
I haven’t had a book stick like this in many years. The narrative is gripping and the characters—who start deep and get deeper—are both compelling and deeply flawed in an utterly human way. Beautifully written but raw and stark. I had to put the book down a few times because I found myself getting too emotional. What a lovely read!

Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (2014)
Four pieces told through Ford’s Frank Bascombe character. Each piece is about the passage of time and the decay of ageing and its blows on the human soul—all shot through with wry touches of jaded humour.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015)
It’s more of a short story than a novel, but published as a stand-alone book. It gives guidance to the young niece of the author on how to live a feminist, empowered life.  As a new mom to a little boy, I found the words poignant and well-placed. It’s a quick read and one I will go back to again in the future.

The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin (2012)
This book is about two Indian women, one a middle-class housewife fleeing from her abusive husband and the other, a maidservant who goes home to her daughter. Shauna Singh Baldwin uses their stories to expose the struggle of Indian women, the rise of the right-wing and the politics of abortion.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)
A book about twins born in Ethiopia. Their mother is Indian and dies in childbirth, their English surgeon father can’t cope and leaves, and they are brought up by an Indian couple. Medicine, politics, love, betrayal and redemption—this is a wonderful book.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)
The story links the victims of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942 and a French family living in Paris in the present. Very moving and beautifully written.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (2003)
This Pulitzer Prize winner from 1992 holds up as an astounding piece of literature from one of America’s best authors. A modern-day king Lear.

The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (1996)
The coming of age story of a 15-year-old girl, Beth Weeks, on a farm in Canada. Her father went a little crazy ever since he went into the forest after a bear that attacked Beth. Beautifully observed, tender and angry.


A Slight Ache: Harold Pinter (2015)
A couple invite a match seller into their home. The seller’s silence destroys one of them and gives the other strength.

Betrayal: Harold Pinter (2013)
Pinter deals with betrayal, not only by people but also by time.

Victoria Station: Harold Pinter (1982)
A radio dialogue between a minicab controller and a driver waiting for instructions.



Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
A welcome nostalgia trip in the current climate, harking back to a time when US politics was going in the right direction and anything seemed possible, but also a sobering contrast with the state of affairs today.

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Mathar (2016)
A man’s journey to find his father and rediscover his family and his war-torn country of Libya.

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
For anyone dealing with grief who needs some reassurance that crazy is normal at times! Plus an evocative depiction of multicultural family life.

The Country Under my Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (translated by Kristina Cordero with the author) (2002, English translation 2003)
A fabulous feminist memoir of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Indira Gandhi: A Biography by Pupul Jayakar (1995)
An intimate biography of the first woman prime minister of India by her close friend and confidante. It provides us an in-depth account of her personality that is often seen as hard and ambitious, but that had a layer of softness beneath it all.


Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019)
Taking us through his rules of good writing, Benjamin Dreyer manages to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. Whether you care about the Oxford comma or not, if you’re “persnickety about language,” you will enjoy this book.

Current Affairs

Bullet Proof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict by Teresa Rahman (2019)
A journalist’s often harrowing account of covering insurgency in northeast India.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (2018)
A non-fiction account of a well-educated Mexican-American who becomes a border control agent on the US-Mexican border during the early 2000s. While the author clearly isn’t a professional writer (yet), the reader gets a glimpse of his voice and the turmoil of the work he undertakes. Also, this is clearly a topical book given the current geopolitical situation.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou (2018)
John Carreyou’s investigation into the rise and fall of Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, reads like a thriller.


Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji by Manu Pillai (2018)
Manu Pillai excavates the little-known history of the six kingdoms of the Deccan (South India), between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.


The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (translated from Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) (2017, English translation 2018)
A book on the nature of time. It is elegantly written and a little esoteric, and I would highly recommend it.


Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh—India’s Forgotten Frontier by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2018)
One of my favourite travel writers. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent bikes (on a motorbike, not a bicycle) her way through northeast India, visiting parts of the country that are not well-known by the Indians, never mind foreigners. Fascinating.

Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran by Lois Pryce (2017)
One of the first travel books I have ever read. It was a great one to start with: I would never have imagined that a book could make me want to visit a country and, in particular, Iran, due to the bad publicity it gets in our part of the world.

Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (2015)
Pisani visits the many islands that make up Indonesia. The fact she can speak the language gives the reader a real insight into the country.

The Places in Between: Rory Stewart


Rory Stewart had set out to walk from Iran all the way to Nepal—through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But in December 2000, when the Iranian government took away his visa, the Taliban refused to allow him to enter Afghanistan. So Stewart had to go directly to Pakistan. At the end of 2001, when he heard that the Taliban had fallen, he decided to return to Afghanistan and walk from Herat in the west of the country to Kabul. He took a shorter route through the mountains, even though it was during the middle of winter.

However, before he can begin his journey, Stewart has to explain to the Afghan Security Services why he is walking across the country and reassure them that he is not spying for the UK government. “It is mid-winter—there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves and there is a war”, the man from the Security Services tells him. “You will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Stewart is finally allowed to continue, but only on condition that two men from the Security Services accompany him for part of the way. Stewart knows that it would not go down well in the villages where he would be spending the nights, but there is nothing he can do about it.

This is a fascinating account. Stewart is always aware of the juxtaposition of history with the present. Herat, once “a great medieval market for China, Turkey, and Persia…was now selling Chinese alarms clocks, Turkish sunglasses and Iranian apple juice”. Throughout his book he quotes the Baburnama—written by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, about his journey from Afghanistan to India in the early 16th century—thus connecting Babur’s time with ours.

Stewart is not always welcome in the villages. War has led to a mistrust of strangers. Fortunately, he speaks enough Dari (one of the Afghan languages) to hold conversations with the men he meets (and it is almost always men). He speaks with Afghans who fought in the wars that began in the late 1970s, first during the Russian invasion and then during the civil war.

Politics in Afghanistan is never straightforward. The headman of a village he stays in had been a military commander for 24 years, first fighting the Russians with a group funded by Pakistani intelligence and then with a group funded partially by the British. “Then the Russians withdrew and he fought the pro-Russian Najib government and the rival Northern Alliance groups. When the Taliban took over the province five years earlier, he decided, he said, to ‘retire from fighting’. This probably meant that he had been the Taliban commander in the area but would deny it if I asked him.”

Eventually, the two security men leave Stewart, but he acquires a new friend—a dog the size of a small pony, given to him by villagers, whom he names Babur. Man and dog then help each other through blizzards and snow drifts.

And then there is the landscape, which changes all the time, from deep snow on the mountains to this: “We walked on through hills whose brilliant colours showed metal ores in the soil: a rock face striped like candy, a crest of snow-softened russet, then slopes of green and orange sandstone, and finally, a cliff streaked with bull’s blood red.”

This book is important, coming at a time when the world knows so little about Afghanistan excerpt for the wars and the bombings.

I lived in Afghanistan as a child in the early 1970s, before the Russians invaded. My memories are of a beautiful, rugged country and a warm and hospitable—and fiercely independent—people. But the scars left by decades of war are going to take a long time to heal. There were times in this book when I could barely recognize the country I had known.

The walk across Afghanistan really brings home just how diverse the country and its people are: the various tribes, languages and landscapes. Stewart does not romanticize any of this but tries to portray the country and its people with honesty and empathy. I just hope that this magnificent land will find peace someday.

Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz

This is a whodunit within a whodunit. One Friday evening, Susan Ryeland, the Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, picks up Magpie Murders, the latest manuscript by Alan Conway—one of their most successful writers—and takes it home. She pours herself a glass of wine and starts to read.

As she reads the manuscript, so do we. Conway’s book is Anthony Horowitz’s homage to Agatha Christie. It reads like a traditional English murder mystery. Like Hercule Poirot, detective Atticus Pünd is a foreigner who has moved to the UK during the Second World War.

The manuscript of Magpie Murders begins in the village of Saxby-on-Avon with the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a woman who used to clean for Sir Magnus Pye, the owner of the big house, Pye Hall. Mary has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in what looks like an accident. A few days later, Sir Magnus is found decapitated in his home.

There are rumours in the village that Mary has been murdered—her son Robert had been heard arguing with her the day before she died. The past also holds its secrets. Mary’s younger son Tom had drowned in the pond at Pye Hall when he was 11. Was Tom’s death really an accident?

Just as Pünd is about to reveal all, Susan finds that the last chapter of the manuscript is missing. She is not only frustrated but also worried—Conway’s books are vital to the publisher’s survival. The copy that Charles Clover, her boss, has is also incomplete.

Meanwhile, Conway has been found dead at the bottom of a tower in his mansion in Farmington. The verdict is suicide. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Charles has a letter from him hinting at his intentions.

But Susan is not convinced and suspects foul play. When she goes to Farmington, she finds that the village mirrors Saxby-on-Avon. Many of the characters in the book are based on people living there—like Vicar Robeson who appears in the book as Osborne (an anagram of his name). Conway’s house is the model for Pye Hall. Was he trying to leave clues in his book about what was really going on?  

The story moves between the manuscript (set in Courier font) and Susan’s world. Horowitz also includes an excerpt from the first book that Conway wrote and the notes that Conway’s sister made about their childhood. Horowitz gets the different tones right—the pretentiousness of Conway’s early “serious” work is very different from the Atticus Pünd novel. But I’m not sure we needed two pages of it.

Horowitz said (in a Penguin Podcast) that writing a regular whodunit would be boring—the only way to liven it up would be to play with the form. He does that here and has great fun with it. I love whodunits and got two of them in one book here! This is an entertaining read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Gap of Time: Jeanette Winterson


“God doesn’t need to punish us. We can do that for ourselves. That’s why we need forgiveness.”

A man driven crazy by jealousy, a wife accused of adultery and a lost child: this is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.[1] But unlike Othello, The Winter’s Tale allows the for redemption and a chance to right wrongs. Like the original, The Gap of Time is ultimately a book about forgiveness.

The plot: Leo is a wealthy man, living in London, used to getting his way. He is married to a French cabaret singer, MiMi, and they have a nine-year-old son, Milo. Leo has a hedge fund, which specializes in buying and stripping the assets of business, and loading them with debt, making a profit for himself and his stockbrokers.

Leo is convinced that MiMi is having an affair with his best friend, Xeno, and that the child she is carrying is his. In a jealous rage, Leo tries to kill Xeno. Xeno flees. When the baby is born, Leo refuses to acknowledge her as his. He gives her to his gardener Tony with a briefcase full of money, and bribes him to take her to Xeno.

Tony sensing that he is being followed by muggers, hides the baby in a BabyHatch (a place for abandoned babies). She is found by Shep and his son Clo, who take her home and raise her. With the money in the briefcase, they also find a diamond necklace and a piece of sheet music titled Perdita. That’s what they name the baby: the little lost one.

Having got rid of the child, Leo takes Milo and tries to catch a flight to Berlin to escape MiMi. Milo doesn’t want to go and runs away from his father straight into the path of oncoming van.

Leo and MiMi divorce, and she returns to Paris, a shadow of her former self. Leo has to live with his actions that have resulted in the death of his son, the loss of his daughter, his beloved wife and his best friend.

Meanwhile, Perdita grows up happy and loved in New Bohemia, a place that feels like the southern US. Then one day, she throws a birthday party for Shep and invites her boyfriend Zel. Zel’s father turns up too, and secrets that have been long hidden come tumbling out. She decides to go find her biological father and confront him.

I enjoyed this “cover version” as Winterson calls it. Perdita’s two fathers, Shep and Leo, are antitheses of each other: one open and kind, the other self-centred, focused on accumulating money and power. Xeno is an interesting character—sexually ambiguous, he is close to both Leo and MiMi, and won’t allow himself to be dominated by his friend. The friendships are destroyed by the fact that Leo can’t bear to share people he loves with anyone else. It takes the child to heal the wounds caused by the adults.

I liked the way Winterson turned the King Leontes’s empire into the cut-throat world of finance. Some of the coincidences are a little far-fetched, but she is just reflecting Shakespeare, who used them fairly liberally. I’m not complaining—they bring the plot together and allow a resolution.

The writing is lyrical. Part of the joy of this book is rereading some of the passages. There is so much I can quote, but I’ll restrain myself to this:

“And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.”

[1] The Winter’s Tale is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Also reviewed on this site: Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth.

Flicker: Theodore Roszak


“[E]ntertainment rules more lives than art and rules them more despotically. People don’t put up their guard when they’re being entertained. The images and the messages slip through and take hold deeper.”

Flicker is a thriller, a history of film (with a conspiracy theory thrown in) and a cautionary tale about the power of movies.

Jonathan Gates, a young film student in Los Angeles, becomes obsessed with a German B-grade movie director called Max Castle. He discovers Castle’s films at The Classic, “the best film repertory film house west of Paris… a legendary little temple of arts wedged between Moishe’s Strictly Kosher Deli and Best Buy Discount Goods”. The Classic is run by Clare Swann and Sharkey, who handles the antiquated movie projector.

Jonathan begins an affair with Clare, who is a trenchant film critic. She hunts out forgotten films to show at The Classic, and finds a copy of Castle’s lost film, Judas Castle. The film leaves them uneasy, feeling unclean.

Jonathan becomes an expert on Castle, tracking down his films and finding the few people who knew him. Thanks to him, the films find a cult audience.

In his search for the elusive Castle, Jonathan keeps coming across the Orphans of the Storm, a powerful sect. Descended from the Cathars, the sect sees the body as a living hell and advocates not bringing children into the world, not by killing but turning people off sex. This puts them in direct opposition to the Catholic church, which encourages procreation. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars were hunted down by the Church and went into hiding.

The modern Orphans of the Storm has partly emerged from the shadows and is known for taking care of abandoned children. However, its real power has never been acknowledged. Its influence is far-reaching—having infiltrated politics, entertainment and everything else, the Orphans spread their creed, always behind the scenes. The young Orphans are taught film-making and how to insert images under the actual film—the flicker—that has a subliminal effect. Castle is an Orphan but fell out of favour because of his independence.

Meanwhile, Clare becomes a respected film critic and lives in New York. The theatre is taken over by Sharkey, who is showing mostly low-grade films, with lots of violence and sex. Like the films of Arthur Dunkle, an 18-year-old who makes graphically violent films.

Dunkle’s films take the world by storm—it’s not just the kids who love him but also the critics. Jonathan hates the films but can see the skill with which they had been made. To him, they signal the loss of taste, of real storytelling. Not surprisingly, Dunkle is one of the Orphans. Jonathan, still on the trail of Castle, uses the excuse of interviewing him to get into the orphanage in LA. But the more he learns, he gets deeper he gets. Until he takes one step too far.

I read Flicker in the early 1990s and thought it was brilliant. It didn’t make it to my top 15 books, but came close. This year, I decided to reread some of these books and see whether I felt the same about them.

It was an interesting experience. There was a lot I had forgotten about it. I remembered Jonathan, Claire (a wonderful creation), the Classic, the inserting of images and the twist in the tale but everything else felt new. It’s a good story, and I can’t resist convoluted plots. But reading it now, I found it much more disturbing and bleaker. Maybe it’s the times we live in: the graphic violence in films and the way AI has seeped into our lives makes it feel almost believable. And like a good conspiracy theory, it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Not that I’m saying I believe any of this happened—this is, after all, fiction—but it left me feeling uneasy, in the way I imagine Max Castle’s films would. This is not a book that you will forget, and believe me, you will never see a film in quite the same way again.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk



Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“[S]ometimes I feel we’re living in a world we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with that we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

The middle of winter in Poland, near the Czech border. Janina Duszejko is one of three people who live in the little hamlet during the winter, when the summer visitors have gone.  She is woken one night by her neighbour Oddball (she has names for everyone—she finds their given names inadequate), who tells her that their neighbour Big Foot is dead. They find Big Foot lying on the floor of his house, having choked on the bone of a deer he had killed and cooked. Duszejko feels it is rough justice. 

Big Foot’s death is followed by the murder of the chief of police, who used to hunt. He is found in a well with deer footprints all around him. And then the body of the rich entrepreneur who runs a fox farm is found in the woods, weeks after his disappearance. Duszejko is convinced that it is the animals taking their revenge, but she is dismissed as a batty old woman.

But this is not a simple whodunit and Duszejko is no batty old woman. She is the narrator, observant, funny, honest and a little melancholic, haunted by the disappearance of her two dogs. She looks out for the animals who live in the forest around her and has far more sympathy for them than for most humans.  

One of her frequent visitors (almost the only visitor) is Dizzy, who used to be her student and is now working with the police. On his visits, he not only keeps her abreast of the investigation but works with her on his real passion: the poetry of William Blake that he is translating. Lines from the poetry of William Blake are scattered throughout the book, resonating with Duszejko’s connection with nature and her anger at the way it is being desecrated.

Interwoven with the murder mystery are questions of animal rights and astrology. As Duszejko tries to unravel the mystery around her, she muses on vegetarianism, human arrogance and the importance of astrological forces—she is a keen astrologer. Convinced that the alignment of stars at a person’s birth can predict their death, she starts studying the charts of the victims.

This is an unusual book, a riff on the relationship between humans and animals, and how skewed it is. The hunters have erected wooden towers, reminiscent of a concentration camp. These are called pulpits. Listening to a priest praise hunting at a mass, celebrating it as honouring nature, Duszejko understands why: “In a pulpit, Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.”

There is a lot of passion here, and Duszejko is an engaging character: sharp, unafraid to tell it like it is, angry and empathetic at the same time. I loved this book—it has been beautifully translated, and the use of initial capitals on some nouns reminded me of some of the classics of the 18th century. But this is very much a novel of its time. I would strongly recommend it.

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.

32 Yolks: From my Mother’s Table to Working the Line: Eric Ripert



With Veronica Chambers

“Only if you cook what you love and truly understand will people be happy with your food.”

Good food—how it can sustain you, both physically and emotionally—is the centre of these memoirs. Eric Ripert, a well-known chef, writes about growing up in France and Andorra, and his early years in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Ripert didn’t have an easy childhood. His adored parents, Monique and André, split up when he was very young, and André moved away. His stepfather Hugo bullied him when Monique wasn’t around, which was every afternoon after school. At 7 years old, there wasn’t much that Ripert could do.

Not surprisingly, he became a “difficult child”. When he was 8, his mother sent him off to a Catholic boarding school, something he saw as an ultimate betrayal from the one person he relied on. He didn’t stay long at the school because the priest who took him under his wing tried to molest him—yet another betrayal from an adult he trusted.

The bright thread running through these years was a love of food, inherited from Monique, a superb cook. One of the joys of the summer holidays spent with his grandparents was watching his grandmothers cook. As he says, “when things were bad, and later, when bad went to worse, food became my main source of comfort, my most consistent pleasure”.

When he was 11, André died. Ripert was devastated. To try to cheer him up, Monique took him to a small but well-known Andorran restaurant, Chez Jacques. Jacques took an immediate liking to Ripert, who would spend afternoons listening to Jacques’s war stories and watching him cook, instead of being at home with Hugo.

Inspired by Jacques, Ripert went to a cooking school and got a job as a junior chef in La Tour d’Argent, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. Nothing he had done so far had prepared him for the gruelling work in a restaurant kitchen. The first day was a disaster. It took him 20 minutes to separate 32 eggs for his first task: to make a sauce hollandaise. The pan became unwieldy. “I didn’t have the strength to move thirty-two yolks and make a light and foamy sabayon. … I couldn’t ask…so I failed, at this simplest of tasks.”

But he worked hard and eventually got a job in Jamin, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant under Joël Robuchon, a chef with a terrifying reputation. Working at Janin made La Tour d’Argent seem easy. Robuchon lived up to his reputation and ran his kitchen on fear. There was no chatter, no kidding around—just a kitchen full of people determined not to upset the chef.

The book is poignant, heartbreaking and vivid. You get the feel of what it must be like to work in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant—the constant pressure, the heat, the lack of space and the dynamic between the people. His descriptions of food are mouth-watering: his grandmother Maguy’s apple tart, where “[t]he scent of butter and apple was sunshine itself”; Monique’s soupe au pistou, with “the basil brightening the flavour of the white beans”; and his first taste of caviar: “the saltiness, the richness, the briny finish as I swallowed it”.

And there is the way that food can capture a moment in time. In Ripert’s case this was the chocolate mousse he had the first night at Chez Jacques. “Proust had his madeleine, and because of Jacques, I had my mousse. … It is the taste of friendship. It is the taste of belly laughs, and war stories, and the memory of a man who could jump out of planes and make a leg of lamb with equal amounts of skill and ardor. But more than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed: of Chez Jacques, where, for me, the door was always open.”

The Sultanpur Chronicles—Shadowed City: Achala Upendran

Welcome to a world of magic, flying carpets and rakshasas[1]! Before I go any further, full disclosure: Achala Upendran is a friend. This is her first novel.

Sultanpur is a vast empire, ranging from mountainous Firozia to the cities of Dastakar. It is home to humans, djinns and other beings. Peace has come after a fierce war between humans and rakshasas, after which the demons were banished from Sultanpur, and no one in the kingdom is allowed to even mention them. The Sultan has kept the peace by imposing strict limits on magic and on certain books.

But the books still exist, and it is possible to get hold of one if you know the right person, for example, Ismail, a bookseller. His sister, Roza, a handmaiden of the Princess, persuades him to get her a forbidden volume. Using the spells in the book, she summons Manukarmini, a rakshasi, in a land where they had not been seen for three centuries.

But is that really true? Devankar, a reporter working at the Sultanpurian, uncovers a bombshell: Sudhakar, the Sultan’s commander and one of his most trusted advisors, has rakshasa ancestry. Devankar takes the story to his editor, who sells him out to the Palace. Before long, he has not only the Palace guards on his trail, but a dangerous group called the Dawn Worshippers.

The Dawn Worshippers has been formed by the Master, a war veteran and an extremely powerful magician. The Master has sworn vengeance on Sultanpur and has returned to wreak havoc, accompanied by his two disciples, Mrinalini and Farzan.

This book is the first of a series, which explains some loose ends. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and loved the little touches like the public and private carpets (public and private transport). There are plenty of strong female characters, including the Princess, who has a bigger role to play than this review suggests. Manukarmini is sympathetically portrayed—Upendran doesn’t see her as the “other” but as someone who gets caught up in events and does the best she can.  

The best fantasy reflects our world in some way, and the thread of the division between humans and rakshasas echoes the polarization that we are seeing in so many countries. The kingdom’s peace has been achieved by completely excluding a group. But as we all know—or should know—real peace comes with understanding the other.

I am looking forward to the next installment and to seeing this world develop and grow. A warning for readers outside India: the print edition is only available in India. Readers elsewhere will need to download the Kindle version.

[1] Demons in Hindu mythology.

The Selector of Souls: Shauna Singh Baldwin


As the book begins, Damini commits a crime because she believes there is no choice. No one sees her commit it except the goddess Anamika Devi (the Unnamed One), but it haunts her. With this incident, Shauna Singh Baldwin sets up the theme of the book: how women cope in a society where they are not valued, where they have to fight for the freedom to live as they want.   

Damini works for Mem-saab, an elderly deaf woman living in Delhi. Damini is not only her carer but also her ears, and the women are very close. Mem-saab is a Sikh widow, whose sons squabble over their inheritance. One of them moves in with his mother, bringing his family with him, ostensibly to take care of her but actually to persuade her to sell her house. Eventually, Mem-saab, realizing that her sons would never stop harassing her, dies. It is an open question whether she committed suicide or not. Damini has her suspicions but says nothing. Unable to support herself, Damini moves to Gurkhot to live with her daughter and her sick son-in-law.  

Anu is a middle-class housewife in Delhi, living with her husband Vikas, daughter Chetna and Vikas’s parents. Vikas is violent, but his parents seem to think that Anu should just put up with it. Anu sends Chetna off to her cousin in Canada and, once Chetna is gone, she files for divorce—a move frowned upon by everyone around her. Looking for a safe place, she joins a Catholic order, feeling that it would be the last place that Vikas would look for her. She ends up as a nurse in Gurkhot.

But The Selector of Souls is not just about women in India. Singh Baldwin also brings in the abortion of girl foetuses, HIV, class distinctions and religion, in particular the rise of the Hindu far right that Vikas, his parents and Damini’s son Suresh are all part of.

This is an angry book. Most of the men don’t come off well at all—Vikas is a truly nasty piece of work, Suresh isn’t much nicer and even Anu’s uncle Sharad, to whom she goes for help, betrays her. The head of the mission, Father Pashan, is a good man but he is never really developed. The fact that there are almost no good men makes the book feel a little unrelenting.

It gets a little preachy towards the end, when Damini holds a religious ceremony to appease the god Lord Golunath. During the ceremony, the ojha (priest) channels Lord Golunath and speaks out on women’s rights, which seems a little unlikely, given that almost every other male in the book has opposed them. It does feel like she uses this and Damini’s channelling of the goddess Anamika (which is more convincing) to lecture her readers. That is a pity—it takes away from a strong novel.

But the two main characters are well drawn, and you invest in their journey to find their place in the world and to make a difference, no matter how small. And there is hope in the end, when the women discover and learn to use the strength that they had all the time.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Madeleine Thien


“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

This novel is an encapsulation of the modern history of China, from the early years of Mao’s rise to the present, seen through the lives to two families. It is a story of upheaval but also of the love of music.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989. Marie—or Ma-Li—is 10 and living with her mother. One day, the police come to the door to tell them that Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, has committed suicide in Hong Kong. Marie realizes that she actually knows very little about him.

In March 1990, Ai Ming, a young woman fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiannamen Square protestors, comes to live with them. Ai Ming’s father, Sparrow, and Kai were close, and through her, Marie starts to piece together the story of her father’s life.

Their stories are recorded in the handwritten Book of Records, “the shape of a miniature door, bound together with a length of walnut-coloured string”. The book, a mix of fact and fiction, ends up with Marie’s mother. When Marie gives it to Ai Ming, Ai Ming reads to her from it, introducing her to people who seem strangers but—as we will discover—are connected to her. There is Big Mother Knife, with “a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper, and shouting voice”. Her sister Swirl and husband Wen the Dreamer, the author of the book, have a child, Zhuli. When Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are caught up in the Land Reform for owning property, they leave Zhuli with Big Mother. Zhuli grows up to be a talented violinist.

Zhuli’s love of Western classical music is shared by Big Mother’s son, Sparrow, a gifted composer, who is absorbed by the symphony he is working on. Big Mother named him Sparrow to keep him safe: “the little sparrow was a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain”. The third in this trio is Kai, who is a concert pianist. The three become very close, attending a study group that discussed forbidden topics (with the radio turned on loud to discourage any eavesdropping). But soon their world is turned upside down as the Revolution targets musicians who play Western music.

Music is one of the leitmotifs running through the book—the thread binding many of the characters.  Big Mother Knife and Swirl could sing “harmonies so bewitching that problems large and small disappeared the enchantment of their voices”. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli live and breathe Western classical music.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing brings China’s history to life in the way that good fiction can—by humanizing historical events, showing how ordinary people were affected by them: the  betrayals and the lives destroyed, and the need to hide your inner life. As the Professor in the study group says, “This is a skill we perfect from an early age. How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust.”

It is a moving and beautifully written book. As Marie learns the stories of her father and Ai Ming’s family, she discovers the pain and heartache that joins them. This is also a story of a country, as Madelien Thien charts China’s journey from the cataclysmic events of the Revolution to the modern-day consumer society.