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Archive for the ‘Ursula Buchan’ Category

2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

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As we enter the last hours of 2019, I’m not quite ready to let this year go.  I loved 2019; it was full of achievements, wonderful times with family and friends, lots of travel (I went to Europe twice!  And on my first trip I absolutely fell in love with Brittany) and, most excitingly, a new nephew.

With all that going on, I completely collapsed as a blogger, reviewing almost nothing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading!  Here are my favourites (ranked, obviously) from this year:

10. Clouds of Witness (1927) – Dorothy L. Sayers
I reread Strong Poison for the 1930 Club and enjoyed it but it was this earlier volume that reminded me of all the things I love about Sayers.  Here she has set up a perfect country house murder scene, made even more perfect by the fact that this time it is Lord Peter’s own family members who are suspected of the murder.  Sayers introduction of the other houseguests as they eat breakfast is perhaps the best scene she ever wrote and the entire novel just shines.  It also allows plenty of time for Charles Parker (let everyone else be in love with Lord Peter, for me it’s always been the solid, hardworking Charles), which I can only view as a good thing.

9. Home Fire (2017) – Kamila Shamsie
Good lord, what a book.  Set across three continents and told by a variety of narrators, Shamsie crafts a heartbreaking contemporary retelling of Antigone.  Unforgettable.

8. A Green and Pleasant Land (2013) – Ursula Buchan
Such fun!  Buchan tells the story of how Britain worked to improve food production during the Second World War.  It’s full of the sort of little details I love – did you know tomatoes were grown in ornamental pots outside of gentlemen’s clubs in St James? Or that, pre-war, only 9 of every 100 onions eaten were grown in the UK? –  and does a wonderful job of highlighting the professionals whose hard work and innovation truly made a difference.

7. Mountain Lines (2017) – Jonathan Arlan
I have no idea how this passed me by when it was first published but I’m so glad I stumbled across it this year.  Arlan writes humorously and honestly about his journey along the GR5 trail from Lake Geneva to Nice. For me, this was the perfect style of travel memoir and inspired me so much that I literally put the book down mid-chapter to reach out to my friend and convince her to go hiking in Austria.

6. Piglettes (2015) – Clémentine Beauvais
An utterly joyful YA novel about three teenage girls who, having been cruelly and publicly named by their peers are the ugliest girls in their town, band together to pursue the things they want most.  By cycling to Paris.  While selling sausages.  It is full of energy and humour and insecurity and confidence and I defy anyone not to love it.

5. Last Witnesses (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
A bleak but incredibly moving oral history of children’s lives in the USSR during the Second World War.

4. A Brightness Long Ago (2019) – Guy Gavriel Kay
A new novel from Kay is always cause for celebration and this one absolutely did not disappoint.  It ranks among his best works and artfully weaves Italian Renaissance history into Kay’s fantasy world, laying the foundations for the events of Children of Earth and Sky.  It is intelligent, entertaining, and through Kay’s uncharacteristic use of the first-person perspective for much of the book, even more poignant than usual.  I loved it and look forward to rereading it again soon.

3. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – Rosemary Sutcliff
Inspired by Slightly Foxed’s reissuing of this, I picked it up for a reread and was immediately caught up in Marcus’ story and quest for the eagle of the famed lost legion.  This is historical fiction and children’s writing at its absolute best.  It’s a book my father loved as a child, that I loved, and that I hope the next generation of our family will love just as much.

2. Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez
Until last week, I was certain this was going to be my #1 book of the year.  But then a charming Russian count appeared and that was that.  But this was still the single most impactful thing I read this year.  Caroline Criado Perez, the Oxford- and LSE-educated journalist and human rights campaigner (and reason Jane Austen is now on the £10 note), looks at how data bias harms women around the world.  Why do more women die in car accidents than men?  Because cars are designed to be safe for men (there are no crash test dummies based on female body composition).  Why are women 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have a heart attack?  Because their symptoms are different from men’s (and men are the ones who are studied).  The examples go on and on and become more and more maddening.  Invisible Women is an extraordinary and extraordinarily important book and one that should make you mad, regardless of your gender.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) – Amor Towles
This is a perfect example of why you must always wait until the absolute last moment to select your best books of year: I only finished reading this on Saturday.  And I’ve been bereft every day since that I don’t have more of it to read.  I never wanted this charming story of a Russian count confined to a grand Moscow hotel to end but when it did it was so satisfying and right that I physically hugged the book to myself.  This is clearly going to be a favourite for years to come.

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