Skip to content

World Book Day – a self-isolation reading list

March 6, 2020

To celebrate World Book Day, here’s a list of books I’ve read in the past year. It’s far from complete, but it includes some of the more memorable ones. Should you be unlucky enough to have to go into enforced isolation in these troubled times, a few of these might come in useful.

Fiction – Top Ten

The Testaments: Margaret Atwood. If you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale (book and TV), unmissable.

Big Sky: Kate Atkinson. Anything by Atkinson is worth reading. Jackson Brodie, her battle-scarred detective, tackles a paedophile ring.

All the Lives We Never Lived: Anuradha Roy. Sad novel set in Northern India and Bali. If you like the English Patient, you’ll like this too. A lament for unfulfilled lives.

Second Sleep: Robert Harris. 800 years on, we’re back in the middle ages. It’s never clear what caused the extinction of the digital age, because the church blames it on the biblical Apocalypse. I wonder if Harris is smiling grimly at the thought that coronavirus might bring us down. Rattling narrative and a powerful feat of imagination.

The Underground Man: Mike Jackson. Fictional diary of a 19th century English duke who goes slightly potty and builds tunnels under his estate. Great characters. A comic portrayal of the disintegration of a lonely man.

The Siberian Dilemma: Martin Cruz Smith. I’ve read all his books (like those of Robert Harris). Ever since Gorky Park, Arkady Renko has lived an eventful life. In fact he’s probably had at least ten cat’s-worth of lives thus far. Now he comes to grips with a couple of murderous oligarchs.

The Garden of Evening Mists: Tan Twan Eng. We Westerners don’t often give much thought to the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This moving story about a woman revisiting her life in a wartime camp fills a gap, especially if, like me, you love Malaysia.

Varina: Charles Frazier. The author of Cold Mountain recreates episodes from the life of Varina, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Much of the story is of her reminiscences set against those of a black child she rescued from the wreckage of Richmond in 1865. A daguerreotype brought to vivid life.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World: Elif Shafak. Shafak is another of my must-read authors. The story of an Istanbul prostitute as she looks back on her life in the dying seconds after her murder. Superb characterisation, set in one of my favourite cities.

Agent Running in the Field: John Le Carre. How Le Carre manages to produce work of this quality in his eighties defies belief. A story that looks back to the golden age of the cold war, yet shows us why spying is the second oldest profession, and very much still in business.

Fiction – The Rest

Blue Moon: Lee Child. My first Jack Reacher novel. Enjoyable, but I’m not sure I’ll read the other twenty-odd. What were they doing casting Tom Cruise as Reacher? In his demented self-perception, I reckon Trump would fancy a crack at playing him.

Destroying Angel: S G MacLean. Me and my golfing mate Nick share an interest in historical novels about the 17th century. So he gave me this one, which is one of a cracking series set during the Commonwealth.

Blood’s Game: Angus Donald. Cracking tale about the wonderfully named Colonel Thomas Blood, the man who nicked the Crown Jewels in 1671 and lived to tell the tale. Nick will like this, and so did I.

The King’s Witch: Tracy Borman. Super yarn about a woman with healing powers who negotiates her way through the treacherous waters of James I’s court. Reminds me of No 10 under Boris. Nick will like this as well.

The Falcon of Sparta: Conn Iggulden. Xenphon’s Anabasis reimagined by one of my favourite historical novelists. About time someone joined Tom Holland in giving the Persians a human face.

The Wolf and the Watchman: Niklas Natt och Dag. Not so much Scandi Noir as Scandi Black Hole. I always thought that Stockholm was rather nice. Clearly not in the early 1800s. Convoluted, bleak and thoroughly depressing.

Winter of the World: Ken Follett. This is the sort of book you should take on a long holiday and read over 2-3 days. Part of a trilogy. Follett takes a cast of characters from Russia, the US, Britain and Germany through the 20th Century, and has them suffer all kinds of agonies in the process. Good stuff if you like family sagas.

Edge of Eternity: Ken Follett. See Winter of the World above.

Non-Fiction – Top Ten

Dominion: Tom Holland. Another peerless history from Tom Holland. Explains why I’m still a Christian even if I don’t believe in God. Like Holland’s other work, worth reading twice.

Handel in London: Jane Glover. Eminent conductor writes a biography of the incomparable Handel.

Aleppo, the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City: Philip Mansel. A paean for a great city, virtually destroyed in the Syrian civil war. Another multi-ethnic, multi-cultural centre of power and trade in the Middle East. I should have visited it when I had the chance.

The New Silk Roads: Peter Frankopan. If you’re interested in China’s economic colonisation of half the world, this is for you.

They Will Have to Die Now: James Verini. Learned, moving, pitiful narrative of the fall of Mosul. Admirable especially because of the historical context in which Verini places the story.

The Quest for Queen Mary: James Pope Hennessy. Papers from the author of the best (and almost only) biography of Geroge V’s wife. Very funny if you’re interested in the curious bubble of royalty.

Chernobyl: Serhii Plokhy. Gripping and forensic account of the Chernobyl disaster.

Salonica – City of Ghosts: Mark Mazower. I read this before I went to Thessaloniki. Story of a multi-cultural city over 2500 years.

The Moor’s Last Stand: Elizabeth Drayson. The story of Boadbil, the last Muslim king of Granada, Spain’s last Muslim outpost.

Why We Get the Wrong Politicians: Isabel Hardman. Interesting analysis by a political journalist who tries to explain why Britain’s gone to the dogs.

Non-Fiction – the Rest

France: John Julius Norwich. Highly readable and not excessively long history of Britain’s best friend and enemy.

Twas the Night Shift Before Christmas: Adam Kay. Unless you like gruesome medical stories, best to stick with Kay’s first book about life as a junior NHS doctor, This Is Going to Hurt.

Chastise: Max Hastings. Story of the World War 2 Dambusters raid. So many nasty characters, so many innocent casualties, but almost unbelievable bravery by airmen, many of whom were only just post-adolescent.

The Fall of the Ottomans: Eugene Rogan. Decline of a great empire and birth of the modern Turkey.

The Diary of a Bookseller: Shaun Bythell. If you fancy running an independent bookshop, read this and think again, but have a good laugh in the process.

The Secret Barrister: Anonymous. Britain’s legal system is fucked, basically.

Drive: Daniel Pink. What motivates people. You’d be surprised.

Lords of the Desert: James Barr: How the Brits, the French and the Yanks carved up the Middle East. Nostra Culpa.

How to be Right….In a World Gone Wrong: James O’Brien. Interesting take on cult thinking, politics fake news et al from Britain’s Destroyer-General of Public Illusion.

Do No Harm: Henry Marsh. Melancholy memoirs from a brain surgeon.

Field Guide to the English Clergy: Fergus Butler-Gallie. Rookie priest makes a name for himself with tales of eccentric Church of England clergymen. Reminds me why I love being English.

The Secret War: Max Hastings. Spy stuff, about how we fooled the Nazis in World War 2.

The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5: Christopher Andrew. More spy stuff, mainly about how the Russians fooled us.

A Spy Among Friends: Ben Macintyre: Yet more spy stuff, mainly about how Kim Philby fooled us.

I hope you get as much pleasure out of some of these as I did.

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    I’ve copy/pasted the list into a bloc-notes for the two weeks(+) to come (maybe)…..I hope you don’t mind. I might even get an Audible account, being a lazy frog…ribbit.

    Keep ’em coming. All good stuff.


    • Thanks Andrew. I’ve never used Audible, but any which way is surely good. S

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: