January Picks

Case, Anne & Angus Deaton (2020) Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton UP. In the US in the past two decades deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism have risen, especially amongst those who lack bachelor’s degrees. Case and Deaton shed some light on the economic and social forces that are imperilling hundreds of thousands of American lives each year, from deteriorating health, broken families, shorter life spans, and limited work prospects, to failures in the health-care and education systems. For those who used to prosper from capitalism the American dream is now in decline. The authors are advocates for capitalism but seek to regulate it, and rein in its disparities and excesses, to make its work for everyone. A national crisis laid bare. Important, though grim reading.  Rating: 8.5/10.

Goodings, Lennie (2020) A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago. Oxford UP. Lennie Goodings began working for Virago Press, an influential feminist publishing house, forty years ago, first as a publicist, then as publisher and editor, and latterly as Chair. This book is a literary memoir, a history of feminist publishing, and a celebration of women authors. The focus is on capturing and repositioning women’s stories and words from literary trailblazers through activism to forge a sense of women’s intellectual history. Goodings has worked with many great women authors from Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Willa Cather, Naomi Wolf to Maya Angelou. She is a proud and passionate champion, however an earnest read. Rating: 8/10.

Bennett, Brit (2020) The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins, who grew up in a small black southern community, where the populace have fair complexions. At the age of sixteen they run away. It is at this time that their fortunes diverge. Stella passes herself off as white ensconcing herself in White society, giving birth to a blonde-haired daughter, whilst Desiree is forced to return home to the poverty of her childhood, with a black daughter.  In this generational story the fates of the twins remain intertwined as their daughters’ lives intersect. A richly constructed tale of race, identity and gender determinism, and of how we can vanish once we leave home. Wonderfully compelling.  Rating: 9/10.

Ord, Toby (2020) The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Bloomsbury. Human extinction would destroy humanity’s potential. At no time in our history have we been more vulnerable. So safeguarding humanity’s future by defining the challenges of our time and examining the scientific evidence behind our risk landscape is a worthwhile activity. Ord calculates that natural risks such as volcanoes, earthquakes and asteroids have been dwarfed by man-made threats. He estimates our chances of an existential catastrophe, within the next hundred years, as being a series of yet unforeseen anthropogenic hazards, such as climate change and other environmental threats, unaligned AI, and pandemics (this book was written prior to Covid-19). Human history is in its infancy and survival requires us to rise to the challenge and steer ourselves to a place of safety, so that we may reach our full potential. A solid new understanding for our age. Rating: 9/10.

Bregman, Rutger (2020) Humankind: A hopeful History. Bloomsbury. We take a pessimistic view of “others” – we see them as selfish, untrustworthy and dangerous, with their bestial natures just waiting to break out. This negative view is reflected back at us in the sensationalist media. Our evolution has generally been synonymous with peace and progress, and Bregman finds the idea that civilisation is a thin veneer unfounded. Bregman’s central thesis is optimistic in that humans are basically decent, geared towards trust, cooperation, kindness and our best selves. Subversive new perspective.  Rating: 8.5/10.

Medie, Peace Adzo (2020) His Only Wife. Algonquin Books. Afi, a young Ghanaian seamstress has been pressured into marrying Elikem, a wealthy businessman she doesn’t know, to give her widowed mother financial security. Despite her reservations, and marrying Eli in absentia, Afi moves to Accra ready to become a wife. After a troubled start Afi begins to fall in love with Eli, and he with her. Eli however has another woman in his life who he refuses to renounce. Is Afi prepared to become a second wife?  Afi is a very modern heroine contending with the patriarchy, whilst determining her own future. Fresh.  Rating: 8/10.

Fitch, Chris (2020) Subterranea: Discovering the Earth’s Hidden Depths. Wildfire. Chis Fitch explores the mysteries of the underground world from subterranean cities, caves, tunnels, craters, to where humanity has kept its treasures and secrets. The book is divided into parts – creation, ancient history, modern history, and today, and takes us from Derinkuyu in Cappadocia in Turkey and Coober Pedy in Australia, to the Hadron Collider in Switzerland and Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. A overview-come-travel book, rather than an in-depth study, but interesting all the same, with illustrations and maps.  Rating: 8/10.

West, Lindy (2020) Shit Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema.  Hachette. Lindy’s laser-wit is brought to bear on an examination of beloved and iconic movies. She has a love of nostalgic trash and benchmarks all her rewatched movies against The Fugitive, her all-time “good” movie, with The Shawshank Redemption and Speed 2 up there.  She detests the evergreen Love, Actually claiming it was a romantic movie made for men  – “None of the women in this movie fucking talk! All the men in this movie “win” a woman in the end!”.  Whilst I have to admit I didn’t read the essays on the movies I’m not familiar with, nonetheless I found it a lively and refreshingly candid companion. Bit of fun.  Rating: 8/10.

Harford, Tim (2020) How to Make the World Add Up. The Bridge Street Press. This is a readable and lucid account on how statistics, facts, numbers, and truth help us make sense of our world. We live in a world awash with statistics that make claims that are said to be based on data. Harford challenges the uses, abuses and shortcomings of statistics and gives us his ten “rules of thumb” to use as a checklist, with a reminder to first examine our own preconceptions. He concludes that the golden rule is to be curious – “look deeper and ask questions”.  Full of fascinating anecdotes and practical tips on how not to be deceived by stats. Rating: 8.5/10.

Cousens, Sophie (2020) This Time Next Year. Arrow Books. Time for a bit of light relief in this rather heavy holiday reading list!  Quinn and Minnie are born at the same time, in the same hospital, on New Year’s Eve thirty years ago. Minnie Cooper’s New Year’s birthday has always been unlucky, because of Quinn Hamilton. When they find themselves together, in the same place at the same time, fate is about to take a hand.  Warm little romantic sojourn. Rating: 8/10.


Disher Garry (2020) Consolation. Text. Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch) finds it is a constant struggle to keep his rural south Australian community safe. This winter, in his third outing, the small town policeman has his work cut out dealing with families under pressure, a stalking, underwear theft, fraud, murders, a kidnapping, and fugitives. Authentic characters, plenty of suspense and a cracker of a pace.  Disher is fast becoming a fav author. A real page-turner. Rating: 9/10.


Macmillan, Gilly (2020) To Tell You the Truth. Century. Nine-year-old Lucy was with her brother when he vanished in the woods at Summer Solstice, never to be found. Lucy’s story of the event was not believed. She was known for telling inventive lies, a talent she has taken into adulthood to become a bestselling thriller writer. Now Lucy has fortune, fame and adoring fans. When her husband goes missing Lucy becomes a suspect and she is forced to once again confront her dark memories. What is the truth when everyone lies? Lucy is an unreliable narrator, and often confused, making the denouement all the more suspenseful. Deliciously clever and unpredictable.  Rating: 8.5/10.

Macfarlane, Robert, Stanley Donwood, Dan Richards (2020) Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places. Norton. This haunting and creative work takes us to two unique corners of England, both unusual features in the landscape where humans have left their mark on nature for centuries. Orford Ness, a ten-mile shingle spit, on the Suffolk coast, used in the twentieth-century as a site to conduct secret weapon tests, is now having its fragile natural environment restored. In the hands of the authors the Ness story is challenging, taking on mythical proportions. The Holloway (sunken narrow shady paths) story reads like a piece of prose. The authors traveled to Dorset, to explore the Chideock Holloway, guided by Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male (1939). This is a book for Macfarlane fans, surprising in its approach, and not for everyone. An unforgettable visual and literary feast all the same, that makes you want to learn more.  Rating: 8.5/10.

Mahbubani, Kishore (2020) Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy. Public Affairs. As someone who has been visiting China since the late 1980s, and experienced its history, culture and remarkable growth first hand, I often feel modern Western rhetoric around China lacks balance. Singaporean academic and former UN ambassador, Kishore Mahbubani, explores the geopolitical contest that has broken out between America and China, looking at the major dynamic factors that are informing domestic politics today and the posturing that is threatening humanity.  A clear-eyed and honest assessment. Will be provoking for some. Rating: 9/10.

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