Reading Review of 2021

Introduction

This is the least number of books I’ve read in many a year. Whether it is the loss of my bookshops, or pandemic brain, or the pressures of a new job, I have simply found it hard to concentrate on reading. Paragraphs have become hurdles, chapters landmarks. Thankfully, the discipline of reading to write reviews for publication has kept me on my toes and there have been some highs. I’ve also subscribed to a number of (print version) magazines as well as the Church Times, which take up a fair proportion of my traditional reading time.

The most disappointing read of 2021 was Spirit of Place which was all place and little spirit. It was an interesting ride through the history of landscape painting and landscape in writing, but it barely touched upon the spiritual side of place, which needed to unpack the work of Samuel Palmer, Paul and John Nash (among others) more presciently and could have done with a fair dose of Ronald Blythe. Meanwhile, the best highs came late in the year with the little gem that is Treacle Walker and the behemoth of a biography offered by Paul Morley in From Manchester with Love. Both books arise from the Northwest – Alderley Edge and Manchester – and each carries with it a definite sense of place, but also of universal mysteries. With age anything fresh from Alan Garner is a bonus, but Treacle Walker isn’t a bon-bon, rather it is a distillation of many of themes that have concerned him throughout his writing life. Morley’s biography of Tony Wilson is breathless but not uncritical – it has an element of stream-of-consciousness, is discursive, stuffed with gamey prosody, dances around and through its subject, yet gives a credible and inspiring flavour of a flawed, driven, loyal, clever, visionary. Both books filled me with the pleasure of reading, the pleasure that used to lighten up my daily bus or train journeys and I hope they have restored some of my literary mojo ready for 2022.

The List

1. Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, Harper Perennial, 978007790210. I haven’t been feeling the love for fiction for a while now. Partly because, as a bookseller, I’ve seen far too many poorly written, weakly plotted, tree wasting volumes infesting shop shelves. Partially because, well, the clue’s in the name ‘fiction’ – it isn’t real so what is the value to it? Perhaps also, because the last year has been stranger than any novel. I’ve also experienced a lack of access to novels, the libraries being closed. Fiction isn’t something I tend to buy, it is ephemeral, like films: when you’ve read it/seen it once, it is over, gone, done. Hence, I borrow novels from the library. They are light entertainment. They pass the time on the bus. Maybe this is why I found English Literature ‘A’ Level taxing. Reflecting on poetry was fine: poetry is created as the art of ambiguity, using words in such an amorphous way that anyone can imbue them with their own meaning and write an essay/book/course. But novels, well they’re just utilitarian crowd pleasers. They only improve society by temporarily relieving boredom.

I picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran during that brief autumn window when charity shops were open. Subtitled ‘A Memoir in Books’ it describes the time in the 1980s and 1990s during the Iranian Islamic revolution when the author was teaching Western literature to students in Tehran. I thought if anything was going to make the case for the value of fiction, then this might be it. It wasn’t. Her insights into the work of Austen, Fitzgerald, James and Nabakov left me cold. More fuel for the lit crit fire.

However, this is also a clearly written, evocative, enlightening memoir of life under an extreme form of oppression in an ancient, highly sophisticated Middle Eastern country. As a woman teaching mixed genders at college and exclusively women students at home, she describes with heartfelt, precise, piercing details the complex truth concerning life in a nation where a stray hair escaping from beneath a scarf can lead to flogging. Each of the seven students who met to discuss literature at her home is drawn with vivid, wistful details, the sometimes shocking stories of each of their lives being allowed to slowly reveal themselves. How they adapt to, resist, survive the fearsome censorship and violent intolerance of a fledgling society that simultaneously rates women as both third class citizens and as containing some immensely powerful, uncontrollable force capable of subverting or corrupting all around them, gives the book its urgency, its humanity, its fascination. What happens to Azar Nafisi, together with the survival of her students, matters far more than any neat comments about Austen’s underlying themes. While ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ has prompted me to think more about place and loyalty, identity and government, equality, law and enforcement it hasn’t erased my prickling suspicion that fiction is second rate writing.

2.   Seeing God in Art, Richard Harries, SPCK, 9780281083824. Thirty illustrations of great masters, icons and contemporary works, with commentary, taking us from creation to the communion of saints. Richard Harries loves art and has written well about it before – The Passion in Art being another of his books that I have enjoyed. This was disappointing for three reasons. Firstly, the layout meant that there was an inordinate amount of broken words on each page, hyphenated as they turned over, which made it unattractive to read. Secondly, the art works chosen were very traditional and on the whole obvious. Little chance to ‘tell it slant’. Finally, too often the text referred only very scantily to the art, didn’t read much into the work and only on few occasions drew something theological out of it. A good idea, but a case of ‘could do better’.

3. ‘A Sparrow’s Life’s as Sweet as Ours’, Carry Akroyd and John McEwen, Bloomsbury, 9781472967145. John McEwen’s ornithological columns for the ‘Oldie’ illustrated by Carry Akroyd’s screenprints. I’m a great fan of Carry Akroyd’s work – she evokes creatures and landscapes with maximal minimalism – clean lines, poised colours and just enough detail to lift a bird into life or a field into focus without the distractions of any extraneous clutter. Mayhap she is a contemporary descendant, development, of the very English school of land, flora and fauna observers that gave us Eric Ravilious and John Nash, amongst others. However she does it, her images sing and dance with the jizz of her subjects, while their surroundings are depicted not as decorative adiaphora, but as integral to their existence. I knew I was going to enjoy her images, what I wasn’t expecting was the light, lively and poetic touch of John McEwen’s prose which frothed with energy and information. He didn’t offer many details that were new to me, especially as there was some reliance on Mark Cocker’s ‘Bird’s Britiannica’, which I am also currently reading, however, McEwen’s telling was breezy and checkered with poetry and literary descriptions of the bird on the page. This is a lovely, restful book that I will return to again and again.

4. The Way of Julian of Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through Lent, Sheila Upjohn, SPCK, 9780281083695. Short, I’ve read it through twice already, but with plenty of insight and much to think about. Julian’s visions are as radical today as they were when she wrote her book in the 1300s. No wonder she hid the manuscript then, because if she hadn’t it would most likely have been supressed by the authorities and lost to us. This is a book about both the inclusivity of divine love and the seriousness of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The two are intimately related as Julian understands that Christ died not as an offering for our sin but out of pure love for us.

5. The House Under the Water, Francis Brett Young, Heinemann. This has been sitting on our shelves unread for twenty or so years. Bought at a jumble sale in Salisbury because, at the time, the author was collectable. A seven hundred page novel about the fluctuating fortunes of the last members of the Tregaron family, whose ancestors had owned a hillside estate in Radnorshire for 800 years. Set late in the nineteenth century the plot revolves around impact of the industrial revolution on both the heart of Wales and the Midlands’ shires. Bicycles and motorcars are key to the family’s future, but it is the damming of their valley to provide water piped overland for the growing Midland cities that changes their lives irrevocably.

6. More Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops, Jen Campbell, Constable, 9781472106339. Been there, heard that – customers really do say strange things and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been asked for ‘Tess of the Dormobiles’ or worked with a colleague who directed a customer, asking for Primo Levi’s ‘Periodic Table’, to Women’s Health.

7. A Cross in the Heart of God, Samuel Wells, Canterbury Press, 9781786222930. Sam Wells is fast becoming the next Tom Wright, or Rowan Williams, or Alister McGrath – authors so prolific that booksellers have reserved spaces for them on their ‘New Titles’ stands. Wells, like his mentor Hauerwas, is uncompromising in his writing – in both style and content. Punches will not be pulled, nor concessions made in relation to the quavering faith and intellectual inabilities of his reader. Every time I finish one of his books I feel smaller, less confident in my own abilities. Simultaneously, I am expanded in spirit and challenged in life. Wells’s previous book on the cross, Hanging by a Thread, I found disappointing, but then, in reading the Introduction to this one, I find out that I wasn’t the target audience. A Cross in the Heart of God is a corker. The title says it all. The cross isn’t a response to the Fall, to sin, but was, is built into God’s being from before the beginning of time. There has always been a cross at the heart of God. God’s emptying and self-giving are not add-ons but integral to who God is. God has always loved us, will always love us and from the genesis of creation wanted to be with us, with us on equal terms in a relationship of true love. God with us. That’s the point. Not God for us. God with us. What more do you need to know?

8. Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 9780701169079. We bought the set of Birds, Flora and Fauna Britannicas as presents for my parents. When dad downsized, he gave them back to us. Birds Britannica has been my lunch-time lockdown reading for the past year. At last, I’ve finally finished it, and it was fascinating from start to finish, even though it is fifteen years out of date and a fair amount of the material I already knew or had turned up in (openly borrowed from Birds Britannica) A Sparrow’s Life’s as Sweet as Ours, which I read earlier this year. It includes plenty of folk history about our island bird-life, some fascinating names and stories, as well as pallet loads of statistics. Many of the stats showed the downward spiral of our bird populations, which have substantially worsened since 2005 (the latest edition was published in 2020).

This is no twitcher’s diary, it places birds in their social and cultural context, reminding us how many have contributed to place names, pubs and recipes. Over the centuries we’ve eaten an awfully large proportion of our native wildlife. Historical contributions abound, from many sources, but especially the great writer naturalists, such as Gilbert White and W.H. Hudson. Hudson is out of fashion now, his prose can be at times turgid or florid, however he wrote some classics of rural observation and reminiscence – Nature in Downland and A Shepherd’s Life being two of my favourites – and, as a founder member of the RSPB, influenced the birth of our modern conservation movement. Lovely also to see Janet Kear quoted, whose book Wildfowl and Man is one of the best bird books I’ve ever read.

Once again, in Birds Britannica, we have a book that details the disjunct between humanity and the species we share this earth with. That it does so in such a beautiful, informative and entertaining way is testament not just to the skill and knowledge of the authors but also to the fragile wonders that are our resident and migrant birds – tiny lives, lived fast and under much duress. Hopefully, I won’t have had time to complete the reading of the companion Flora and Fauna before lockdown is over and I find a new job.

9. Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell, Collins, 9780008241056.

10. Coming Down the Wye, Robert Gibbings, Dent (1943). Two blue bound books, two tales of journeying, both illustrated. Curlews feature in both. One was mildly disappointing, the other was a delight. Curlew Moon tells of Colwell’s walk across Ireland and the UK to all the traditional habitats of breeding curlew. Curlew breeding numbers are in freefall (although wintering migrants make it look as if there still plenty about), so you know this isn’t going to be a happy tale, however, there is something about Colwell’s writing style and her interactions with others that jarred for me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something was out of kilter about this book. Jessica Holm’s expert and detailed illustrations didn’t make up for deficiencies in the text – perhaps because they were too small and too grey. Colwell is passionate about doing something to change the awful wipe out of our breeding curlews, and she is getting on with that, which is great, but, for me, this book, while enlightening, sobering and evangelistic, didn’t recruit me to her specific cause.

Robert Gibbings’s wood engravings have all the immediacy, energy and impact that was missing in Jessica Holm’s. They are superbly vivid illustrations that beautifully counterpoint his tale’s many warmly observed vignettes. Gibbings a recounted his adventures in the same way that he created his engravings, they freely flow, yet are focussed and striking, giving a flavour of life on the route of the Wye through Wales. Written during war-time, when Gibbings was in the Home Guard, it rattles with the hint and hiss of conflict. It is also redolent of a lost pre-mechanisation agrarian world, where curlews lift from beneath your feet as you cross flower festooned meadows and redstarts nest above cottage windows. Curlew Moon is a reminder of stark a scorched earth of contemporary Britain. Coming Down the Wye drolly, decoratively, takes you back to the tipping point, when agricultural production began to seriously squeeze the wildness, the diversity, the goodness, out of nature.

10. Jack, Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 9780349011813. Part four of the Gilead novels. John Ames Boughton, ‘Jack’, son of a Presbyterian minister, and named after his father’s friend and fellow minister, John Ames, is the not-so-young man whose ne’er-do-well behaviour riffles through Gilead and Home, disturbing the small town equilibrium. Jack has been to prison, is a self-confessed ‘bum’, thief, drinker and general reckless chancer. He has also fallen for a young black school-teacher named Della, a love that is both reciprocated and illegal. Della’s father – a renowned pastor – and family are as disapproving of the match as is the prevailing white culture.

Pre-destination clatters through the bones of Jack’s life. He doesn’t want to be the way he is, he tries to live to harm others as little as possible and yet, he knows, just knows, that everything he does will have damaging consequences. Above all he doesn’t want to hurt Della, but then she is pregnant, her career is torn to rags and her family are about to elide her out of their history.

Robinson draws Jack with such gentle sympathy, quietly filling in the little details of his days, that I was willing him to rise above his conception of his destiny and to feel release, contentment, safety. But even when offered a break, it isn’t to be, his honesty brings fresh downfall. Jack may have done bad things, but he’s not a bad man. He’s never going to live up to the expectations be believes others (his father, his brother) have of him, yet the door of redemption is never, quite, fully closed on him. If there ever is a part five to this wonderful series then I do hope it is Della’s story and that she ushers in a new future not just for Jack, but also for the whole fractured, fevered, angry and divided nation.

11. Reimagining Britain, Justin Welby, Bloomsbury, 9781472984975. Much has changed in the world and the UK since Justin Welby’s first book Reimagining Britain was initially published in 2018, making the release of a revised and expanded second edition thoroughly worthwhile. It is a book with a bold scope, penetrating beneath layers of dis-ease, inequality and division that the double blows of Brexit and Covid-19 have exacerbated and brought to boiling point in Britain. Archbishop Welby unpacks some of the root causes of problems afflicting the basic building-blocks of society – family, health, education, housing and economics – that have risen to discomforting prominence, while clearly showing how the ways we respond to such issues are related directly to the values we hold. This gives him an entry-point to remind us of the Christian principles that underpin much of our national life. And here is where the subtitle ‘Foundations for Hope’ comes into play. Inspired by Catholic social teaching, which he describes as ‘the applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of social structures and social justice’, he suggests that where this teaching is lived out society flourishes, communities grow and insecurities recede. Through recourse to Scripture, social teaching and lived examples, he offers hopeful templates in each key area that have the potential to refresh a United Kingdom while also participating in the building of God’s Kingdom.

Of course, while his scope is wide-ranging, his suggested answers to deep-rooted issues are by necessity broad-brush, light on concrete policy proposals. But that, to some extent, must be so. While tackling the blight of contemporary political polarisation, this is not a political book; it (rightly I think) treads a neutral non-party line, but some might find such an approach frustrating.

However, this doesn’t stop Welby from proffering radical solutions to contentious issues, such as housing, outlining the shape of action he believes is required, showing how it might stand up to critical examination, and highlighting where it might be beneficial in promoting unity across and through communities. The Church of England’s recent report on UK housing, Coming Home, which was being prepared for publication while the Archbishop re-wrote this book, informs his thinking. He begins with the values described there: that housing should be safe, stable, sustainable, sociable and satisfying, clarifying what he means by each and going on to explain that biblical images of our flourishing in God’s presence show that ‘the purpose of housing was understood as creating communities and not merely building accommodation’. It’s about housing as homes, not investment opportunities, requiring a shift in thinking that prioritises the development of communities with thriving local economies and sustaining, life-enhancing infrastructure, while also minimising significant regional disparity in house prices thus encouraging greater mobility. This in turn stimulates the economy to prosper more equally across the country. Current competing housing markets, the Archbishop argues, ingrain inflexibility and deep injustices that cut directly against God’s will for flourishing communities. In response he provides pointers to solutions that promote resilience, stability, solidarity, subsidiarity and equality.

The impact of Brexit, Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter underpins the rewrite of a book that was already asking deep questions about the direction our countries have been taking. However, two areas left me uneasy. The Archbishop doesn’t substantially mention environmental issues until he addresses climate change directly nearly three-quarters of the way through the book. Yet unless we safeguard the integrity and the biodiversity of the planet radical reappraisals of education, housing, family, health and economics are doomed. Indeed, only when changes in these areas are directly integrated with environmental matters can a sustainable world and a truly just society blossom.

Linked to this is the Archbishop’s failure to search for economic ways forward other than capitalism. While trenchantly condemning austerity politics as a theory for the rich that crushes the poor and offering an enlightening interpretation of the parable of the talents that emphasises accountability, nowhere is there an attempt to reimagine a post-capitalist world. Tinkering with the capitalist model is not enough. The question needs to be asked whether an economic system whose success is predicated on the continual growth in markets, and thus in the increased use of finite resources, is compatible with environmental goals towards sustainability.

These two, major, caveats aside, there is much to commend in this book as a serious attempt to bring Christian principles to bear on the rebuilding of a fairer, more equitable society. Its strengths lie in drawing values and practices in line with each other, focusing on the five basic building-blocks of family, education, economics, housing and health as the means by which courageous, stable communities may flourish. Shining prophetic light on some vital truths concerning the current state of our nation, it offers future hope made possible through attending to the vision of God’s grace, justice and love.

12. Spirit of Place, Susan Owens, Thames & Hudson, 9780500252307. Artists and writers and the British landscape. A useful canter through the history of the arts and the landscape, which promises more than it delivers – or perhaps it wasn’t what I was hoping it would be. Very interesting concerning the development of landscape in the written and visual arts. But scant regard to the ‘Spirit’ part of the title, even when dealing with Samuel Palmer. Only really begins to grow into this aspect with Paul Nash Eric Ravilious and later, with Robert Macfarlane and the new writers on nature and place. Really misses its vocation by ignoring the way place weaves throughout the work of Ronald Blythe.

13. The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 9780241143810. One of the best Macfarlane books I’ve read, even though he is rather too in love with his own use of language. Humming with the spirit of place, Nash’s ‘marsh personages’ lurking in the corners of every page. Elegiac, mucky, sometimes self-righteous, disturbing, informative, ghostly and yet earthy. We are where we stand. We when we forget that our roots are in the soil we imperil ourselves and endanger the species we share this land with.

14. Crowning the Year, Tom Clammer, Canterbury Press, 9781786223395.

15. Landscape Liturgies, Nick Mayhew-Smith, Sarah Brush, Canterbury Press, 9781786223807. As a rural incumbent recently moved to a new benefice, I warmly welcome Tom Clammer’s Crowning the Year, a timely guide to aspects of rural ministry arising directly out of the author’s extensive experience. Setting the scene by describing two contrasting Gloucestershire benefices, he lays out distinctive characteristics of village church life, noting that where some see small, scattered congregations worshipping in ill-equipped, costly buildings, served by dwindling and under-resourced ministry teams, others find deeply pastoral, incarnational communities coterminous with local populations, church buildings that are valued signs of God-with-us, a higher percentage of parishioners attending than urban parishes and a significant proportion blessed with Church schools.

Such observations form a base from which to draw a theology and ecclesiology for rural ministry with a rhythm of public prayer at its heart. I especially appreciate the application of cell-church values across a rural benefice as means for exploring the challenges of balancing cell-sized numbers with the perceived desire for congregational worship. This approach feeds into a helpful framework for liturgical theology, providing practical pointers pertinent to multi-church contexts. When might ‘place’ take precedence over ‘story’ for instance?  Harvest and carol services might draw particular resonance from being embedded in their specific localities, whereas Ash Wednesday to Pentecost’s long march to the cross and resurrection may be more effective as a journey travelled together across the benefice.

Also covered is the celebration of the liturgical and agricultural years in a rural setting, albeit somewhat limited by its focus chiefly on authorised Anglican sources. While Chris Thorpe’s recent Ploughshares and First Fruits is referred to, there is no space for inclusion of either the Staffordshire Seven’s Seasonal Worship from the Countryside or the superlative resources from the Arthur Rank Centre’s ‘Germinate’ website, both of which I regularly use alongside material with contemporary Celtic origins. Nevertheless, Clammer’s is an immensely valuable title, serving both as a guide providing practitioners with fresh discipline and impetus, and as a reminder to the wider Church of the rich potential to be garnered from contemporary ministry in rural contexts up and down the land.

Landscape Liturgies, Nick Mayhew-Smith and Sarah Brush’s collection of ‘resources to celebrate and bless the earth’, which draws upon wide-ranging materials from across the Christian traditions, ties in well with Clammer’s rural ecclesiology. Where the latter urges us to move outside our buildings, here we encounter prayers and liturgies to do just that. Catholic, Orthodox and Methodist rituals rub shoulders with Syrian, Celtic and Saxon rites, alongside blessings for animals, outdoor spaces, trees, rivers, seas, hill and vale, agriculture and pilgrimage – a veritable feast of texts old and new, some beautiful, some lyrical, some eccentric; but all, if used judiciously, able to ‘read’ the state of our planet today. At times the authors have elided the language (allowing imprecations against demons to be re-envisioned as warding off pollution for example), but always aiming to maximise contemporary relevance, and they are keen to remind us to adapt liturgies to suit given situations. Although the rites collected here contain a mine of information and inspiration dating back to the early centuries of the Church, they often include complex texts requiring informed and flexible handling. However, when combined with vivid and appropriate symbolic actions (sickle-throwing is unlikely to pass a risk assessment!), they offer rich foundational material for the construction of profound new rituals to suit current circumstances, from the consecration of churchyard programmes to the blessing of flood defences, or even anaerobic digestors.

Ultimately, as Robert Macfarlane reminds us in The Old Ways, ‘landscape and nature are not there simply to be gazed at; no, they press hard upon and into our bodies and minds…’ and both these timely books go a long way in moving us from being ‘on’ to being ‘in’ our landscape and to understanding that we share the fruits of the incarnation with all creation.

16. When There Were Birds, Roy and Lesley Adkins, Little, Brown, 9781408713570. Descriptions of abundance, of skies filled with larks, vast and numerous murmurations of starlings, great lines of rooks travelling miles to nightly roosts, noted in private diaries and the public media from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, open this substantial social history of our interactions with the bird life of these isles. But early into the first chapter absence becomes as remarked upon as presence because by the 1820s commentators noticed how the increasing human population, the effects of enclosure, the clearing or draining of once inaccessible places, and subsequent planting with monoculture crops, had displaced large numbers of birds: there were fewer snipe for supper, fewer finches to cage and pest creatures – insects and rodents – had become rampant while their natural avian predators were being decimated.

Chapters covering birds as food, playthings, raw materials – for fuel, writing instruments, bedding – as vermin, sacred objects, fashion accoutrements and sport offer astute insights into our often highly unedifying treatment of our native fauna. In an age when the human population was small and methods of trapping relatively inefficient, a theology that saw the natural world as an endless abundance supplied by God for us to do with as we pleased had only modest effect on the sustainability of bird species; but once guns had become both effective and affordable, on top of  increasingly industrialised agriculture, the impact of our hunting, poisoning, caging and displacing of birds from their natural routines and habitats became noticeably detrimental.

If the twentieth century was dominated by the twin, competing tracks of chemically enhanced agri-business and rising awareness of our environmental plight, then, the authors conclude in a brief postscript, this progressively detailed scientific, ecological, aesthetic and cultural understanding of the crucial parts diverse bird species play in our lives offers hope that we can make a significant difference in halting their decline. With its wide-ranging, informative text, extensive notes and commendably comprehensive index, When There Were Birds makes its own vital contribution to our perception of our relationship with creation, providing further stimulus for us to achieve an environmental renaissance.

17. From Manchester with Love, Paul Morley, Faber and Faber, 9780571252497. A 600 page love story, ostensibly packaged as a biography of Tony Wilson – Anthony H. Wilson – TV presenter, situationist, founder of Factory Records and the Haçienda, cultural originator, band manager, eccentric businessman, Jag devotee, complicated, explosive, foolish, daring, spirited, spiritual, stoned. It is a love story of Wilson for Manchester, Wilson for Wilson, Wilson for popular music as art that matters, Morley for Wilson, Morley for the city he left, Morley for the time when pop mattered, was revolution, was art, was life, was biblical.

Brilliantly cut with a thousand, thousand facets each reflecting, refracting, focussing and diffusing many of the swirling, contradictory, chaffing, genius elements of a complicated man syringing colour, vibrancy, energy, challenge through a city grey with decay. This is a great read, warty, carbuncled, polished, shiny, but murky, gleaming and glooming all at once. It isn’t a definitive biography – of man, Manchester, or of the post war, pre social media age – but it evokes, illuminates, re-mystifies them all. I loved it from start to finish – felt a deep sadness in the closing descriptions of the shutting down of Wilson’s body as cancer took control, but it left enough sense of the gone but not forgotten to remind us all to cherish the maverick, the makers, the disturbers of the peace, the visionary.

18. Treacle Walker, Alan Garner, Fourth Estate, 9780008477790. A slim hardback with large print yet pooling the same intensity that has pumped through every Garner book I have read. There are worlds, universes, cultures, mythologies, folk histories, belief systems packed into these 70 pages, all wrapped up in a young lad’s illness. Nothing in his worlds is every quite level, the focus is always shifting and the horizon is forever hazy as one reality bleeds onto another and another. Easily readable in one sitting this little novel will take much more than that to unpack and digest. Liminality is the birthing stool, the cradle and womb for all of Garner’s writing and there is no one who does it so convincingly and so perceptively. Unsettling and lovely.

19. The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman, Viking, 9780241425428. Guilty pleasures time – will this be the book that gets me back into reading fiction? Having enjoyed the R4 adaptation of the first Thursday Murder Club novel, I thought I would give this a whirl. Enjoyable characters, twisty, fun plotting and a satisfying, everything tied-up ending. True, this is the sort of book I would normally get from the library rather than purchase in hard back, but as a bit of nonsense to end the year with it was terribly jolly and cheering.

20. Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, Robyn Wrigley-Carr, SPCK, 9780281085507. I shall need to re-read and re-read this book a chapter a day for sometime to come as it is full of spiritual riches and challenges. Many years ago, when studying at King’s College, London, I remember being shown Evelyn Underhill’s notebooks and diaries by Dr Grace Jantzen as part of a course on Mysticism. Over the years I have learnt a little more about Underhill and have found that her writings to be perceptive, approachable but not easy, she does have a tendency to push your thinking about how, when, why we meet with God. She believes that we are all able to be in touch with God if we are prepared to put in some hard work. Robyn Wrigley-Carr offers 28 carefully constructed chapters constructed from suitable extracts of Underhill’s writings, to take us on a journey into the heart of revelation. For someone writing around a hundred years ago, Underhill’s thinking is very much in tune with current needs and issues. She is positive, but challenging – meeting with God requires both taking up and letting go but has the possibility of being quite transformative.

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