Tag Archives: Stephen Moss

The Last Book of the Year

At the beginning of 2014 I wrote one of those posts that I thought was just for my own satisfaction but which generated some interesting discussion. It was called ‘the first book of the year’ and it covered a decade of reading, all neatly recorded in a notebook that I still keep. I know we’re not yet done with 2015 but it’s a safe bet that I won’t finish another book before we are so I thought I’d write a counterpart. That first post was also a test of what I remembered about each book. So, two years further into middle-aged memory syndrome – that ‘what did I come into the kitchen for?’ state that will be all too familiar to some of you – here are a decade’s worth of my last books of the year.

Cover image2006: The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan And I’m off to a bad start here. I’m sorry to tell you that I remember little or nothing about O’Nan’s novel, although I know that it had supernatural overtones leaning towards horror. I’ve a feeling I read this in preparation for some magazine work as it hardly seems up my usual alley.

2007: Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson I read this because I’m a Thomson fan. No one could accuse him of endlessly ploughing the same furrow: this year’s Katherine Carlyle leapt into the twenty-first century after Secrecy‘s exploration of Medici court politics. I remember that the eponymous murderer was Myra Hindley, one of the infamous Moors Murderers, who had died several years before.

2008: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale This one’s easy. It was one of those titles that Richard and Judy made into a bestseller, naming it as one of their book club choices in the days when that meant shifting shed loads of books for booksellers. It’s about an artist, as its title suggests, whose death uncovers many secrets the revelation of which rock her family. Having been a Gale fan since The Aerodynamics of Pork way back when, it was a delight to see it race up the bestseller charts.

2009: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde I’m going to forgive myself for forgetting which particular Fforde this is. They’re very funny – the kind of books that irritate your partner as you snigger your way through them – but instantly forgettable.

2010: A Single Man by Christopher IsherwoodCover image Unusually for me these days, this was a re-read prompted by Tom Ford’s beautiful film. Set in the early ‘60s, it’s the story of a gay English professor teaching in California, left devastated by the death of his lover whose family shut him out, sweeping their relationship neatly under the carpet.

2011: A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan I feel I should remember this in great detail – I enjoyed it very much at the time and it isn’t that long ago – but all that comes to mind is that it involved two characters from the music industry who worked together, and that it wandered about all over the world.

2012: Alligator by Lisa Moore Same goes for Lisa Moore’s Alligator which I read having enjoyed February so much. Surprisingly that’s the one I remember despite reading it several years before. It’s the story of a woman widowed while pregnant when her husband’s oil rig sinks, and her long slow emergence from grief. As for Alligator, well I’m not at all sure…

2013: Wild Hares and Humming Birds by Stephen Moss Not a novel, Wild Hares.. was a birthday present, given to me because of a newly awakened interest in nature writing. It’s a year of the Moss’s reflections on what he saw around him on the Somerset Levels, not a million miles away from where I live. I’d love to tell you that we, in the West Country, are beset by humming birds but the title refers to the hummingbird hawk-moth, which I remember seeing once at Abbotsbury Gardens.

2014: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton Also not a novel, this is chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir. I remember it for its gorgeous descriptions of food and the many places that Hamilton has eaten and cooked it with friends and family. It’s a glorious celebration of all those things – I’m tempted to use that tired old cliché ‘life-affirming’ to describe it.

2015: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo This seems an appropriate last book for this year given Naomi over at The Writes of Women and Dan’s Twitter initiative #DiverseDecember, now extended to #ReadDiverse2016. Bulawayo’s novel is set in Zimbabwe against the backdrop of Robert Mugabe’s destruction of tens of thousands of homes in 2005, seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Darling and her friends. Darling eventually joins her aunt in America only to find life there is not quite what she expected. Both funny and heart-wrenching, it’s a strikingly vivid piece of writing.

That’s my last, somewhat nerdy post of 2015. I’d love to know what your last book of the year is, present or past.

Findings and the new nature writing

Cover imageThis post was prompted by my finishing Kathleen Jamie’s Findings which seems to me to be a perfect example of what I’ve been calling in my head the ‘new nature writing’. Jamie is an acclaimed poet and it shows in her wonderfully pared back descriptions of tracking the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplating salmon jumping on a Highland river and the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

I’m not entirely sure that there is a new nature writing but in my years as a book reviews editor I noticed more of it being published by the likes of Granta, Sort of Books, Faber and Penguin and found myself drawn to it, starting with Roger Deakin’s beautifully evocative Wildwood which led me to Notes from Walnut Tree Farm and Waterlog. Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country took me all over the UK in search of wild otters while naturalist Stephen Moss’s Wild Hares and Humming Birds brought me back home to Somerset. Moss moved his family from London to the village of Mark in the Levels and his book is made up of a year’s observations of the surrounding natural world. One of its most heartening aspects is the joy and enthusiasm with which his children embrace nature. There’s much more to explore here, I know – I’ve already added Jamie’s Sightlines to my list  – but one writer I have read and will not be revisiting is Robert Macfarlane, a bit too self-consciously literary for me. While Kathleen Jamie is a fine example of a poet writing about nature letting its qualities shine out, uncluttered by ornamentation, Macfarlane can never seem to resist over-egging the pudding. If you’ve come across any Jamie-like gems I’d love to hear about them.