2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D


As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…


I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!


Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“…troublesome history thought long since entombed is emerging again” #underland @RobGMacfarlane


Underland by Robert Macfarlane

So often I seem to end the year with a stupendous read, and this most ghastly 2020 is no different. And once again I am faced with a book that is so immense that I am unsure how to write about it – but I will try!

The book in question is “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s received so many plaudits that I feel slightly humbled trying to decide what to say about it. I first read Macfarlane back in 2013 when I failed to completely gel with his “The Old Ways”; I now wonder if it was right book, wrong time and fortunately I kept it so am very keen now to revisit it (particularly after listening to the Backlisted Christmas edition on “The Dark is Rising”). More recently I read his pamphlet “The Gifts of Reading” which brought me great joy; so when I heard about “Underland” I was of course very keen to read it; but I held off until the paperback came out, and then got a copy earlier this year. I was waiting for the right time to read the book, and this was certainly it.

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.

Macfarlane’s writing is actually difficult to categorise (which I like); it encompasses nature, travel, science, history, people, the world… well, you get the picture. This book ranges far and wide and digs deeply into life and history on our small blue green planet. “Underland” takes as its premise the exploration of what lies beneath our feet; we consider that we are in solid ground, never particularly thinking on a daily basis about the earth upon which we stand. However, as Macfarlane proves with his explorations, our grounding is anything but stable…

Cities have long been vertical. When Christopher Wren excavated the foundations of the Old Saint Paul’s after the Great Fire he found a row of Anglo-Saxon graves lined with chalk-stones, beneath which were pre-Saxon Coffins holding ivory and wooden shroud pins. At a still greater depth were Roman potsherds and cremation urns, red as sealing wax and embellished with greyhounds and stags, and beneath those were the periwinkles and other seashells that spoke of the ocean that had once covered the area.

And those explorations are incredibly wide-ranging; channelling sources from Calvino to Don De Lillo, Macfarlane discovers what is hidden but always there, and it can be unnerving at times. He visits deep and distant cave systems; discovers cave paintings by beings who lived on this planet thousands of years before us; explores parts of the Paris Catacombs never seen by casual visitors; and reveals the fungal systems under the surface ground which tie together plant lives in ways we have only just begun to understand. He travels to extreme landscapes of the north, witnessing the changes taking place to the frozen parts of our world, much of which is below our sight line but which affects our world deeply; and chillingly, he witnesses the steps needing to be taken to ensure our ancestors are not left with a buried time bomb…

It’s hard, without just throwing superlatives about, to convey just how deeply profound “Underland” is; Macfarlane is dealing here with things far beyond the human scale. The planet records and recalls events from deep time, whether coded into ice or into rocks; and if you know the language (as many of those he encounters do), you can read back far beyond written history. “Underland” gives you the sense of being a tiny blip in an epically long history; its scope is immense and the book is not just about going underground in the sense of lifting the turf; this is really deep exploration, under ice, land and sea, and Macfarlane visits places to which few have been. I have to say how much I admire his grit; as a claustrophobe, I would struggle with many of the small spaces into which he has to squeeze and he is honest enough to admit feeling uncomfortable when he’s in situations which had me squirming just reading about them!

Paris Catacombs (Dale Cruse from San Francisco, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are important issues to expound upon here, and Macfarlane being the man he is, there is of course exploration of ecological aspects. He never lays things on with a trowel, but there is no doubt from his discussion of our treatment of the planet and the effects on it long term that we are at a serious point in human history. Just about everywhere he travels, Macfarlane encounters human waste – plastics in the sea, unwanted dross dumped over cliffs – and it’s depressing to hear about this.

Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

Macfarlane’s observations about the melting ice, underground mining for all manner of resources and what this is doing to the Earth are actually scary in places and made me want to drop everything and go out and join Greta Thunberg in her campaigning.  The effects of the oil industry on the planet are particularly shocking; even though I was aware of the problems being caused, the book pushes this firmly into focus so you can’t ignore it. The contrasts between Macfarlane’s exploration of natural underlands and the hellish man-made places designed for nuclear waste are striking. We really *do* seem to want to destroy this lovely little planet, don’t we?

Urban exploration might be best defined as adventurous trespass in the built environment. Among the requirements for participation are claustrophilia,  lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift the manhole covers, and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions.

However, despite the heavier elements of the book, it’s an engrossing read from start to finish. Just following Macfarlane’s journeys (which I believe took place over a period of ten years) is breathtaking enough; he captures the landscapes, underground regions and peoples he meets vividly, glimpsing the beauty and terror which can found on Earth, and he is always human and humane in his encounters. It’s a work which which emphasises our connection with all aspects of the world around us; as Macfarlane points out at one point, “We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well of the land. It is mineralization – the ability to convert calcium into bone – that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.”

Greenland Ice Sheet (Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

An additional element is that the book is so beautifully written; eloquent and elegant, Macfarlane’s prose shimmers off the page and is eminently readable. Profound, compelling and unforgettable, “Underland” is an epic work of exploration and scholarship (and I’ve really only scratched the surface here); it will most likely change your relationship with our planet (it has mine). “Underland” will definitely feature in my Books of the Year round-up and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


As a coda, I thought I would point you towards the Christmas Day edition of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast. As I mentioned above, Robert Macfarlane was one of the guests on this edition, discussing “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper, a book I first read longer ago than I would care to acknowledge. Backlisted is always joyous listening and this is a particularly fine episode; and it was perfect company just after finishing “Underland”, as it seems that Cooper’s book informs Macfarlane’s work… You can find it here – if you’re a regular listener you’re in for a treat. If you’re not a regular listener  why not?????


The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane


When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

Recent Reads: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane


This review is not one I’ve been looking forward to writing, I have to confess. As I’ve hinted, I’ve been struggling to finish this book, and this is frustrating for a number of reasons: I came to the book with high expectations; it’s been very highly rated on blogs that I read; and I ended up pretty disgruntled about having in effect wasted several days on it. This will probably sound a somewhat harsh review, and I appreciate that the majority will probably not agree with me, but let me try to explain…

“The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane was published last year to rave reviews, and it’s the third in a series of books he’s written about his travels; and it might have helped if I’d read the first two, but I have seen it said that you don’t need to. It’s billed as a book about old paths, with Macfarlane wandering ancient tracks which criss-cross Britain, its waters and overseas continents – the blurb has that it combines natural history, cartology, geology, archaeology and literature. And thinking about it, maybe that statement should have flagged something up to me.

The book is divided into sections – Tracking, Following, Roaming etc – with each section having chapters with the title of the element which is focused upon – Chalk, Silt, Water and so on. Macfarlane starts by following old paths, but soon his narrative radiates off into a variety of directions, and we are discussing the works and life of Edward Thomas, ghosts, bronze age barrows, Morecambe whelk pickers, ancient history and the odd hint of the modern world. Alas, I quickly lost any connection I made with the author and his travels and as the book continued I had to struggle to keep reading it. The author is constantly dropping references to other walkers, writers, artists etc into the text, but in a very disconnected way, which is disorienting and I found it hard to stay with what he was saying. The writing is so elaborate that I actually found it hard to translate it into any kind of description and it got in the way. I didn’t like the writing style at all – he favours either short, clipped bursts of description which are irritating, or longer, wordy pieces that convey nothing. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, he needed to have “more love for the complete sentence”.

The trouble is, this book is as rambling and meandering as an old trail, and maybe that was the point. But it ends up being frustrating because of its lack of focus, and the language is just too florid – which is an unusual thing for me to say, because I’m a great fan of convoluted sentences! Some reviewers have commented on the fact that the book is so much about Macfarlane, but in itself I wouldn’t have found this a problem as most travel writing I’ve read is invested with the personality of the writer. However, I found a lack of connection – with the landscapes and seas, and with Macfarlane himself. Parts of the book worked beautifully, but too much of it didn’t, and too often Macfarlane lapsed into a series of staccato phrases to describe a place or event.

And despite all his endless pontificating, there did seem to be a lack of depth and detail. Comparisons are odious, they say, but I found myself constantly comparing TOW; most often with Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital”, a book I read a year or two ago in which the author walked round the M25 in a number of journeys. This latter book is a dense, involving read, and did indeed send me off in search of other works; but Sinclair’s work itself was deep, coherent and thoughtful, with much more of a structure and purpose. LO restricted itself to a finite area – the M25 – and because of this its author was able to be detailed about his walks and what he experienced, and also about the things he encountered on the way and the tangents on which he went off. With TOW we get just a short paragraph or two on a particular side interest, and these can be scattered at different points of the book and are very surface level. And rather surprisingly, Macfarlane seems to venture little in the way of a personal opinion – does he feel strongly about the massacre of baby puffins? or the destruction of the natural world by the modern? or the fact that his book might affect the wilderness and tracks he writes about by encouraging more people to take to them? Any in-depth analysis seems to be missing from the book, and the actual sections of writing about the walking itself feel quite short and don’t give you much sense of walking alongside the author.

I think I’m quite a tolerant reader, and I have read *a lot* of books about walking and travelling – from George Borrow (much mentioned in TOW), through H.V. Morton, Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee, Colin Thubron, Eric Newby and up to more modern walkers like Nicholas Crane. I’ve got a lot from all of these writers – different things from different books – but I’ve never struggled with one of their books like I did with this one. When I got to the chapter about Edward Thomas, I skipped it – whatever his merits, what has a whole chapter about the life and death of a poet (albeit one who was a great walker) got to do with a book that’s subtitled “A Journey on Foot”?

I really wanted to like this book, and there were parts of it I did – the luminous descriptions of the chalk pathways of the south; the walk over the glistening sands of Essex. But too much of TOW has sent me off to read other writers who have written better about walking the British Isles and I’m afraid Macfarlane just didn’t engage me enough. I think the bottom line for me is that Macfarlane just didn’t know whether he wanted to write a philosophical study of the art and history of walking, a record of his own walks, a biography of Edward Thomas or a book about all his artist friends. In the end, he combined them all into one mishmash which didn’t work for me. 😦
(On a side note, and perhaps something that is nothing to do with the author, I had a couple of issues with the physical book itself. Firstly, a big pricey hardback of this nature could do with more illustrations than a dark and dingy photo printed at the beginning of each chapter on ordinary paper. Secondly, maps – although some of the travels that Macfarlane was making were mental as well as physical, maps showing locations would have been a bit essential in my view, for those of us who are a little geographically challenged, or indeed for readers from other countries who have no idea where somewhere like Foulness is. Yes, we can all look at an atlas or the Internet – but map(s) would have improved this book.)

Birthday Bookishness!


It was my birthday at the weekend (I’m not saying which one….) and my family were kind enough to spoilt me with some very bookish gifts! Some of these were as a result of hints, but some they came up with on their own, so I was very pleased (to say the least!)



First up, other half very cleverly found a couple of books on Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, with unreleased stories. As a life-long lover of Dame Agatha’s work, this was a great treat!


Next up, Youngest Child presented me with a beautiful US Penguin edition of “Little Women” to replace my childhood volume which I’ve lost over the  years. This has a lovely faux-embroidered cover and the ragged-cut edges US paperbacks have – gorgeous!


Middle Child produced a rather wonderful treat in the form of a signed copy of Will Self’s latest novel, “Umbrella”! I love Self’s work and saw him give a very funny talk and reading session a few years back. He did the same thing recently in her local town and she went along and picked up a personalised copy for me, which I’m very excited about!

old ways

And Eldest Child went to my wish list, circulated among family, and came up trumps with Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’ve read a lot about this book recently so I’m very much looking forward to reading it.


Last but not least on the bookish front, OH treated me to a CD – a BBC/British Library collection of Sylvia Plath (and Ted Hughes) interviews and readings – much excitement!

So I am in the luxurious position of having lots of reading material to choose from and not knowing what to pick up first – thank you, lovely family!

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