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Unputdownable (outside office hours)

28 November 2014

Our books of the year: a handful of recommendations from the chairman and staff members of Hymns Ancient & Modern, publishers of the Church Times

I THINK it may have been Oddbins that popularised the trend of attaching handwritten recommendations from its staff alongside various bottles on its shelves. Certainly, the practice is now widespread. Those who work in a business, even in relatively junior positions, often have clearer insights than so-called experts.

We are shy of claming expertise here, but people who work in the Hymns Ancient & Modern group of publishing companies usually have a book on the go - though, as shown below, few of the titles are religious.

Anyway, we asked a few of our colleagues to name the book that they have most enjoyed in the past few months.

Paul Handley, editor, Church Times 

A Tour of Bones: Facing fear and looking for life by Denise Inge (Bloomsbury, £16.99 (CT special price £14.99); 978-1-4729-1307-4)

No one is going to be harsh about this book, given that it is published posthumously. But it makes a profound and brilliant read. Denise Inge died on Easter Day, having been diagnosed with inoperable cancer a year earlier, as she was finishing the book. It tells of her visits to four charnel houses across Europe - collections of human bones, starkly displayed, which prompt researches into mortality, hope, and living life to the full. What makes her writing so valuable is her refusal to have the experience but miss the meaning. After being moved, intrigued, or overwhelmed at the skulls and femurs she sees, she winkles away at what they are saying to her. She won't rest until she has incorporated them into her wider intellectual curiosity, theological explorations, and emotional responses. Now that I find myself in a slightly similar position (with a few more years, if the cancer treatment works), her writing has become a wise and sympathetic guide.

Rachel Boulding, deputy editor, Church Times 

The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (new revised edition, 2014) by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing, £18.95 (£17.05) pbk; 978-0-95649-026-1) 

An encounter with a Painted Lady on Hampstead Heath sent me scurrying back to the bookshop, and amid the panoply of books about lepidoptera, this is the one. Not the one to take out with you into the field on a summer's day, but the one to curl up with on a winter's night, when you can marvel at the glorious illustrations and richly informative accounts of these achingly beautiful miracles of existence.

Frank Nugent, senior bookseller and buyer, Church House Bookshop, Westminster

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the epic story of the Taiping Civil War  by Stephen Platt (Atlantic Books, £14.99 (£13.50) pbk; 978-0-85789-768-8) 

Stephen Platt's magnificent book sets the Taiping Rebellion, by far the bloodiest of 19th-century wars, in its international context, and particularly its relation to the American Civil War, with which it overlapped. The Taiping leaders, we are shown, were serious about their Christianity, as also about friendship with the West, and learning from Western science and technology. Platt succeeds in presenting British and Western decisions eventually to support the Qing reactionaries against them as a tragedy for China, world Christendom, and the future of the world.

Christopher Currie, Gazette editor, Church Times

The Real Jane Austen: A life in small things by Paula Byrne (William Collins, £9.99 (£9) pbk; 978-0-007-35834-2) 

This book introduces new angles on Austen's life and writing by focusing on small items. At times, the link seems tenuous - is it likely that the reason Austen fainted about moving to Bath was because her aunt had recently stolen some lace there? Some memorable insights do result, however: a Benjamin West painting of Christ moved her to refer to "our saviour".

Stephen Rogers, production director 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Abacus, £8.99 (£8.10) pbk; 978-0-3491-3963-0)

The cast of richly drawn, eccentric characters in The Goldfinch populate a story whose narrative drive takes you on a switchback ride towards a dénouement that is worthy of Quentin Tarantino. It is, simultaneously, a literary masterpiece exploring the complexity of love, loss, and coming of age, and a page-turning adventure story that leaves you satisfyingly wrung out. An American classic.

Malcolm Doney, features editor, Church Times

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail, £7.99 (£7.20) pbk; 978-1-84668-966-6)

It was with trepidation that I put this forward as my choice for the book club I attend. To say that they are a picky bunch is an understatement. Thankfully, though, this Booker Prize runner-up was an all-round hit. In equal measures funny and desperately sad, the unravelling of this big family secret will leave you completely beside yourself.

Geraldine Hawkes, office manager 

Parliament: The biography. Volume 1: Ancestral voices by Chris Bryant (Doubleday, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-85752- 068-5) 

As I wrote earlier this year (Books, 18 July), the first volume of Chris Bryant's Parliament: The biography is splendid, and was by far the best new book that I had the pleasure of reading this year. It is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the ups and downs of early and early-modern parliamentary history, full of interesting information and entertaining detail. A copy of the second volume (Books, 12 September) is already sitting on my desk, ready to be taken down to the country at Christmas.

Serenhedd James, Church Times editorial team

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-224-10199-8)

The Children Act is definitely one of the best books I have read this year, and one that raises many questions - legal, theological, and ethical. It is classic book-club material, with much food for thought and discussion. It is a good read, but an incredibly haunting one. (This title is reviewed on page IV)

Natalie K. Watson, senior commissioning editor for SCM Press 

Bridget Jones: Mad about the boy by Helen Fielding (Vintage, £7.99 (£7.19) pbk; 978-0-0995-8443-8)

The latest instalment of Bridget Jones is more of the same, but now with social media. It is observational humour and trials of dating while parenting which make this episode of Bridget's life much more endearing. This book is an innocent pleasure, and made me laugh a lot. Although it is 20-ish years on from her first appearance, it is nice to see that Bridget has matured no more than I have.

Naomi James, production assistant, Church Times 

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, £12.99 (£11.70) pbk; 978-1-4088-5172-2) 

Everyone knows about Kim Philby, but Macintyre shows that we did not know the half of it. This book is as compelling as any thriller. The loyalty and friendship of James Angleton and Nicholas Elliott, Philby's CIA and MI6 colleagues, was matched by Philby's treacherous loyalty to his Soviet masters. Not my sort of book, I thought, but I could not put it down.

Stephen Platten, chairman of the Hymns A&M charitable trust 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-84408-880-5)

Lila is the third book in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead series. Lila, homeless, ignites a conversation that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of the minister John Ames. I have read all three books, and Lila is my favourite, as she undergoes the most change. She tries to learn from scripture, and others, asking many questions about life. She still struggles to belong, and to accept that things are her due. (This title is reviewed here)

Paul Edwards, bookseller, Church House Bookshop, Westminster


Second Eve, Second Adam: the main Christmas Books cover picture is Holy Family by Pieter Coecke van Aelst and work­shop, c.1530-35 (M-Museum, Leuven); from Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance tapestry, by Elizabeth Cleland, with Maryan W. Ainsworth, Stijn Alsteens, and Nadine M. Orenstein, a lavishly illustrated book, the first devoted to Coecke for half a century.
It accompanies an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 11 January (MMA, distributed by Yale, £45 (£40.50); 978-0-300-20805-4)

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