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My books of 2019

29 November 2019

Keen readers tell the Church Times about their favourite books of the year

See gallery for other book covers

See gallery for other book covers

Rachel Mann

The Book of Dust, Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Penguin, £20 (£18); 978-0-241-37333-0)

PHILIP PULLMAN’s ability to build immersive fantasy worlds is legend. The Secret Commonwealth catches up with his beloved character Lyra Silvertongue, nearly a decade on from her adventures in the His Dark Materials sequence. Fans of the original series — a knowledge of which is helpful but not necessary to enjoy this book — may be shocked by the uncompromisingly adult themes. Gone is Lyra’s genius for chutzpah and improvisation, to be replaced by adult doubt, uncertainty, and loneliness. By turns disturbing, sprawling, and shocking, The Secret Commonwealth whets the appetite for the closing volume of Pullman’s latest trilogy.

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University. Her latest book is In the Bleak Midwinter: Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti (Canterbury Press, 2019). Listen to an interview with her at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

A. N. Wilson

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill, and edited by Kenneth Haynes (OUP, £20 (£18); 978-0-19-882952-2)

SOMEONE — Gide, probably — when asked who was the greatest French poet, replied, “Victor Hugo — hélas!” Somewhat how one feels about Geoffrey Hill, who was the greatest contemporary poet, damn him. His posthumous work The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is a wonderful combination of visionary genius, cross old git, and lyric majesty. It has been my companion since its appearance in the spring. Crammed with interest. Disturbing. Infuriating and sometimes pretentious nonsense. There is no doubting Hill’s greatness. Hélas!

A. N. Wilson is a writer and newspaper columnist. He is the author of Prince Albert (Atlantic Books, 2019). This title is reviewed here

Mark Oakley

September 1, 1939: A biography of a poem by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-00-755721-9)

W. H. AUDEN remains one of my favourite poets. This book is about just one of his poems, and one that he didn’t like very much. It is a poem that people turn to, however, in personal and political crisis. It is fresh poetry for stale times, and, as such, is ripe for rereading now. Ian Sansom dives into it, and the waters from his plunge fly off in every direction. It is a book of detours and off-track trails — always the best kind. “All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie,” Auden writes. We need him urgently.

Canon Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Elizabeth Oldfield

Joy: 100 poems, edited by Christian Wiman (Yale, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-300-22608-9)

MY BOOK of the year is a collection of poetry, Joy, edited by Christian Wiman. The poems themselves, collected from a wide range of familiar and new voices, are a source of regular consolation, challenge, and insight. It is the power of the introductory essay, “Still Wilderness”, however, which most lingers. This year, suffering seems everywhere, and this intelligent, subtle, downright beautiful invitation into joy — not as denial, or escape, but as a necessary prerequisite for justice — has been a balm.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the director of Theos.

Richard Chartres

The Boundless Sea: A human history of the oceans by David Abulafia (Allen Lane, £35 (£31.50); 978-1-846-14508-7)

AS WESTERN hegemony fades, and a new multi-polar world emerges, a new style of global history is needed to help us navigate the future. The Boundless Sea tells a story of the seaborne merchants, pirates, and missionaries who have fashioned the world in which we live. Together with Professor Abulafia’s previous book on the Mediterranean, The Boundless Sea, it provides an up-to-date survey of ancient texts and recent discoveries in a richly detailed narrative that illuminates our interconnected world.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

Michael Arditti

Stalingrad: A novel by Vasily Grossman (Harvill Secker, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-846-55579-4)

The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson (Sceptre, £18.99 (£17.09); 978-1-473-65452-5)

THE Booker Prize judges failed to narrow their choice to a single winner this year; so I trust that I will also be allowed to split my vote and select two novels of very different style, scope, and setting, but equal excellence. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is a magnificent epic about Russian resistance to the Nazi invasion of 1942, an essential companion piece to his earlier Life and Fate.

Jill Dawson’s beautifully evoked and deeply engaging The Language of Birds tells of a young nanny in 1970s London, whose employers bear a striking resemblance to the Lucans.

Michael Arditti is a novelist and critic. His latest book is Of Men and Angels (Arcadia Books, 2018). He has a new novel out in May 2020, Anointed.

Cole Moreton

The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry by Mark Oakley (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-84825-468-8)

IMAGINE you have a friend who is warm, witty, and learned. He chooses poems for you to read that he loves or that move him, that wrestle with belief or offer something to believe in. He’s smart but gentle, explaining the background, unpicking the meaning, and helping you to wonder whether the words might have an impact on your life. Imagine no more. Let Mark Oakley be that friend, because this book is an absolute treasure (Books, 26 November 2016).

Cole Moreton is a writer and broadcaster whose debut novel is The Lightkeeper (Marylebone House, 2019).

Rhidian Brook

The Crossway by Guy Stagg (Picador, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-5098-4459-3)

THE memoir of a young man’s walk from Canterbury to Istanbul offers some salve in a world beset by anxiety and mental anguish, fuelled by technological rush and fast travel. Its author, Guy Stagg, makes a pilgrimage across Europe via the old pilgrims’ route known as the Crossways, into history and the (troubled) interior of his soul. He takes us on a journey full of wonder and woe, poetry and pain, writing in prose that’s as sure-footed as it is unsettling in its honesty. A brave and beautiful account of a man’s search for meaning (Books, 3 August 2018; Faith, 10 August 2018).

Rhidian Brook is a novelist. His latest book is The Killing of Butterfly Joe (Picador, 2018).

Mim Skinner

Unicorn: Memoir of a Muslim drag queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi (Fourth Estate, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-00-830606-9)

AMROU’s memoir, published in October, is warm, funny, and honest. Amrou takes us on a journey from feeling anger towards the religion that he was raised in, with its restrictions and oppressive cultural norms, to finding a loving God once again through drag. Although they speak from the perspective of growing up within the Muslim faith, their journey speaks to the wider experience of growing up with someone else’s faith and cultural identity, and being on a journey to finding your own.

Mim Skinner is an author and co-founder of REfUSE. Her latest book is Jailbirds (Orion, 2019).

Chine McDonald

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri (Allen Lane, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-241-30834-9)

DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR, by the journalist and academic Emma Dabiri, is a book I never knew I needed. Spanning centuries of race relations, body image among black women, and socio-political commentary, this book would have been an immense help to my teenage self. For women who have grown up black, it provides a much-needed basis for wrestling with our complicated relationship with our hair, and zooms out to show that this very personal relationship is actually the result of a number of social constructs. Witty, moving, and packed with insights.

Chine McDonald is head of Media and PR at Christian Aid.

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