What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they’ve enjoyed in January

In this new series we’ll be asking authors, Guardian writers and readers to sharewhat they’ve been reading recently. This month, recommendations include a damning biography of Robert Maxwell, a mind-bending mystery novel and a delicious history of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Tell us what you’ve been reading in the comments.

One of the nicest things I find about going through a non-fiction spell is that a great book naturally leads me into its related territories, and the books I find there push me onward again. I can see with hindsight the widening concentric circles of my reading all making sense of one another in a comforting way, a way that makes the world seem like something a person could figure out and touch the sides of if they really tried.

At the beginning of the year I happened across a 2004 Guardian article by the older sister of the writer Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002. It was critical of a memoir by Ann Patchett named Truth and Beauty which recounted Patchett’s friendship with Lucy. Intrigued, I went on to first read Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face, a precise, beautifully written account of her childhood cancer and resulting facial disfigurement and multiple plastic surgeries. I then read Patchett’s memoir about their relationship, the proximity of the two texts making me appreciate anew how incomplete any single perspective on a shared relationship is.

Reading the brilliant Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe about the Sackler family and the creation of the opioid crisis in America, led me on to one of his source materials, Pain Killer by Barry Meier. Its publication in 2003 led to Purdue Pharma convincing Meier’s employer the New York Times to remove him from his opioid beat, claiming that the book represented a conflict of interest. I also read Dope Sick by Beth Macy, published in 2018, which comes to the epidemic in a much more advanced stage, following a devastating array of outcomes that could scarcely have been imagined a few decades ago.

In fiction this month I binged Maeve Binchy, who died 10 years ago. I reread Tara Road, whose punishingly rendered romantic betrayal left me winded in a way it did not when I first thumbed through as a teenager, and then read four more in the space of two weeks, and now I’m not sure I’ll ever really enjoy another non-Binchy novel again in my life.

My standout of January, though, was the rightly lauded Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston, which achieved the nigh-on impossible by exposing the psychic wounds that lay beneath Maxwell’s deranged personal behaviour and wicked professional conduct, without undermining the seriousness of his actions.

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan is now out in paperback (Vintage £8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

January has been a month of hunkering down with a big, big stack of books. As one of the judges for the Costa book awards this year, I have been immersing and re-immersing myself in the five category winners announced earlier in the month – the debut novel by Caleb Azumah Nelson, Open Water; best novel winner Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller; John Preston’s rollicking biography Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell; The Crossing, Manjeet Mann’s young adult novel in verse; and Hannah Lowe’s The Kids, a collection of sonnets inspired by her experiences teaching in an inner London sixth form. They’re all brilliant, and well worth reading and rereading.

Elsewhere, I’ve been taking my mind off England’s shambolic Ashes performance with CLR James’s meditation on cricket, politics and identity, Beyond a Boundary. One of those titles that has been recommended to me often, I felt a little scared it might not live up to its reputation. It does, magnificently so. James’s intellect is present on every page, but never overwhelming. It’s wry, elegant and fierce. It reminded me why the complexities and intricacies of the sport are precisely the things we should savour about it.

James acknowledges a debt to Victorian literature including William Makepeace Thackeray, and it’s felt apt that I have been nibbling away at Vanity Fair too, a chapter a day. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to it, and I fear I am already having conversations in a more circumlocutious fashion, so glorious is the prose. I’ve got to the Battle of Waterloo and am hoping the smirk gets wiped off George Osborne’s face.

Michael Pollan’s Food Rules is a quick snack of a book, but it’s punchy enough to have made me start trying to eat less meat. Will I stay the course? Hopefully. But when I tell you that I would travel far for a good ragu, you’ll appreciate why I also devoured Massimo Montanari’s A Short History of Spaghetti With Tomato Sauce, an anatomy of a culture on a plate, and delicious with it.

I took East of Eden on my first trip back home to Brittany in two years. It had been sitting in my drawer for the same amount of time. I had seen this centennial edition on a charity stall at the university hospital where I work, and got intrigued by its deckle-edge pages. I spent two beautiful weeks with the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who became like close friends I wanted to hear news from every night. Steinbeck writes powerfully of his profound fascination for the Californian land and shares with you his love and understanding for complex humanity. Sam rebelling against an unimaginative world, Lee piercing through prejudices one person at a time, Abra refusing to be crystallised into an impossible ideal. I finished the book on a beach at sunset. It was the perfect setting for a perfect ending.

Back in the UK, I am now two thirds into the second volume of Thomas Cromwell’s tribulations, Bring Up the Bodies. I know it is supposed to be as good as Wolf Hall, if not better, but I’ve been finding myself less engaged. Perhaps I have been emotionally drained by East of Eden, or maybe I cannot care as much for Thomas as I did before, now that we no longer see him care for others. He has ascended to power, his wife and daughters are long dead, his proteges grownup.

I have been doing an awful lot of “work” reading since coming back after Christmas, and it has in the main been a joy. I raced through the forthcoming new Mhairi McFarlane, Mad About You – she’s my absolute favourite romantic comedy author and this was a January tonic. Then I read Janice Hallett’s second novel The Twyford Code – it’s a mind-bending, code-cracking mystery and it helped get my sluggish brain working again. Whenever I get the chance I’ve also been working my way back through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books for a second time, after interviewing her last year; I’m currently on book six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and Jamie and Claire are contemplating the imminent revolution. Also on my bedside table right now is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones, a sort of magical version of Georgette Heyer’s Bridgerton. It’s pretty different to Moreno-Garcia’s excellent Mexican Gothic, a fantasy set in 1950s Mexico, but I’m loving it. And I’m a chapter in to Elizabeth Day’s Magpie – a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages.

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