What We’re Reading: Writers and Readers on Books They Enjoyed in January | Books

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

Megan Nolan, novelist

One of the nicest things I find about a non-fiction spell is that a great book naturally leads me into its related territories, and the books I find there nudge me again. I can see in hindsight the widening concentric circles of my readings all understand each other in a comforting way, a way that makes the world look like something a person could understand and touch the sides if they really tried .

Earlier this year, I came across a 2004 Guardian article written by the writer’s older sister Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002. It was critical of a memoir by Ann Patchett titled truth and beauty which recounted Patchett’s friendship with Lucy. Intrigued, I first read Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a face, an accurate and beautifully written account of her childhood cancer and resulting facial disfigurement and multiple plastic surgeries. I then read Patchett’s memoir of their relationship, the closeness of the two texts making me appreciate again how incomplete any single perspective on a shared relationship is.

Read the gloss empire of pain by Patrick Radden Keefe on the Sackler family and the creation of America’s opioid crisis, led me to one of his sources, Pain killer by Barry Meier. Its publication in 2003 led Purdue Pharma to convince Meier’s employer, The New York Times, to remove it from its opioid beat, claiming the book represented a conflict of interest. I also read dope sick by Beth Macy, published in 2018, which tackles the epidemic at a much more advanced stage, following a devastating series of consequences that could hardly have been imagined a few decades ago.

Ruby Wax as Carlotta in the 2005 film adaptation of Tara Road. Photography: Ferndale Films/Sportsphoto/Allstar

In fiction this month, I binged Maeve Binchy, who died 10 years ago. I read again Tara Roadwhose romantic betrayal made punitive left me breathless in a way I hadn’t first leafed through as a teenager, then I read four more in the span of two weeks, and now I I’m not sure I’ll really enjoy another non-Binchy novel again in my life.

My January standout, however, was rightly praised Autumn: The Robert Maxwell Mystery by John Preston, who achieved the near-impossible by exposing the psychic wounds that lurked beneath Maxwell’s deranged personal behavior and professional misconduct, without compromising the gravity of his actions.

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

Rishi Dastidar, poet and critic

January was a month of work with a big, big stack of books. As one of the judges for this year’s Costa Book Awards, I immersed myself and re-immersed myself in the five category winners announced earlier in the month – Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, The wide; best novel winner Unstable terrain by Claire Fuller; The captivating biography of John Preston Autumn: The Robert Maxwell Mystery; The passage, the young adult novel in verse by Manjeet Mann; and Hannah Lowe children, a collection of sonnets inspired by his experiences teaching in a sixth grade classroom in central London. They are all brilliant and worth reading and re-reading.

Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose book Open Water won the Costa First Novel Award.
Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose book Open Water won the Costa First Novel Award. Photograph: Stuart Ruel/PA

Elsewhere I forgot the Ashes’ shambolic performance in England with CLR James’ meditation on cricket, politics and identity, beyond a border. One of those titles that was often recommended to me, I was a little worried that it wouldn’t live up to its reputation. He does it, beautifully. James’ intellect is present on every page, but never overwhelming. It’s ironic, elegant and fierce. It reminded me why the intricacies and intricacies of the sport are precisely the things we should savor about it.

James acknowledges a debt to Victorian literature, including William Makepeace Thackeray, and it’s only fitting that I nibbled vanity lounge also, one chapter per day. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get there, and I’m afraid I’m already having conversations in a more detailed way, so glorious is the prose. I have arrived at the Battle of Waterloo and I hope the smirk will fade from George Osborne’s face.

by Michael Pollan Food rules is a quick one pound snack, but it’s impactful enough to have me start trying to eat less meat. Will I stay the course? With a bit of luck. But when I tell you that I would go far for a good stew, you will understand why I also devoured that of Massimo Montanari A brief history spaghetti with tomato saucean anatomy of a culture on a plate, and delicious with it.

Gladarvor, Guardian Reader

I took East of Eden on my first trip back to Brittany in two years. It had been in my drawer for the same amount of time. I had seen this centenary edition at a charity stand at the university hospital where I work and had been intrigued by its page-full pages. I spent two wonderful weeks with the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who became like close friends whom I wanted to hear from every evening. Steinbeck writes powerfully about his deep fascination with the Californian land and shares with you his love and understanding for complex humanity. Sam rebelling against an unimaginative world, Lee piercing prejudice one person at a time, Abra refusing to crystallize into an impossible ideal. I finished the book on a beach at sunset. It was the perfect setting for a perfect ending.

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard as Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the RSC theatrical adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard as Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the RSC theatrical adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Back in the UK, I am now two-thirds through the second volume of Thomas Cromwell’s Tribulations, Bring up the bodies. I know it’s supposed to be as good as Wolf Hall, if not better, but I find myself less engaged. Maybe I was emotionally drained by East of Eden, or maybe I don’t care about Thomas as much as I used to, now that we don’t see him caring about other people anymore. He came to power, his wife and daughters are long dead, his proteges have become adults.

Alison Flood, journalist and book reviewer

I’ve done an awful lot of ‘work’ reading since returning after Christmas, and it’s been on the whole a joy. I ran across the next new Mhairi McFarlane, Crazy of you – he’s my favorite rom-com writer and was a January tonic. Then I read Janice Hallett’s second novel The Twyford Code – it’s a mind-blowing mystery that cracks the codes and it’s helped me get my lazy brain working again. Whenever I get the chance, I’ve also perused Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books for the second time, having interviewed her last year; I’m currently on book six, A breath of snow and ashes, and Jamie and Claire contemplate the impending revolution. Also on my bedside table at the moment there is that of Silvia Moreno-Garcia The pretty, a sort of magical version of Georgette Heyer’s Bridgerton. It’s quite different from Moreno-Garcia’s excellent Mexican Gothic, a fantasy set in 1950s Mexico, but I love it. And I’m a chapter of Elizabeth Day Magpie – a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages.