Quarterly books roundup (April to June 2020)

The second quarter of 2020 will not be quickly forgotten by any of us, as the world around us shut down for most of the three months due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Things were only gradually opening up even by the end of June.

From a reading point of view, this had a mixed effect. You might have thought a lockdown would mean more time for reading, and to some extent it did – not like I was going out anywhere, after all – but this was counterbalanced by being extremely busy working from home and losing commuting time for reading each day. My appetite for “challenging” reading, at least when it came to fiction, remained intermittent at best.

The result is a slightly fragmented picture, though with plenty of good stuff to report.


The story of my fiction reading this quarter was one of gradually building up my strength for reading Proper Books again, after my retreat to comfort reading at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. So, by the time I’d read a couple of science fiction books, I felt up to rereading Gilead – which I enjoyed even more this time around, now that I have a better idea of what Marilynne Robinson is up to.

I followed this with Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, a portrait of a group of young English women living in a hostel “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years” as the Second World War draws to a close in 1945. One unexpected effect of reading this was being prompted to restart praying morning and evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, after reading Spark’s description of reciting the psalms, “from Day 1 to Day 31 of the months, morning and evening, in peace and war … uttering as it seemed to the empty pews, but by faith to the congregations of angels, the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel.”

E has been recommending Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger to me since before we were married – and I’m glad I finally hearkened unto the voice of my wife on this one. I followed this with a couple of thrillers and a whodunnit before tackling the most challenging novel of the quarter, Mrs Dalloway (another recommendation from E).

I also embarked on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, after E and I watched the (superb) TV adaptation. So far I’ve only read the first book, A Question of Upbringing, but I’m looking forward to moving on to the second shortly. I’ll do so with a fresh appreciation for how likeable Anthony Powell’s characters are compared with those in Edward St Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first of his Patrick Melrose series of novels…

A special mention also for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Green Mars, the first two books in his Mars trilogy. I’m hoping to complete this series in the next few weeks by reading Blue Mars.

  • Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks)
  • An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Robin Kriwoczek)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • Gilead* (Marilynne Robinson)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)
  • Moon Tiger (Penelope Lively)
  • With a Bare Bodkin (Cyril Hare)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Get Carter (Ted Lewis)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • A Question of Upbringing (Anthony Powell)
  • The Truants (Kate Weinberg)
  • Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)


My two favourite general nonfiction books from this quarter were both, in their own way, perfect lockdown reading. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four – part gossipy Beatles biography, part waspish observation of the modern Beatles industry, but mostly (as with Brown’s Ma’am Darling) an oblique social history of postwar Britain – was stimulating and undemanding (in the best sense of the word); while Michael T. Osterholm’s prescient 2017 book on the threat from global pandemics, Deadliest Enemy, provided some deep insights into how very non-unexpected All This ought to be to us.

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker)
  • Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Melissa Harrison)
  • How to Be in Opposition (ed. Nigel Fletcher)


My favourite theological book this quarter was Karin Maag’s Lifting Hearts to the Lord, a “documentary case study” of worship in 17th century Geneva, combining essays and primary sources on the revolution in Christian worship and practice wrought by Calvin and his colleagues, and the responses of ordinary people as they variously embraced and resisted the changes.

There’s been something of a Calvinist theme to my reading this year: Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God was one of my favourite books last quarter, and I’ve even started reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (though it’ll be a while before this appears in a list of books I’ve completed). Much of this is the fruit of reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays and fiction, both of which have encouraged me to take a second look at the “Renaissance humanist” she likes to call “Jean Cauvin” (to counteract people’s preconceptions about him).

I also greatly enjoyed and benefited from the essays on the Trinity collected by Lincoln Harvey in his book of that title. Highlights included Jeremy Begbie’s exploration of “aural space” as a better source of analogies for understanding the Trinity than “visual space”; Chris Tilling’s insistence that Paul has to be seen as a Trinitarian, albeit within a different theological idiom from that of later Nicene orthodoxy; and Claire Louise Wright’s tour de force on Gregory of Nazianzus and the knowledge of God.

  • The Seven Last Words from the Cross* (Fleming Rutledge)
  • Great God of Wonders (Maurice Roberts)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord (Karin Maag)
  • Confess Your Sins (John Stott)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)
  • The Letters of John (John Stott)

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