Below is a list of the books I have read over the last six years, some of which have been discussed on BBC Three Counties radio.
Big Sister Little Sister Red Sister by Jung Chang
Jonathan Cape £25 hardback
This is a fascinating story beautifully told by the author of Wild Swans. It is the story of three sisters, the Soong sisters who ended up in positions of great influence and have left an ‘indelible mark’ on history.
Born at the end of the nineteenth century of Christian parents, the sisters came from Shanghai. All three were privileged but also in constant danger. They were educated in America, unusual for Chinese people at the time, and returned home speaking better English than Chinese. The sisters were close emotionally, and remained so even when they found themselves on opposing sides of the political debate. Ching Ling dedicated herself to destroying her sisters worlds! It is a story of bravery, courage, love, war, intrigue, glamour and ultimately betrayal.
Their American education had made them intelligent, independent-minded and self confident. To quote “they had class”. What made them extraordinary is the men they married.
Big Sister Ei-Ling was Chiang Kai-shek’s unofficial advisor and made herself one of China’s richest women. Little sister May-Ling became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre- communist nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right. Red Sister Ching Ling married the Father of China Sun Yat-sen and rose to be vice chair to Chairman Mao.
This is a great look at Chinese history told in a narrative and totally accessible way.
Jung Chang chose these three sisters as the subject of her latest book , having had written Wild Swans which was the story of her grandmother, mother and herself, then the history of Chairman Mao. (which my son read for A level history) She then wrote the story of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the last great monarch of China. Her next thought was to write about Sun Yat-sen the ‘Father of China’ As he was piecing together his life she found out about his wife and her sisters and that set her off on this journey which has resulted in this remarkable book. Signed copies available! What a great present! – a potted history of modern China – readable and gripping
A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin
Hodder £20 hardback
This is such an interesting story. The Wolves in the title are the packs of German U-boats that patrolled the Atlantic during WWII and the Birds are the Wrens. This is the story of behind the scenes work to attempt to second guess the strategy and intercept the U-boats which were themselves attempting to interrupt the supply ships coming from the US to the UK. It stars one Captain Gilbert Roberts, invalided out of the navy in 1937 due to tuberculosis. having abandoned any hope that he would be able to serve in the navy again due to his health he served for a bit in the Home Guard and as a policeman. In March 1940 he was to receive a phone call recalling him, telling him to move to London and to get back into uniform and report to the Admiralty. He was sent to Liverpool, from where the Atlantic operations were being directed, to develop a gaming plan that he conducts with some handpicked Wrens, chosen because they were good at maths and statistics. Needless to say some of what he said was treated with scepticism, particularly by Captain Walker, who by 1942 had sunk more U boats than anyone else. However, Roberts persisted and they played out the battles in which U boats had sunk ships in the convoys with the loss of many many lives. He realised that part of the problem was that the escort ships, corvettes and frigates, were not operating as a team. And perhaps even more importantly, the U boats were getting themselves inside the convoy, not attacking from the outside. In the end 5000 navy officers went through the training courses he developed. They spent a week each at WATU (Western Approaches Tactical Unit) in Liverpool, playing out the different scenarios and working out ways of dealing with them. 2603 merchant ships were sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the second world war and 175 of the convoys escorting naval vessels. 30,000 merchant seamen and more than 6000 Royal navy sailors died in the Atlantic during the war, many following U boot attacks. A shocking loss of life tempered by the work of Roberts and his staff.
This is well written, fascinating and a tribute to a little known band of people who were heroes.
Simon Parkin’s is a journalist, writing for the New Yorker, he is the games editor for the Observer, a regular contributor to the Long read in the Guardian, 1843, the New Statesman. in addition a film adaptation of A Game of Birds and Wolves is in development at Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Partners and DreamWorks Pictures, with a screenplay by Vicky Jones.
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
Macmillan hardback £16.99
This is a new detective series from one of the masters of the genre, Ann Cleeves, author of Vera and the Shetland Series. Set in Devon it introduces a new series with Detective Inspector Matthew Venn. the book starts with Matt, as he is known, standing as an onlooker at this father’s funeral. His parents belonged to an evangelical sect called the Brethren and when Matt renounces that belief system, his parents renounce him. Pretty early on we are told of a body of a man on the beach, who has been stabbed to death. His distinguishing mark? – a tattoo of an albatross on his neck. Matt is on his home turf, having moved back to north Devon with his husband, Jonathan, who runs the local day centre. Starting the investigation of his first big case in the Two Rivers area Matt soon discovers that the death has tentacles reaching into the local community exposing secrets and deceits. As we have come to expect from this distinguished author there are red herrings and sub plots.
Ann Cleeves is known for her strong sense of place in her stories – the place is almost a character in its own right, and North Devon is where Ann grew up so it is an area she knows well.
The Comforts of Home by Susan Hill
Penguin paperback £8.99
I have not read any of the Simon Serrallier series, of which this is #9. Susan Hill is another good writer and I did not mean to read 2 crime books – not my usual thing at all. Anyway Simon Serrallier lost his left arm at the tail end of #8 novel and this books starts where that one left off. Simon has gone to a remote Scottish island to recuperate. He finds himself involved in investigating a murder case on the island which throws up some surprises in this small community. On his return home to Lafferton he is asked to review an old case of a missing girl that has never been solved. What will he uncover? All this when he was wondering if the police would have him back. His sister meanwhile has married his boss, Kieran Bright, creating some interesting family dynamics. I bet Christmas would be great in his house!
This is a many layered book, and the character development is wonderful. You really feel you know the people, which makes them believable.
You do not need to have read the others although I would enjoy to now!
Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay
Macmillan hardback £9.99
This is from the author of This is Going to Hurt, the story of a junior hospital doctor. It is outrageously funny and the sort of dip into book you can’t help but read it out loud to anyone around. The very first story is about a doctor on Christmas Day, so picture the hospital, no staff, most patients sent home, enforced jollity. The junior doctor (anyone below a registrar is a junior) who probably has no children as the ones with children usually manage to get Christmas off is trying to tell a family that Granny is very ill, and they have done everything they can do and probably the best course of action is no further intervention other than to keep her comfortable as best they can. The family react with tears and shock and a huge wish to do something – anything – to make things better. the doctor leans in to show empathy in his body language and inadvertently his elbow presses the button on his tie that stats a tinny rendition of Jingle bells. he tries several times to stop it but only succeeds in restarting the awful tune. Embarrassed, red faced and desperate he leaves the room to ditch the tie and returns expecting the family to be in bits. Instead he finds the daughter in fits of uncontrollable laughter. Infectious laughter and so soon the ice and tension is broken. – It made me laugh and there are many more like this.
Festive Spirits by Kate Atkinson
Penguin hardback £6.99 (£1 from each sale going to Sightsavers)
Three seasonal short stories from the Costa prizewinning author Kate Atkinson. (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life After Life and A God in Ruins all won the Costa) the first about a nativity play, the second about a marriage and the third about a mother son relationship, all charming and easy reading, with some very unexpected and clever twists. Well crafted tales of modern life.
And now a couple of lovely children books
Little People Big Ideas
I have brought Emmeline Pankhurst but there are many titles in the series. All easy to understand, simply told, and beautifully illustrated books about famous people in history. There is also a boxed set. I brought Emmeline as it is topical at the moment with an election in the offing.
There are others – Mother Theresa, Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mathatma Ghandi. also some are in board book format for younger children
The Double Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden with his sons Arthur and Cameron
Harper Collins hardback £20
This is a follow up to the best selling Dangerous Book for Boys and in many ways is similar but it does not repeat the items in that first book. This covers some extraordinary stories of heroes, like Shackleton, card tricks, how to make a board game, or a jumping frog, how to improve your chess, how to make a three course meal – useful to impress future girlfriends or current wives! – great speeches, great ruins, interesting chemical reactions and some useful information about when the police can stop and search you and so on.
A great gift for any person aged 8 – 80. I don’t think you need to be male!
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Paperback Penguin £8.99
Another great book from the author of Olive Kitteridge. We talked about this book a while ago – it was made into a film starring Frances Dormand.
This is a continuation of My Name is Lucy Barton, the play of which which I managed to see in London when Laura Linney played Lucy Barton in a one woman show.
Lucy, brought up in rundown, rural Amgash, Illinois, returns after an absence of seventeen years in which time she has become a successful writer. The book is told in a series of interconnecting stories, each concerning different people in the town with their strengths and vulnerabilities. Through the eyes of the townspeople we see the Barton family – beyond poor – and despised by many. They all have different views on Lucy Barton – some envious, some pleased to see her and many disturbed by the memories her reappearance brings up.
These are stories of relationships good and bad, kind and not, current and historical. We hear about the barn that caught fire, possibly arson and how the farmer became the school janitor. He realised as he watched his fam burn that material things were not so important as people. I am making that sound a bit trite and it is not at all. Elizabeth Strout is a master of dialogue and beautiful language with not a wasted word. This is an extraordinary book – thoughtful, gentle and in the words of the Observer ‘a shimmering masterpiece’ . She makes the ordinary everyday life of people into something so interesting and real you live in their living rooms and in their heads.
I don’t think you need to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this although I am certain that if you read this you will want to read My Name is Lucy Barton.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
paperback Ayebia Clarke Publishing £8.99
I read this for a Book Group and it is an interesting novel in so many ways. It is a story of a girl, aged 14 as the story starts, who lives in Rhodesia, and how she slowly realises that men and women are treated differently, the boys getting the education and the girls being left behind in the basis they will marry and any education would be wasted. The book starts with the sentence “I was not sorry when my brother died” This is because Tambu, our narrator, would have had to prepare a feast for his return from school. Despite her parents being very poor they manage to gather enough money to pay for her brother, Nhamo’s, education but not Tambu’s who is educated only to primary level. She decided to grow and sell vegetables to pay for her own schooling. Then she discovers that her brother is stealing her vegetables so she attempts to beat him up whilst both are at Sunday School. Tambu’s teacher, Mr. Matimba, took her to Umtali, a local town, to sell her corn. A white woman, Doris, and her husband pitied Tambu and gave Mr. Matimba ten pounds sterling to pay for her education. The extended family are to welcome back the Mission school teacher Babamukuru, his wife, Maiguru, and their two children who have been in England and have lost their ability to speak their mother tongue, Shona. Babamukuru decides that he will make sure one member of each family is educated and so when her brother dies, Tambu is elected to be educated. She is excited to move to the Missions School and quickly forms a relationship with her cousin Nyasha. Once there she discovers that her uncle lives in some luxury with carpet on the floor, instead of dung. As time goes on she gets to continue her education at the Sacred Heart Convent. her fellow pupils are a mixture of ok and downright nasty to outsiders.
Through reading this book one can learn a lot about Rhodesia as was and the role of Missionaries in education, the inequality of men and women and how it must have felt to be an intelligent young woman denied opportunity and fighting for equality.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
paperback penguin £8.99
This is considered to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel. It starts on the eve of David Cameron’s election and finishes in September 2018. It revisits some of the characters in The Rotter’s Club and it’s sequel The Closed Circle, neither of which I have read. However I don’t think one needs to have read either of those to enjoy this. It concerns several people, divided by their views on Brexit. Funny in parts, it references the major events in England over the period and is centred on middle England – Birmingham. There are some strange pairings. Sophie marries the man tutting on a speed awareness course. He has an insufferable mother to whom he is devoted. Then there is Benjamin Trotter, single again and a writer. Doug has a daughter, Coriander, constantly angry with him and the world. He also has an insider in No 10, Nigel, who briefs him off the record on the goings on and thinking inside the Prime Ministers office. Of course it is all fiction but may reflect some of the true story. I thought the most astute comment in the book is “ to the privileged, equality feels like a step down”
Prague Spring by Simon Mawer
paperback Little, Brown £8.99
This is set in Prague in 1968. two Oxford students set off to hitch hike across Europe. They are not a couple but a young man and woman, James and Ellie, who barely know each other. They decide to travel round Europe in the summer vacation and decide on their route by tossing a coin at all the decision points. As they start out not in a relationship but this is the summer of free love they try to negotiate their relationship as they go. James is from the north of England who feels an outsider at Oxford whilst Ellie is from a more privileged background and has a slightly entitled outlook. Their random lifts and decisions on which countries to go to results in them ending up in Prague. They camp on the way in a tiny tent, sometimes enjoying their physical closeness -James perhaps more than Ellie, and sometimes not. Meantime we follow the story of Sam Wareham, a diplomat in the British Embassy in Prague. His girlfriend has left the city and he falls for a strikingly beautiful local girl, Lenka. He takes her to concerts and diplomatic parties, incurring the disapproval of his boss, the Ambassador. Inevitably these two couples are going to meet and their futures collide as the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
Simon Mawer was nominated for the Man Booker for The Glass Room , which we have discussed a while ago. This one is equally good and this author is so good at his research. We learn a lot about that turbulent period in Czech history
A few books to get started on Christmas
Letter to my Younger Self 100 Inspiring people on the moneys that shaped their lives.
hardback Blink £16.99
This is a series of letters by fairly and definitely famous people. such as Shami Chakrabarti, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tim Peake, Salman Rushdie, Grayson Perry, David Cameron, Mary Beard and Paul McCartney. All of them are interesting and the royalties are going to the Big Issue which helps homeless people. I found some of them fascinating.
Chelsea Clinton on living in the White House as a teenager and the effect it had on her life – security guards, bullying etc.
Tracey Emin says she would tell her younger 16 year old self “don’t steal and be as honest as possible at all times. And never bite the hand that feeds you. And stop smoking now. It really is a waste of time”
Tim Peake said that he was glad he didn’t know at 16 where life would take him -he would have been “amazed, shocked and delighted”.
Great dip into book!
The Cat personality Test by Dr Lauren Finka
hardback Ebury press £9.99
This is an amusing but serious book for cat lovers. Much of it is set out like those tests in magazines where you tick lots of boxes and then read the score as mostly A’s, B’s or C’s
It includes advice on acclimatising the cat to new surroundings or new baby, managing decorating without upsetting your pet, and what particular feline behaviours might be interpreted as.
A Ladybird Book about Donald Trump
hardback ladybird £7.99
This is a pastiche of the ladybird books of one’s childhood but about a political figure. Funny, with illustrations in the style of 1950’s Ladybird books which were about Insects or birds, places and famous people – Sir Francis Drake, Nelson, London to give some examples.
These are aimed at adults
Must I Repeat Myself…? Unpublished Letters to the Daily Telegraph
hardback Quarto £9.99
This is what it says on the cover. A dip into book of hilarious letters that never made it into print. For example “What is the difference between Egyptian hieroglyphs and emoji?”
“Perhaps the word Brexit could become an accepted swear word then it would be bleeped out on TV and radio, making it much more entertaining “
“I am thrilled for Prince Charles that he has been appointed the next Head of the Commonwealth. I must admit to being a little disappointed that the post was not advertised. I think I would have made a reasonable candidate, and can be available at short notice for formal dinners and foreign travel.”
The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan
Atlantic books hardback £14.99
A fascinating premise for a novel – a museum where people donate items that represent promises broken, either by themselves or by other people. The curator and main protagonist of this novel, Laure, has herself donated something, and the stories behind the exhibits are really inventive and interesting and not always as straightforward as they might seem on the surface.
Laure, half French, half English, is a university student when her father dies. Stricken with grief she abandons her studies and heads for Paris to be an au pair. Her mother tells her “my city will heal you”. She has been there 3 weeks when the Czech family who employ her return to Prague. Accompanying them there, struggling to find entertainment for her two charges, she comes across a puppet theatre. Meeting the puppeteers she discovers them to be a dissident group. She falls madly in love with Tomas and discovers some of the dangers of living in a communist country in the 1980’s. Later she is working in an embassy in Berlin, when she comes across her former employer and tries to find out what happened to Tomas.
The novel switches back and forth in time and starts and finishes in the present day with Laure in her Museum in Paris, thinking back and relating some of her story to a young American reporter, May Williams. She is a reluctant interviewee, but it is a device to tell the story from her own mouth.
This is my is sort of book with the historical background as I remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall coming down. It sheds further light on an interesting period in recent European history.
Platform Seven by Louise Doughty
hardback £14.99 Faber
I don’t think it is giving anything away to say that the narrator of this latest from the author of Apple Tree Yard is a ghost. The book opens with an old man sitting on Platform Seven of Peterborough Station. He looks like he might jump in front of a train and it is the middle of the night. If you know that station you will know that freight trains hurtle through without stopping or slowing. He jumps and is killed of course. But it transpires that this is the second fatality from Platform Seven in eighteen months. Are they connected? And why were these two people so desperate that suicide seems the only solution.
The story of the narrator, Lisa, unfolds and we do find out about her life and love.
This is a love story, a page turner, conveying a huge sense of mystery in an ordinary setting. There could not be a more normal place than Peterborough and yet extraordinary things happen here as everywhere. It reminds us of the serendipity of life, who we meet, how we meet and how random it all is. Or is it?
Hilary Mantel is quoted on the back as saying Louise Doughty leads her unnerved readers into dark territory” which describes it very accurately.
The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
paperback £8.99 Transworld
This is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. It is a completely fascinating account of American life from schooldays through university to the White House. The four parts of the book relate to the four addresses she has lived at. Our protagonist is not called Laura Bush but Alice Blackwell. She is a moral and caring person constantly trying to square the circle of her life. The author makes a road accident (that really happened) in which a classmate, who Alice certainly fancied but was not really dating, was killed, a defining moment in her life. She spend much of her life at first punishing herself for this accident and then atoning for it. It covers how she fell for the charming, charismatic Charlie who went on to become Governor and then President of the United States. It is well written and I could not help but like Alice. She is pondering how she got to the position she is in as First Lady and it explores the way of life in the White House. Life as a famous person is often difficult. After all, she did not run for election but she is expected by her husband and the country to always stand by her man and be loyal and support his views even when she disagrees.
I enjoyed it although perhaps a touch too long. I was gripped by life in the White House with all the attendant security, lack of privacy and responsibility that accompanies it.
It is a brave thing to do to write a fictionalised account of a famous living person, although in a way it also gives a structure to the story. I am amazed that she hasn’t been sued. The author does not think Laura Bush has read it, I saw in an interview with her somewhere.
The Prison Doctor by Dr Amanda Brown
paperback £ 8.99 Harper Collins
This is an account of life as a doctor inside two prisons, the first Wormwood Scrubs and the second, Bronzefield. The author was a GP in Buckinghamshire who needed a career change in mid life, not least because she did not agree with some very radical changes being made to the NHS. At first there came along a chance to work at Wormwood Scrubs, which is a Category B male prison. Built in Victorian times, it has had some modernisation and Amanda’s description of life there and how being the doctor has both rewards and disappointments. Also frustrations – getting prisoners into hospital when it is late, and two officers have to accompany any prisoner leaving the prison. The book describes some of the most awful cases, people who have taken drugs, and how many have mental health problems and have lost all hope. Attending to attempted suicides, going to the Coroners Court and the recidivism were disheartening and after seven years at Wormwood Scrubs she moves to HMP Bronzefield, the only purpose built young offenders institution and women’s prison in the country with places for 527 women, including a mother and baby unit where babies can stay until they were 18 months old. This she found much more rewarding. she declares that she hopes to be a friend to the inmates as well as a counsellor and doctor.
A Year in the Circus by Jon Sopel
hardback £20 BBC Books
Jon Sopel is the BBC’s Washington correspondent and this is his take on life in the White House with Donald Trump as the President. It has rather a clever structure, taking each room of the White House – the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Briefing Room etc and goes on to describe what happens in each place, the personnel involved, as well as the battles fought and both lost and won. Jon Sopel gives a bit of history as well as the current situation for each room so we find out about the Clintons, the Kennedy’s etc. He deals with some of the idiosyncrasies of President Trump and his inner circle. In the chapter on The Residence he makes it very clear that Melania is very much her own woman and won’t be dragged into things that she does not want to support. The role of the First Lady is a very different one to our own ‘partner of the Prime Minister’ She has staff paid for by the taxpayer, is expected to take on some causes, such as education for certain groups of children, or mental health.
He does cite moments when Trump blatantly lies, as well as moments of deliberate obfuscation, the problems of trying to get legislation through, as well as how many previous Presidents managed or not.
Calypso by David Sedaris
paperback Little, Brown £9.99
This is a collection of short comic pieces by the wonderful David Sedaris. He takes his stories from real life and embellishes them….surely? They are about ageing, holidays, families, just everyday things that happen to most people. However somehow he sees the comedic side and can turn a wry observation into a 10 page story with all the back story.
There are so many bits I could tell you about but maybe his rants against what we all think but don’t say are among the funniest,. for instance, how annoying is it to be asked several times during a meal out how your meal is. In America, which, being American, he visits twice a year, they take this to the limits of tolerance. For instance, how annoying is it, when eating in a restaurant , when the waiter asks you three minutes after delivering the food you ordered how is the food? And when you mumble an answer with your mouth full, he replies “awesome” Coming down to breakfast in a hotel “how has your day been so far?” – what all 12 minutes of it? Awesome comes back the response. Irritating!
It is laugh out loud funny.
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
paperback Orion £8.99
This is Anthony Horowitz’ take on Sherlock Holmes. It is like reading Conan Doyle, with similar vocabulary and turn of phrase but it is a great read and I thought it might encourage people to read more or go back and read Arthur Conan Doyle. Anthony Horowitz is the first person to get permission from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate to write another SH novel. I think he has nailed it although perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle would have not chosen the crime that is involved. The characters are as we expect; Sherlock Holmes observing every little detail and making deductions form it and the faithful Dr Watson recording it later in a story. This one starts with the theft of some paintings, well I say theft, they are reported burned in a fire on a train in the US where they had been shipped, having been sold to an American buyer by the company of Finch and Carstairs, fine art dealers. A gang of thieves were robbing the train of a safe containing cash and the explosives they used damaged the canvases, which were considerably more valuable than the contents of the safe.
There are red herrings galore but as you might expect from Anthony Horowitz , it is well plotted and the reveal is not guessable and not revealed until the end. The plot is layered and layered and clever. Anthony Horowitz also wrote James Bond with permission of the Ian Fleming Estate.
Rife Twenty One stories from Britain’s Youth
Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones
Paperback Unbound £9.99
This is a collection of essays on such subjects as Mental Health, the Rental Crisis, racism, the voting age, university life, gentrification, dating, misogyny and sexism. I am not sure every politician shouldn’t read this as it gives a good insight into how some, admittedly not a representative sample of Britain’s youth, are feeling. there is a thread of Brexit throughout as you might expect as it is a thread of conversation for everyone in the country, or not if you all might fall out about it. The book grew from a magazine, funded by Bristol Youth links and commissioned by Watershed. The original brief was to “amplify the voices of young creatives in Bristol….. to create a space for them to tell stories and make films about the things that were important to them”
The writers are between 16 and 24 and at this stage of their lives the writing is probably of varying quality but the message is good, however delivered.
Girl by Edna O’Brien
hardback Faber £16.99 published September 5th
This is actually a rather harrowing story of a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram as so many girls were in Northern Nigeria. It is a tough read but one that also feels like you cannot not read it once started. Edna O’Brien is a very well respected Irish writer, winner of prizes and author of literally dozens of novels, mostly about women and their treatment by men. Her first novel, The Country Girls (currently on Radio 4) was banned when it was first published as it depicts sex, patriarchy and violence in rural Ireland. In Edna O’Brien’s parish it was publicly burned. Thankfully we have come a long way in some respects from that time. The Catholic church holds less sway now and this book will not be burned, at least not in Ireland. In Nigeria, who knows.
The narrator of the story is a girl, Maryann, kidnapped from school and faced with hardship, punishment, starvation and undeniable cruelty from her oppressors. Her escape and the way her family and wider society deal with her, her child and the whole situation is the crux of the tale. It is lean prose as only Edna O’ Brien can do, and although the ability of the narrator to tell her story and analyse it seems perhaps a little grown up it is a remarkable piece of writing and draws attention to a shocking and at times terrifying part of Nigerian and world history.
This is not a comfortable read but it is good that someone has brought some attention to this story. Edna O’Brien was interviewed on Front Row on Bank Holiday Monday – you can hear that interview on BBC Sounds.
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting
paperback Maclehose Press £8.99
Traslated from Norwegian, this is the story of Edvard who grows up with his grandfather, Sverre, on a remote mountain farm in Norway. On his grandfather’s death he decides to attempt to discover what happened to his parents who are dead, and how he came to be abandoned for 4 days when he was only 3 years old. His journey takes him to Shetland, and to the battlefields of France. Sverre, called Bestefar (grandad) by Edvard has a brother, Einar, supposed dead as the story begins. But a beautifully inlaid hand made coffin turns up that may have been made by him. Is he alive? Thus starts the mystery that takes Edvard away from his fiancé, Hanne, to try to discover what has happened. There is another love interest in Gwen whom he meets in Shetland and the book captures the wild beauty of the Shetland islands as well as the horror of the two World Wars fought on the soil of northern France, remembered at Thiepval.
It is a poignant tale, well told, of grief, love, loyalty and family. A thoroughly good read.
This the man who wrote the book Norwegian Wood subtitled chopping, stacking and drying wood which was a surprise best seller, selling 200,000 copies in Scandinavia.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls
hardback £20 Hodder
This is a story of first love, that all consuming, obsessive love that most people will have experienced some time in their lives. For Charlie and Fran, it happens in the school summer holidays when both are 16 and have just taken their GCSE’s. Charlie lives with his Dad, his Mum having left home and taken his sister. His Dad is a depressive who drinks too much and so Charlie sets off on his bike with a book to escape home life and his knowledge that he has blown his exams. He finds a quiet spot to read Slaughterhouse Five, chosen because it has slaughter in the title. After a while a girl runs close by and falls over, twisting her ankle. She is from a local country house, given over for a few weeks to an amateur theatre company to rehearse Romeo and Juliet. Our hero, embarrassed to be found without his shirt on and indeed being there at all is required to help Fran back up the hill as her ankle is painful. It is love at first sight for him. He is from the local comprehensive and most of the ‘company’ as they call themselves are from a posher school. He realises the only way he is going to see this beautiful girl again is to join in the production which he is very reluctant to do.
From the story we learn about Charlie and his thought and aspirations, much as he learns about them himself and the story is told from the perspective of his older self looking back.
David Nicholls, author of One Day and Us completely captures the feelings of first love, being able to think of nothing else all day and daydreaming a future. However, as Charlie has a difficult home life we also fond out about Charlie growing up and the pain of life as a young man on the brink of adulthood and responsibility.
The posh school vs the local comprehensive reflects the play with the Montagues and Capulets – it is not coincidence that that is the Shakespeare chosen and of course they have studied it for GCSE and the boys have probably found it a bit lacking in action.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Paperback £8.99 Oneworld Publishing
This won the Women’s Prize for Fiction so that led me to read it and it is a great story of what can happen when a person is wrongly convicted of a crime they did not commit. Roy and Celestial, a young African-American couple, are married. A year into their marriage they are staying in a hotel and have a row. Roy goes out for a walk to cool off and meets a woman with whom he has a conversation. Later, when Roy is asleep next to his wife this same woman is raped and identifies Roy as the perpetrator. He is sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Roy Orthaniel Hamilton had been a young man going places. After college he has landed a good job and a beautiful wife who is an artist. He had hoped to earn enough to ‘sit his wife down’ i.e. allow her not to work. They are middle class black Americans, in a time when black Americans are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white Americans. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Celestial and Roy and later a third party joins in the storytelling, who in more ways than one upsets the applecart.
My loyalty swayed between the characters as they take it is turns to tell their side of the story and one had to feel sorry for Roy all the time but also for his new wife who he tells not to visit at some points and he will not be released. Her life too has been altered irrevocably as has the wider family and friends
In the Cold of the Night by Andrew Bibby
paperback £8.99 Gritstone Publishing
This is a detective story that a friend gave me to read and as it is about a group of people doing the Three Peaks Challenge and as I have done that I found it interesting because I know many of the places that are mentioned. It concerns a group of staff from a residential caravan park who are doing the Challenge largely because the boss, Richard Meade says they must. They manage Ben Nevis with the help of their guide Rug, (yes that is his nickname) and he drives them to Wasdale Head to ascend Scafell Pike. By this time Richard Meade has been on the phone for a lot of the journey and is still on the phone and he tells the party to go on, he will catch them up in a few minutes but he never does. His disappearance results in the mountain rescue team being called out and a massive search operation being mounted. His body is found a long way away from where he should have been. Enter the detective, the reporter, the family and the staff of the caravan park to confuse, give false leads and generally take the reader on a merry dance which is not resolved until the last few pages.
The Carer by Deborah Moggach
hardback £16.99 Tinder Press
After a fall and a broken hip, James, once an eminent professor, needs full time help. He is a widower and lives in the Cotswolds, half way between his two children Phoebe, his unmarried daughter who lives in Wales and Robert who lives in London with his wife and children. Enter Mandy, the carer who seems to be the answer to his middle aged children’s prayers. She is the carer who energises James and gets him going. They go out together and seem generally to get on. She ‘tells it like it is’ and makes Robert and Phoebe feel guilty at the same time as feeling relieved that their father sees rejuvenated. Mandy tells them they should not be still blaming their parents now for their childhoods, which seem to have been less than ideal. their father never there and the parents , when together, so wrapped up in their love for each there that they neglected their children. But all is not as it seems. Gradually a sense of unease descends and at first Phoebe and Robert try to ignore it, not least because Mandy’s presence allows them to be absent and to get on with their lives. Then there are revelations that make them look at themselves and assess their reaction to their present lives.
From the author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and countless other novels comes this funny -but not – look at a very common problem among the middle aged – how to care for elderly frail parents.
This is a story about relationships – parents with each other and their children, siblings with each other – how we all vow to make different mistakes from those we perceived our parents to have made
Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
Paperback penguin £8.99
Roald Dahl, the beloved children’s author, writes some pretty dark short stories that are quite definitely for adults. This is one such collection. There are always twists that are unexpected. Among the best Mrs Bixby and the Colonels Coat and Parson’s Pleasure. In the first a woman, Mrs Bixby is having an affair with a Colonel unbeknown to her husband. She receives a gift from the Colonel along with a ‘Dear John’ letter but cannot think how to deal with the gift of a beautiful mink coat! She decides to pawn it and receives $50. Then she claims she has found the pawn ticket on the seat of a taxi. Her husband decides he will collect the item from the pawn shop which he does. To Mrs Bixby’s disappointment, when he gives her the item it is a mink collar, no coat but later she sees the coat on someone else! All the stories are funny, dark and have some twists. A great summer read!
Such a wonderful imagination!
The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths
Quercus paperback £8.99
This is the latest in the Dr Ruth Galloway series of books about an archaeologist rather than a detective, although there is a sense in which archaeologists are detectives too. Ruth is asked to take a look at a 2000 year old skeleton that has been found in Italy in a village called Castelli diegli Angeli. the odd thing is the skeleton is holding a mobile phone. Is it a hoax? Ruth heads off with her daughter and a friend and her daughter to see if they can hep and combine it with a holiday. They stay in the Italian archaeologist’s second home which is a lovely apartment. However his mother has a key and various slightly odd, slightly spooky things start to happen. DCI Harry Nelson follows when he hears that Ruth, with whom he has had a bit of a fling, seems to be endangered by an earthquake. Then a shocking murder happens in this picturesque hilltop town and the population are horrified at the death and everyone is dragged in to the action.
This is a gripping book with some very interesting characters and would be a good holiday read.
Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart
Scribe paperback £8.99
Set in America in the 1920’s this is fiction but based on the true story of Constance Kopp, the first woman deputy sheriff. Constance lives with her two sisters in an isolated smallholding, following the death of their mother, they are living without male protection. They have a brother, Francis, but do not want to move in with him and his family. The book opens with the girls driving their buggy in the local town when a motor car, driven recklessly by Henry Kaufman, runs into them and destroys their buggy. Thus starts a war with Henry who declines to pay for the damage he has caused. Constance takes herself to visit the factory that his father has installed him in to run so that he might be tamed into a reasonable grown up. This does not go well but she meets Lucy, a worker in the factory, whose child has disappeared and for who she has been looking despite being very frightened. Lucy is not happy to talk with Constance nor be seen with her. there then starts a war of bullets, bricks through windows and general terror that makes her sisters frightened and Constance more determined.
This is a beautifully written book with believable characters and sufficient action to allow me to describe it as fast paced and compelling. Constance was definitely a woman ahead of her time.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen
Penguin paperback £8.99
This is an interesting premise for a book. It is about William Woolf, who works in the Dead Letters Department of the post office, and his wife Clare, who is a lawyer. William was an aspiring writer but has lost his way with the writing and seems to have ‘settled’ for working in the dead letters area. Clare is not very happy at work and while she justified it when he was writing a book it seems less satisfactory now he just goes to work and returns, in a seemingly dead end job. Their marriage is faltering, not over just not quite pleasing everyone. William finds a letter in his pile one day on blue fancy paper from a woman called Winter to her ‘great love’, a person she has not met yet. n After William finds another of these he starts to think they are meant for him and tries to find Winter. He looks for clues in the letters and visits places that have been mentioned. He starts to believe in fate. Meantime Clare, whose point of view we also know, starts to think about what else she could do. We hear about one or two letters and how they find their rightful owners and about his progress finding Winter.
There really ia a Dead Letters office in Belfast and 900 people work there as letter detectives!
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers
Paperback Bloomsbury £8.99
This is the fascinating story of the Yorkshire Coiners, a band of men living out on the moors of Yorkshire, above the Calder Valley, who took coins and clipped the edges off. These were then made into fake coins, usually Portuguese Moidore, with a higher face value of 27 Shillings and feed this fake coin into circulation for its face value. They would only use about 22 Shillings worth of gold to create the fake, so making a substantial profit on each new coin they forged. However interfering with the currency is a treasonable offence so of necessity these people live outside society out on the moors. “King” David Hartley assembles a group of weavers, and land workers to undertake this criminal enterprise. In the end it capsizes the economy and becomes the biggest fraud in British history. This is why we have milled edges on coins. This story is fiction but based on the true story. Benjamin Myers has done a lot of research in historical records and legal documents to piece together the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners.
This is a very readable account of a fascinating story and it won the Walter Scott Prize awarded for historical fiction last year.
Last Stories by William Trevor
Paperback Penguin £8.99
This is a short story collection by a master storyteller. As ever with William Trevor, some are dark tales but all beautifully written, compassionate, subtle and well observed. I think my favourite is about a girl, Emily Vance, who works as a cleaner for a variety of people in the neighbour hood. When she is run over and killed, no one really knows anything about her. A local clergyman thinks she may have sought solace in his church and he starts to piece together her life from the people she cleaned for. One, Harriet Balfour, is a widow, whose 26 year old son lives wit her and is training to be a paediatrician, like his father. When the clergyman calls on Harriet to ask about Emily, she is unable to tell him anything other than she had stopped coming, just stopped. This plays on her mind for days afterwards and she wonders, but does not voice, the thought that maybe her son had had a dalliance with her. She attends the funeral, along with a few others like herself. When she finally talks with her sone about Emily, he tells her how lonely she was and how much she appreciated the little gestures of kindness, such as being invited to take her coffee in the garden in fine weather.
The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es Paperback Penguin £9.99
This is a fascinating and sad story – with a happy ending. Bart Van Es is Dutch. His paternal grandparents took in Jewish children and hid them to prevent them being taken to the death camps. Lientje was one such child. Bart knew his grandparents had done this and she had been an important part of his father’s life, but she and his grandparents had fallen out and so she was not someone he had ever met. He set about tracing her and finding out about her life. The story is true, and in many respects is about the awfulness of the second world war in The Netherlands.
Jews have lived in The Netherlands since the 17th century. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, some 35,000 refugees fled to the Netherlands. By 1940, when Germany invaded Holland, there were some 18,000 Jews in The Hague, which portrayed itself as an open and idealistic “city for the world”. Only 2,000 of them would survive the war and the concentration camps.
Bart found Lientje in Amsterdam and after a reluctant first meeting they became firm friends and together pieced together the story of her life, using her diaries and her memory. She had just about settled into life away from her parents, who she never saw again, when they were in danger and she and another Jewish child had to run and hide somewhere else. She stayed with different people and not all of them treated her well. She was treated like a servant in one house and sexually abused.
In my view it is an important book, as all these sorts of things are because it is about an ordinary person – and under other circumstances could be any one of us. It is sensitive, well written, enlightening. It is not a comfortable read but it is a compelling one.
Bart Van Es relates the story of her life by alternates the story of her life with his journey and his research following up people and places she remembers. The fact that he is not a writer makes the story raw and somehow more truthful.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin Penguin paperback £7.99
A recent novel from a wonderful writer, Nora Webster is about a woman whose husband has died, leaving her and their two sons. Whilst her husband was ill and in a hospice away from Wexford, where they lived, she left the boys with her sister, their aunt, for two whole months. This will have some less than happy consequences. She is completely thrown by her husband’s death, cannot cope and almost cannot believe it, a common reaction. A local man, William Gibney, for whom she has previously worked, feels sorry for her and offers her a job. Although it does not pay very well, it gives her a distraction from her sorrow. She is put in an office by Elizabeth Gibney who works for the family firm and calls on Daddy fairly often to sort out Thomas Gibney who has been left in day to day charge of the firm.
A Little Local Murder by Robert Barnard Paperback Pan Macmillan £8.99
In the little village of Twytching there is great excitement as the local radio station is to make a programme to be shared with the twin town in America – Twytching Wisconsin. All the local worthies are tying to be included. And all the stereotypes of small village life are also here, from the bossy wife of the Chair of the Council whom everyone thinks is rather arrogant to the vicar and school teacher, all are represented. Then there is a murder. Alison Mailer is found dead, hit with a heavy object. The deceased leaves a husband and daughter. Who could have done such a thing? Shock and disbelief are the standard reactions as Inspector… and his Sergeant go about solving the crime.
Set in 1950’s England, I thought this a charming read, if murder can ever be charming. Classic crime novel, – body, detective, sidekick and plenty of people with the opportunity, fewer with the motive and red herrings galore.
Robert Braband died in 2013. this book was one of 40 he wrote under this name and Bernard Bastable. It was first published in 1976 he won the Crime Writers Association Diamond Dagger award for his lifetime achievement.
Nine Lessons in Brexit by Ivan Rogers paperback Short Books £5.99
We all should have read this before we voted last week. Ivan Rogers was the Britain’s Permanent Representative to the EU until he resigned in 2017. This is not a treatise on whether we should leave or not but rather an explanation of how complicated the process is. It was never as straightforward as we were told it could be and this little booklet comprises some lectures/essays he has given of the subject. It covers ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and Brexit is a Process not and= event and the EU, while strategically myopic, is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents. We have to be equally so, or we will get hammered. Repeatedly. He points out the ambiguity in ‘taking back control’ in order to protect British business whilst at the same time advocating Free trade. He suggests that we should beware of deals that have + in the title -Norway+, Canada+ as the + denoted that the deficiencies in the deal will be magically disappeared when the UK has negotiated it. Clearly that is not very likely.
In summary, all sides of the debate come in for criticism and he argues that honesty is the only way forward – about how complicated it is, what the benefits and disadvantages are and some transparency about the difficulties of the negotiations. We are to become a ‘third’ country to the EU and, as they are our biggest trading partner, it is never going to be easy nor are we gong to get a deal as favourable as the one we have in trading terms. He is critical of all sides – the EU, the Government, the Opposition the ERG, The Remainers – all come in for some criticism, largely to do with dishonesty and being less than straight about the difficult situation the UK was in in 2016 and is even more deeply now.
Those Who are Loved by Victoria Hislop hardback £20 Headline
The latest in historical fiction from the author of The Island and The Return. it opens with the main character Themis celebrating her birthday in her flat in Athens to which her grandchildren Popi and Nikos have come, one from America and the other from Greece. She has nothing to give them except her story which she the tells. It starts during the Second World War when Themis is living with her siblings, Thanasis, Panos and Margarita and their grandmother. Her mother is unwell and later ends up in hospital and her father is a sailor away fro months at a time. When the German army invade Greece, their hard luck begins. The family is divided with Themis and Panos being sympathetic to the Communists and anti the Germans and Fascists and Thanasis and Margarita for the Greek Government and by default the fascists. The population are starving and the grandmother sells all her jewellery to have sufficient funds to pay for food for the family. She is the peacekeeper between the siblings. Themis has a friend Fotini at school and the girls do homework together and spend time together. This is disrupted by the invasion and subsequent events. Themis joins the communists, is imprisoned on the famous island of Makronisos and must balance her desire to be free with her principles.
Tangerine by Christine Mangan
paperback Little, Brown £8.99
This is the story of two women, who were best friends at college in the USA in the 1950’s until something dreadful happened, which is hinted at and later revealed. When the book opens they have not spoken for a year. Alice has married in the interim and moved to Tangier, where the majority of the novel is set. Alice is not enjoying Tangier, finding herself a stranger in a foreign land. Her former friend Lucy turns up on her doorstep one day, saying she wants to close the gap between them and have their relationship return to something like it used to be. Lucy is not happy she is there as it drags up her former life when she also seems to have been under Lucy’s spell. Slowly the drama unfolds, and their toxic relationship is revealed as less than perfect. The city of tangier is almost a character in the book as there are many descriptions of the markets and bustling streets. It is a slow burning, tense narrative showing the lengths people will go to to get their way. The story is told in alternating chapters by the two women and one is often asking who is manipulating who.
Take Me In by Sabine Durrant
paperback Hodder £7.99
Tessa and Marcus go on holiday to rekindle their jaded marriage, but soon after their arrival in Greece, in a monetary lapse of concentration, their toddler son is carried out to sea. He is saved by Dave Jepson who turns out to be a weird chap. The story is told in alternating chapters, (which seems to be a thing these days) by Tessa and Marcus. Tessa is having an affair so has plenty to hide and Marcus is dealing with some unsavoury Russians at work and ends up in nightclubs and places that he is not happy about so both have things to hide. Dave Jepson seems to be a different person to the man he told them he was and starts insinuating himself in their lives. Tessa is aware of being followed, he turns up at the house, ostensibly to mend a tap but somehow manages to creep through other rooms and altogether behave in a frightening way. This is a tense, spooky thriller – well told.
Extraordinary Insects by Dr Anne Svendrup -Thygeson
Hardback £14.99 Harper Collins
This is the most interesting book on insects and their important role in the life of the planet. There are 200 million insects for every human. There are around a million different variants which, were we to have an insect of the month, we would have a new one every month for 80,000 years. There is good reason, Anne argues, to say that insects are the most successful animals on earth as they have been around for about 479 million years; they saw the dinosaurs come and go. And some of them are astounding. There is a cicada that lives underground in its larval form for 17 years to emerge into the daylight for 2 or 3 weeks in the 17th year mate, lay eggs and the larvae live underground for another 17 years. There’s one that does 13 years too. How do they know when their time is up? There is a wasp that lays its egg in the abdomen of a ladybird beetle where the larva chews its way through many of the ladybird’s inner organs. Then it nonchalantly squeezes itself out and forms a pupa on the ladybird’s leg. The ladybird stands stock still unless a predator approaches when it gives a twitch, thus giving the pupa protection. After about a week the wasp flies off and leaves the ladybird. So how does the wasp manage to get the ladybird to behave in this way and the answer is that it injects the ladybird with a virus which accumulates in the ladybird’s brain and has a timing mechanism that paralyses the ladybird at just the right moment. Unbelievably the ladybird sometimes survives this experience!
I think this book does for insects what Brian Cox has done for astrophysics.
Midnight, Moscow by John Simpson
Paperback on May 2nd Hodder & Stoughton
This is a thriller and is, as it says on the tin, thrilling. It starts with the death of an MP Patrick McReady, a critic of the Russian regime and about to give a speech on the subject. It looks like he has died in a sexual experiment gone wrong and of course everyone chatters about it whilst sniggering behind their hands. Our narrator, a broadcast journalist in his sixties (bearing a remarkable resemblance to John Simpson) and called Jon(athan) Swift is a friend of the MP and although he accepts the situation he finds it hard to believe of his very straight laced friend. Soon he is investigating with a cameraman and producer, although the producer is there under sufferance! The story moves to Moscow and London and many real people are mentioned and many reflections on the narrators time as a journalist. fascinating both because of the background in journalism and because the story itself is fast paced and compelling.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
Paperback Vintage £8.99
This debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year. It is difficult to summarise the story of this book. It wanders back and forth in time and calls upon fairy tales and greek myths.
It is the story of Gretel, brought up by her strange mother on the canal and to fear the Bonak, a creature who “lives on the water and walks on the land”. Gretel has been reunited with her mother who she feels abandoned her when she was 16, but by the time she finds her she has dementia and so Gretel is trying to piece together the past, including the reasons that Sarah left her. There is an interwoven story of Margot/Marcus who lived with them on the boat for a while. Gretel and her mother have a secret language, her mother making up words that she does not realise are not proper words until she is at school. It is not a coincidence that Gretel, when we meet her as an adult is a lexicographer. She takes her mother to live with her, but her mother is very difficult, partly because of the dementia and also because she is used to pleasing herself. Wonderfully written, enigmatic, poetic and gripping it is ultimately a story of mothers and daughters, the ties that bind people, both family and others.
This is a bit reminiscent of Sarah Winman whom we have discussed on this programme before .
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
paperback Vintage £8.99
This is an old book, first published here in 1996, but one I had not read of Anne Tylers and I was given it for Christmas. It is about Cordelia Grinstead, daughter of the local doctor and now wife of the local doctor. One day in the middle of the family’s annual beach holiday she walks along the beach in her swimsuit and her husband’s beach robe and out of her life. Her three children are astonished as is her husband and they are also lost for she is the glue that holds the family together. They live in her childhood home with her two sisters. Delia, as she is known, hitches a lift to a town where she is unknown and starts her life over as a single person. She rents a room in a boarding house and gets a job as a secretary to Mr Pomfret, a lawyer, and later she changes jobs to become a housekeeper to Joel Miller and his 12 year old son Noah. How her life progresses from there you will need to read the book to find out. Suffice to say the characters she meets along the way are so well drawn that you feel you know them. The irony of leaving her own largely grown up children to look after someone else’s is there. She becomes friends with the landlady of her rooming house and even with her boss although she is less keen on him at the beginning and he is the reason she leaves that job for the housekeeping one. The town she moves to is Bay Borough and we feel at home there too, as she describes the details of the shops as she walks past them and the vagaries of small town living.
Anne Tyler was brought up in a series of Quaker communities before her parents and their four children, of whom she is the eldest, settled in a Quaker commune. The family moved when Anne was 11 to Raleigh in North Carolina and for the first time Anne attended a public school. At that point she had never used a telephone. She says she felt an outsider from the start which is partly why she became a writer. She observed the world with an element of surprise. However she was a clever girl and despite her lack of formal education, she entered the high school well ahead academically.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Faber paperback £8.99
This is a very different book. It concerns friends Frances, who is our narrator, and Bobbi, whom we meet as students at Trinity College Dublin. They are so busy being ironic and intellectual that they almost avoid being real people. They were at school together and have been girlfriends but are not when our story starts at a performance poetry event at which the two girls are performing Frances’ writing. They are approached by Melissa afterwards, an essayist and photographer who wants to write a piece about them. Meeting Melissa later at her home, with her handsome actor husband Nick, both in their thirties, the girls find themselves drawn in different directions – Bobbi to Melissa and Frances is thrown together with Nick with whom she embarks on an affair which forms much of the substance of the book. Frances sleeps with Nick “ironically” which somehow makes sleeping with a married man ok. Frances has a way of detaching herself from her actions, learned from childhood with her alcoholic father whose effect appears but he does not really other than the catastrophe when he stops sending her allowance. There is a naivety about the students and an urban sophistication about Nick and Melissa that allows one to exploit the other. Although the girls realise this, they are out of their depth in a rich elite world, dazzled by it, and taking advantage of what it offers. Frances struggles to keep up financially and Bobbi will take whatever is on offer in a slightly greedy way.
The book has very little description and is told through the dialogue and we learn of Frances’ feelings of insecurity through her thoughts and son conversations.
Sally Rooney is only 27and this is her debut novel. Her second Normal People has been in the charts for 22 weeks in hardback and has been long listed for the Man Booker comes out in paperback in May.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
This is a true story and is one of the more amazing books I have read in a while. Raynor and her husband, known as Moth, were living the dream. They had a farmhouse in Wales and lived from that and some cottages that were holiday lets. Due to a disagreement with a friend, in whose business they had invested, they ended up in Court and without legal aid they had a court order against them which meant the bailiffs came and took everything! Then to add to their woes, Moth finally did something about a pain Moth had had in his shoulder for a considerable time and discovered it as due to a degenerative brain disease. They left the house, bravely, and went to stay with friend. From there, lacking a better plan, they set off to walk the south west coastal path from Somerset to Devon. This is a path that winds around the coast, up and down round cliffs and bays the equivalent climb to sending Everest four times. Moth at first found the going very tough. they camped in a cheap tent with cheap sleeping bags and almost no cash. They camped wild, putting up the tent when they got to the end of their tether or energy. They had days when they could not eat as they had no money. A very funny scene where they went into a pub and decided to do the quiz, came second and for the outlay of £1 won £5 by being runners up.
It is humorous, well written, well observed and heart lifting.
Moth still doing ok although I think he is not quite as well as he was when he finished the walk. He is walking every day. When they walked the coastal path Moth started to do better when they discovered they had forgotten his medication and had left it in the van at their friends house. He had a dodgy few days when he had to come off his medication with no ability to do so gradually, but then he started to feel better.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paperback vintage £8.99
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer. After 10 tears training as a surgeon he is about to graduate as a consultant when disaster strikes and he is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Paul Kalanithi attended Stanford University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in English Literature and a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology in 2000. After Stanford, he attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied at Darwin College and graduated with a Master of Arts in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. Although he initially considered pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature, Kalanithi then attended the Yale School of Medicine, where he graduated in 2007 cum laude, winning the Dr. Louis H. Nahum Prize for his research on Tourette’s syndrome. He was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honour society. This is one well qualified man!
The book is about his journey from doctor to patient and how he learned to let go of his treatment plan, how he and his wife coped and the joy he got from becoming a father to Cady.
It is also about being a doctor, the joys and trials of that job, but not the detailed gory way of Henry Marsh.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
paperback Little, Brown £8.99
Arthur Less is a failed novelist about to turn fifty. He embarks on a world tour of half baked literary events entirely to avoid accepting a wedding invitation from a previous boyfriend who has dumped him after 9 years. He feels it would be too awkward to go to the wedding but wants a believable excuse. And so he travels around the world taking up all the invitations to interview authors, give short lectures, give readings etc. On his way he looks back at this life and thinks how he came to this point. He is the sort of novelist who “never sits next to anyone on a plane who has read on of his books” so in other words a mediocre writer. He travels to India, Morocco, Germany, the US and Japan and has a series of adventures, one night stands and mishaps. His attempts to run away from his problems is of course unsuccessful as he is his own problem – he keeps getting in his own way. This book is beautifully written and it is a funny, observant, thoughtful, endearing book that won the Pulitzer Prize last year.
Andrew Greer is an American writer who grew up, an identical twin, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the son of scientists. He studied writing at Brown University, where he was the commencement speaker at his own graduation. After years in New York working as a chauffeur, television extra and unsuccessful writer, he moved to Missoula, Montana, where he received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana. He soon moved to Seattle, where he wrote for Nintendo and taught community college, then to San Francisco where he began to publish in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker before releasing a collection of his stories, How It Was for Me.
The Secret Barrister by The Secret Barrister
Hardback Pan Macmillan £16.99 Paperback comes out April 4th £8.99
This is for the Criminal Justice system what This is Going to Hurt is for the NHS. It is an expose of how the criminal Courts work and some of the cases that come before them at all levels. It exposes some shortcomings of the system from the legal eagles to the magistrates to the judges. I thought it an excellent read and as I have worked in both a Magistrates Court and a Crown Court, I recognised many of the scenarios described. It is also funny! really funny. IN the same way as Adam Kay rails against the cuts to NHS budgets, so The Secret Barrister rails against the cuts in Legal Aid. He proposes that anyone accused of a criminal offence should be entitled to Legal Aid, and convicted felons should be required to repay it, where possible. I have discussed the book with a magistrate who feels it is harsh on the Magistracy, who are after all, volunteers. She could be right about that although whether volunteers, however well advised, should be able to imprison people? The likelihood of acquittal is higher in the Crown Court where a person is tried by their peers, advised on the law by a Judge and consequently many offenders opt for that kind of trial at greater expense to the taxpayer.
Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Paperback Virago Modern Classics £9.99
This is the story of Prue Sarn, born in Shropshire At the time of Waterloo (1815). She is ‘cursed’ with a hare lip as a hare crossed her mother’s path when she was expecting her. Such is the belief system of Shropshire at the time. Early on in the book her father dies and the funeral takes place at night. Too late the family discover they have not hired a ‘sin eater’ so Gideon, Prue’s brother, takes on that role on condition he can run the farm. He is ambitious and he and Prue work hard to make ends meet at first and then to make profit. Prue’s ‘precious bane’ is her hare lip which her mother constantly tells her will mean no one will ever want to marry her whereas Gideon’s is his ruthless pursuit of money which ultimately is his undoing. Some of the dialect words are a bit puzzling to begin with but this book is well worth persevering with. It was first published in 1924 and was made int a TV drama. It is a beautiful book, well written and the characters are so well developed you feel you know them.
Mary Webb has been compared to Thomas Hardy but I think this is so much better than Thomas Hardy whose characters are so woeful and rather than unlucky just need a bit of oomph!
The Pilots Wife by Anita Shreve
Paperback Little, Brown £8.99
Kathryn Lyons is the wife of a commercial airline pilot. He is away from home a great deal as he flies long haul. One night she gets a knock on the door to say his plane has crashed into the sea off the coast of Ireland. Very quickly there is a media storm as all the passengers and crew have perished in the crash. So was it an accident ? Pilot error? mechanical failure? an act of terrorism? As Kathryn learns more about art has happened she realises that she may not have known her husband at all. She tries to protect their only daughter, a teenager, from all the publicity but cannot shield her in the end. I read this because we were discussing tin a book group.I had read it many years ago when it first came out and enjoyed it but have re read it and I still enjoyed it.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Hardback Serpents Tail £14.99 Paperback comes out 4th April £8.99
This is the story of George Washington Black, known to everyone as Wash. As the story opens he is an 11 year old salve on Faith plantation in Barbados. He cuts sugar cane and a kind woman he calls Big Kit keeps an eye out for him inasmuch as it is possible in a cruel and despotic regime. The plantation is owned by 2 brothers, Erasmus and Christopher who have inherited the estate on the death of their father. Erasmus is a nasty man who constantly beats slaves senseless, hangs them and brands them. In other words he treats them as property, not people, and probably less well than his animals. Christopher known as Titch is a different sort of person, a dreamer, adventurer and inventor. He requests the services of Wash to go in a flying machine he is building, not for any other reason than he is the right size to proved ballast. But a bond between them builds and Wash is discovered to be both clever and a wonderful artist, so he helps Titch with various science experiments, most notably the construction of the ‘Cloud Cutter’, a hot air ballon. However things go badly wrong in Barbados and Tech and Wash escape on the balloon and there starts their adventure, travelling to America, the Arctic, England and Morocco Wash gets to see something of the word and discovers a lot about himself as he grows up, faster than most as he is in danger and must keep moving. Runaway slaves were often pursued by bounty hunting ‘catchers’ and Wash is no exception.
This is not a book about slavery really, it starts being that but morphs into a rip roaring fast paced adventure story.
The author is Canadian, her parents were born in Ghana. She lives in Calgary and is married to an author and poet. She won the Giller Prize for this book last year – this prize has previously been won by Rohinton Mistry, one of my favourite writers
Letters of Note compiled by Shaun Usher
Paperback Canongate £17.99
What a fun book. It is a compilation of letters written by ordinary people and famous people to ordinary people and famous people. Letters to Winston Churchill , one from his wife telling him he is ‘not as kind as you used to be’ one from Charles Schulz to Elizabeth Swaim regarding Charlotte Braun, a character in the Peanuts cartoon strip. it bears reading: The letter is reproduced in the book with a drawing of the character with an ax in her head! We can find Galileo, Amelia Earhart, Emily Dickinson, Leonardo da Vinci, Dostoevsky, Mario Puzo to Marlon Brando suggesting he play The Godfather and my favourite written one thousand years ago in chinese apologising for getting drunk!
The Librarian by Salley Vickers
Paperback Penguin Random House £8.99
A charming story about a children’s librarian who gets posted to the small town of East Mole in the 1950’s. (It has to be set a long time ago as no small town now even has a Librarian let alone a children’s librarian.) Sylvia rents a small cottage at the end of a terrace and the story is as much about her neighbours and their children. Her mission is to get the children to enjoy reading and for the reader it is a trip down memory lane of the books one read and enjoyed as a child. I loved it as I was always a voracious reader, although my reading matter did not coincide with hers. I never read Rosemary Sutlciff at the time. My son did, also a voracious reader. Of course there is the inevitable love interest as well as some members of the community who are pro her efforts and some who are against. It is a personal tribute to the England of the author’s youth.
When All is said by Anne Griffin
Hardback Hodder £12.99 published 24th of this month
This is a fictional autobiography, told by Maurice Hannigan in the form of a monologue to his son. Maurice, nearing the end of his life at the age of 84, is sitting in a hotel bar and he drinks five toasts – to his brother, Tony who died of tuberculosis, his daughter, Molly, stillborn, his sister in law Noreen, to his son Kevin, to whom the whole book is addressed, and finally to Sadie, his wife of many years. Each toast we are told the drink – stout whiskey etc. Running through it all is the story of a coin – a gold sovereign made to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII who of course abdicated so only 6 were made – or was it 7? You will need to read the book to find out. It is a clever device and an interesting story of the life of a farming family in Ireland in the 20th century up to the present times. A debut novel from this author, it covers every emotion sadness, joy, fear, etc . There is a family feud with another rich local family which encourages Maurice to become an entrepreneurial farmer. All in all a clever book, with a heartwarming and heartbreaking story. Gripping tense and poignant.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Paperback Faber & Faber £8.99
This is the winner of the Man Booker prize for Fiction. It is set in Northern Ireland in the midst of the troubles in the 1970’s. Although the town is not named it feels like Belfast. Our narrator, an 18 year old girl, lives close to the divide between the catholic area and the protestant area. Her “maybe boyfriend” lives on the other side and the 10 minute area, so called as it takes 10 minutes to walk across, has to be crossed to visit him. She describes herself as “keeping her head down” not engaging with anyone. She does this by walking around reading a book “ from the 19th century as I don’t like the 20th century” Although no one is named they all have distinguishing names – third sister, second brother in law etc.
The Milkman of the title is a paramilitary, so well thought of or fear inspiring that he gets what he wants in this divided, tribal community. He starts to stalk the narrator and because no hand is laid on her, not threat made nothing can be done. The community, including her own mother, starts to believe she is having an affair with him. The threats are insidious, under the radar and fed by rumour and gossip. Whilst the overall story is not funny at all the observations of life are. The “maybe boyfriend “ is not brought home to meet her mother because her mother would start on the “when are you getting married, making babies etc” even though she is still only 18. The there is the real milkman who is widely mistrusted but is actually quite a sensible chap who digs up the paramilitary weapons that have been hidden in his garden and throws them in the street! When he is shot by ‘the state’ and is in hospital, ma goes straight to see him along with all the other ‘pious women’ . Our narrator or ‘middle sister’ as she describes herself realises that perhaps her mother has loved this man all along.
This is a very dense novel but it is funny and so acutely observed that I laughed out loud at some of the descriptions. I think you should read it with a slight Irish accent in your head. Anna Burns writes like many Irish people I have known talk. The lack of names and the style of writing convey a sense of fear and foreboding that may reflect what it was like to live in those times in that place.
The author succeeds in portraying the intimidation and fear that seems to have been prevalent in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s. A great read.
Watching You by Lisa Jewell
Paperback Penguin Random House £8.99
This story starts with a murder and a body surrounded in blood on the kitchen floor of a house in a suburb of Bristol. We don’t know who it is or any other circumstances until much later on. So it is a novel of suspense. The main character, Joey, short for Josephine has just returned from 4 years working abroad and she and her adoring husband Alfie are living with her adored brother Jack, a doctor, and his wife, Rebecca. Joey has married Alfie on a beach in Ibiza and is not 100% certain she has made the right choice. Alfie is a builder and finds work quite easily but Joey, has less luck and ends up taking a job in a child care nursery which is not well paid, nor very inspiring. Alfie wants her to have a baby but I suspect the work and her lack of certainty puts her off. She has a bit of a ‘crush’ on Tom next door but one. He is a good looking ‘super head’ parachuted into schools to sort them out when they are underperforming. This ‘affair’ does not go far but far enough to create some problems later. Also living in the road is Jenna and her Mum who seems to be suffering some kind of mental illness and is paranoid enough to be watching and photographing lots of goings on in the road. Jack has a son, Freddie, who has Aspergers and also watches everybody, so it is not paranoid of Jenna’s mum to think she is being watched some of the time. As you would expect from a novel with a body at the beginning, there are lots of twists and turns and red herrings before you find out the whole story. A good read full of suspense.
This is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay
Paperback Picador £8.99
This has been in the best seller list for ages so I thought I had better have a go. A fabulously funny account of life as a junior hospital doctor. Bear in mind that all doctors working in a hospital below the level of registrar are junior. It has stories of real patients, anonymised of course, and real doctors and the dark humour that allows them to get through the working day. With very long hours and uncertain outcomes, and little prior knowledge of what each day will bring doctors have to be resilient and patient and able to cope with almost no sleep. Adam ends up specialising in Obstetrics and gynaecology so delivers babies. All the medical terms are explained in footnotes so it is very easy to understand. I think everyone should read it and perhaps they would be more sympathetic to the NHS and its dedicated staff. And probably remember to cancel the appointment they aren’t going to keep rather than just ignore it.
We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller
Hardback Hodder £18.99
This is one of my favourite authors, who one suspects is less popular than he deserves to be. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set during the Peninsular War. Our protagonist is a soldier in the British Army. The story starts in 1809 when John Lacroix returns home to Bristol in a parlous state of health. His housekeeper nurses him back from the brink of death to something resembling good health. An officer visits to tell him to return to his regiment as soon as he is well enough but quickly we learn that he is running from something bad that has happened as the British retreated but at this stage we know not what. He decides not to return but having “lost some common, invisible thread of sense” to flee to the Hebrides. Is it possible to escape one’s conscience and seek redemption by running away? Meanwhile the Army have dispatched Calley, a soldierly thug, and a Spanish officer, Medina, to follow him, find him and dispatch him. So we follow the game of cat and mouse through the landscape of Britain with observations on how industry has changed it and meeting people some of whom are kind and some less so. Eventually we find him landing on a Hebridean Island dumped off a ship on the back of a cow. There he meets a family of idealists living their utopian dream. He lives an almost normal life on the island, becoming romantically entangled with one of the sisters. He accompanies one of the sisters to Glasgow for an eye operation which is probably dangerous for her as eye surgery is not common and dangerous for him in that he may be discovered. As Calley closes in the tension mounts. We do eventually learn what has happened.
Gripping, tense, funny, interesting, fabulous writing This should have been longlisted for the Man Booker. A brillaint read.
Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks
Hardback £20 Cornerstone
One of those books where the reader learns a lot of history! Tariq, a 19 year old Algerian boy leaves home, college and girlfriend and travels to Paris. His mother, who died many years previously came from Paris and although he is not really sure why he has run away he is partly thinking he will find out a bit more of her past. He meets a fellow traveller, Sandrine, who finds a room with Hannah, an American PhD student. When Sandrine moves on Tariq persuades Hannah that he should have her room. He finds work in a fried chicken shop. So we have the narrative voices in Tariq and Hannah, both outsiders, discovering the city in different ways. Through Hannah we learn about the women of Paris in World War 2, which is the subject of her research. Through Tariq we learn the geography of Paris. A thoroughly engaging read.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Hardback £20 Faber
From the writer of The Poisonwood Bible, in my personal top ten of books comes another great read. Barbara Kingsolver always writes with passion and clearly holds the belief that politics is never far from real life and affects real life of real people every day. This is the story of two families, the common thread being that they lived in the same house, but years apart. Thatcher Greenwood and his family lived in the house in the 1870’s and Willa and Iano Knox are living there in modern times. Willa, is trying to hold her family together. In her late 50’s she feels they have worked hard all their lives, with the promise that if you work hard life will be fine, only to discover that the promise does not live up to the reality. Her daughter, Tig, has responsibility for a dying father in law, Nic, who has many prejudices. We have all met someone just like him who harks back to some golden era of his imagination. Another grown up child, Zeke, is unexpectedly widowed as his wife gives birth to their child so Willa is left literally holding the baby. Thatcher was a science teacher in the era of Darwin and a wonderful character called Mary Treat, who was in real life a scientist in correspondence with Darwin.
Non Fiction Gifts for Grown Ups
Prue by Prue Leith
Hardback £25 Pan Macmillan
This is Prue Leith’s all time favourite recipes. Totally gorgeous book, beautifully photographed great recipes for parties, dinner, snacks etc. From the queen of the Bake Off. What’s not to like? She is coming to Chorleywood on December 7th, the late night shopping evening. What nicer present for cooks or fans of Bake Off than a signed copy?
On This Day in History by Dan Snow
Hardback £14.99 John Murray
This has a history story for every day of the year. For instance today in 1781, The Zoug, set sail from Africa with its cargo of 470 slaves. the Captain, Luke Collingwood, aware of the value of slaves had over filled the boat and sickness overcame many of them. Then the ship was becalmed in the Doldrums and they ran out of water. The Caption decided to jettison some of the cargo to lighten the load so he threw the sick and dying overboard, attempting to reduce the further spread of disease! When he docked in Jamaica, the slave owners claimed for the lost slaves on insurance citing “a lack of water to sustain crew and commodities’ . Despite all this the authorities did not prosecute, until Granville Sharp, an abolitionist tried to prosecute Collingwood in 1783. He did not succeed and they were never brought to justice. Slavery was not abolished until 1807.
Life On Earth by David Attenborough
Hardback £25 Willam Collins
It is 40 years since the publication of the first edition of Life on Earth, the book that accompanied the groundbreaking Natural World programme that has the same name. David Attenborough changed the way we see the world with that series and has continued to make startling, stunning natural world programmes ever since. Currently Dynasties is gripping the nation on Sunday evenings. This book is an updated and much larger version of that same book with new photographs and updated science. It is just stunning and rather good value at £25 as it is essentially a huge coffee table book.
Divided by Tim Marshall
Paperback £9.99 Elliott & Thompson
Why we’re living in an age of walls. This is an interesting insight into why barriers and walls have been erected at an astonishing rate since the turn of the century. Tim’s argument goes to the heart of the rise of nationalism that is being seen across the world. Why do people feel threatened by mass migration? He looks at barriers from the past to explain some of the features of the modern world. He has divided it into particular regions as obviously it would take a very large book to cover all the walls in the world. About the Uk he looks at Hadrians Wall, the spread of the Roman Empire and how it still affects the UK today.
I’m a Joke and So Are You by Robin Ince
Hardback £16.99 Atlantic Books
This is “A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human”.
This is a funny book with a more serious side into the quirky and extraordinary nature of the human mind. His sample of comedians who have suffered loss of a parent whilst still a child maybe anecdotal but what is it that makes a comedian? Why are some people funny and others suffer from depression and some often do both? Robin Ince, who with Brian Cox presents The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 has consulted psychologists and psychiatrists and come up with some very interesting observations on the human condition.
Snow in the Garden by Shirley Hughes
Hardback £12.99 Walker Books
Beautiful book of stories, poems and things to do from the wonderful Shirley Hughes, creator of Alfie and Annie Rose. Her illustrations are so charming and her writing so perfectly pitched to the under 7’s that it is no surprise she has won the Kate Greenaway medal. All of the stories and poems have been published elsewhere but this is a lovely book for a child at Christmas.
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan illustrated by Neil Packer
Hardback £16.99 Bloomsbury
The subtitle of this book is A New History of the World. That is just what it is, a lavishly illustrated gorgeous book that starts with the Ancient World and through the mechanism of the Silk Roads gets us up to modern times. He wonders why there was no history he learned at school between the Romans and the Norman Conquest, a gap that had me wondering too. He finishes by describing the Chinese investment programme, breath-taking in its scope, which sees China invest in countries that have resources China would like. Billions of dollars are being invested in roads, high speed train lines, energy plants, pipelines, deep – water ports and airports. Even football clubs. Totally fascinating, simply told, a series of chapters each called ‘The Road to…..’ Islam, Hell, Wisdom, Northern Europe etc Great book. I learned a lot!!
The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller
Hardback £12.99 Simon and Schuster.
This is a feel good chapter book for maybe 7 + years olds. About a boy who is not sure whether to believe in father Christmas and vows to stay awake until he comes. However, he finds out more than he expected and discovers how a grumpy mean elf became Father Christmas. It is funny, imaginative and entertaining for grown ups as well as children so a lovely book to read with a child in the run up to Christmas.
Ben Miller is a comedian, actor and producer.
The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell
Hardback £12.99 Usborne
Eleven year old Suzy wakes in the night to find Fletch in her house. She has no idea who or what he is but knows he should not be there in the kitchen banging about. Other creatures emerge including a blonde brown bear. This is a rip roaring adventure tale that starts with a train in the kitchen when Suzy is whisked onboard by a troll boy named Wilmot, she finds herself involved in delivering a parcel to Lady Crepuscula, a fearsome sorceress. The postal workers on the magical train take Suzy along with them on their mission to deliver top secret packages to impossible places, encountering villains, heroes and everything in between along the way.
I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers
Paperback £7.99 Faber & Faber
Not sure I can categorise this book. It is about a man but not the man of the title, although it is ultimately also about him. We never get to know who the man of the title is. Michael, a journalist, moves into a flat in Hampstead next door to the Nelson family. The Nelsons – Samantha, Josh, Rachel and Lucy are normal family, Josh works for Lehman Brothers in the city and they are kind a generous people and invite Michael to share in their family life.
Michael has been bereaved. His wife, Caroline Marshall, a war correspondent, has been killed by a drone strike. We discover that they met and she had decided to stay home for a while. They bought a cottage in Wales and were living the dream when she was offered one more assignment – to track a 14 year old boy in Pakistan. It was one too many and she was killed in a drone strike.
However the book opens with Michael going into the Nelsons unlocked house to retrieve a screwdriver he has lent Josh. He is surprised that the house is unlocked but goes in to check it out. The reader learns the backstory of all the characters whilst the tension builds. You know something totally awful is going to happen and it is still a surprise when it does and a surprise as to what it is.
Add into the mix that the pilot who flew the drone, from America, has such a guilty conscience that he writes to Michael to expiate his guilt. The story is really about male grief, male friendship, deception and lies and how an incident somewhere can change many lives for ever.
A thoroughly good suspense novel.
Owen Sheers is a poet who’s won the Wilfred Owen prize this year for his poetry. He also presents programmes on Tv and radio. he recently did a 6 part series on poetry for BBC 4. He is also a playwright. I think the fact of being a playwright and poet shows in the way the novel is written. It is a tight and concise way of using words.
Citadel by Kate Mosse
Paperback £10.99 Orion
This is an epic book about the second world war and the resistance in France. Sandrine, a vivacious and courageous 19 year old joins the Citadel, an all woman resistance cell in Carcassone. This part of France, the Midi, is occupied by the Germans, and by French maquis who are collaborating with the Germans. Add into the mix the monk who in 442 AD hid a codex which many people are searching for, both Germans and French. It has a star cast of women who all seem brave. I should warn you though there are 151 shortish chapters as well as chapters about the codex which are counted separately. It is an immersive read though, gripping and informative.
Kate says it is not based on a true story, but many similar things must have happened and the Gestapo were impossibly cruel and did cover their tracks by attempting to destroy evidence when they were about to retreat So I am guessing that it is based on many stories of courage and daring that exist. Kate specifically says there was no female unit, but I am sure many women were involved as were many men
The Afterwards by A.F Harold illustrated by Emily Gravett
Bloomsbury hardback £12.99
Tis is a beautiful, dark, funny story about two 10 year old girls, December and Happiness. They are best friends and neighbours, in the same class at school. They are known as Ember and Ness. Ember lives with Harry, her father. Her mother has died. Ember thinks this is fine as Ness lives with both her parents and they shout at each other a lot. Then a terrible accident and Ness dies. Ember is bereft and finds it hard to cope and understand. She finds a way to the afterworld and vows to bring her friend back. She sets off on an adventure to rescue Ness.
It is astray of love, friendship, betrayal and learning to live with loss.
As it is about a 10 year old so I would think it suitable for 9 – 12 or thereabouts. It could be a helpful book for children facing loss and it is a good, if spooky, story.
The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton illustrated by Angela Barrett
hardback £14.99 Bloomsbury published September 2018
This is a lovely fairytale, with the most gorgeous illustrations. It is about 12 sisters, princesses who live in a land called Kalia with their father King Alberto. Each of these girls has a different interest – astronomy, botany, music, art, swimming, writing etc When Queen Laurelia dies he locks his daughters up in a windowless room for 23 hours each day, only allowing them out for an hour to walk in the garden. The girls find a secret door behind the portrait of their mother and it leas to a staircase with 503 steps down to a lagoon. using six boats they cross the lagoon to a silver forest, then a gold forest and lastly a forest of dormidon trees whose fruit is diamonds. At the end of this magical journey they come to a tree palace guarded by a peacock and meet a lioness. Deemed to be ‘necessary’ guests they dance the night away, waited on by toucan waiters. they return to their locked room by the same method. Night after night this happens and the King starts to get cross because they wear out so many shoes, the royal cobbler cannot keep up. The King, as in all good fairy tales, say he will give his Kingdom and one of his daughters to any man who can solve the mystery of how the Princesses wear out so many shoes.
Beautifully written, modern in it’s treatment of women and their skills and with a very satisfactory happy ending as fairy tales should have
Jessie Burton wrote The Miniaturist which was a best selling book and a rather good TV series as well as The Muse
Age group? It is a chapter book and so about 6 – 10 I would think.
Matterhorn by Karl Malantes
Paperback £9.99 Atlantic books
This is a war book set in Vietnam. The title comes from the name of a base created at the top of a mountain by the US Army. It is wreathed in clouds and has Howitzers placed in bunkers all round the summit. 3 km from Laos and 2 from North Vietnam.
Bravo company, which includes second lieutenant Waino Mellas, 21 years old and on a 13 month tour, is ordered to leave the relative safety of the mountain top and go in search of a Vietcong patrol of unknown size and location. They face leeches, tigers, immersion foot as well as the perils of finding the Vietcong. During this war 1 million Vietnamese were killed 58,000 Americans and more than 8.5 million Americans served in the Vietnam War. the Americans dropped 5,382,000 tons of different types of bombs.
The novel, written by a veteran, is very much about the futility of war, but it is also about the camaraderie of soldiers, the racial tensions between the black and white soldiers and the tension between officers and the ‘grunts’. Mellas is 21 and leading people not much younger but because he is a Ivy league graduate he is an officer. One of the many things it made me think about for the first time was that the officers, in particular, were looking out for themselves, their promotion or their leave. Everyone was frightened and they were fighting for a hill that no one cared about.
Karl Malantes took 30 years to write and get this book published.He is a much decorated veteran of the was and he desperately wanted to describe the horror as well as the adventure of war. many of the characters die in this book and there are some pretty horrific scenes but war is like that!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling)
paperback £8.99 Little, Brown
This is an old book now but some friends who are keen on crime books recommended it to me when I was looking for a crime book to give some diversity.
A detective story, chosen as I have not read one in a good while and I thought it might be a good read for a plane or a holiday. It is the first of the Cormoran Strike novels and introduces the private detective of that name, am ex soldier who has served in Afghanistan and whilst part of his leg there. Now discharged for the Army he is working as a private detective and as the story opens his fiancee has finished their relationship sonf he is homeless and reduced to living in the office. Just before his fall from grace with the fiancee he has hired a temp, Robin. Although he cannot afford her wages and wishes she were not coming she turns out to be rather useful and helps him by using her initiative, something her is not used to. The case he is investigating is that ps the death by falling from a balcony of a young supermodel, Lula Landry. He is being paid by John Bristow, a former colleague of Cormoran’s from the Army and more importantly the victim’s adopted brother. The book is really good, full of red herrings and blind alleys until the denouement at the very end. I plan to read some more of these as I was completely involved and engaged. Good for any time when you just want a good read – not necessarily on holiday or a plane.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
paperback £8.99 Transworld
A really good read form the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It is about a Music Shop owned by Frank ‘a bear of a man’ whose shop is in a depressed back street. He will only sell vinyl. We are in the late1980’s and Frank has owned this shop for 14 years. He prides himself on finding the right track for any customer that will improve their feeling of well being. When a shoplifter steals a copy of Genesis Invisible Touch, Frank grabs his coat and runs after him, tells him off for stealing he less good Genesis album and says the chap can keep the stolen record if he comes back to the shop and listens to Mendelssohn. Fingals Cave is the track for you, he tells the thief. One day Ilse Backman a girl in a pea green coat faints outside the shop and that is the beginning of many changes. Frank gives Ilse a copy of the Four Seasons although she protests that she doesn’t like music. Unity Street is a run down street. There are four other shops, a tattoo parlour run by Maud, a Christian shop run by recovering alcoholic Father Anthony, a funeral parlour run by the Williams brothers and the bakers with Mr Novak. They are a family of sorts supporting each other and trying to stand firm against the developers. The Music shop is stacked with boxes and things seem higgledy piggledy but Frank can put his hand on anything unless Kit the Saturday boy has tried to create order! The listening booths Frank has made out of old wardrobes. There are lava lamps . Can you picture it? there is a love interest but maybe it is not a love story in the romantic sense but a story of faith and music. There is a spotify playlist to go with it (The Music Shop), redemption, and great descriptions.
Mary Poppins by PL Travers illustrated by Lauren Child
Hardback £20 Harper Collins
This is an abridged version of the original book beautifully illustrated by Lauren Child, the current Children’s Laureate. The story is as the original with the chapter about Barbara and John the twins that is not in the original film. I wonder if it will be in the new one.
Lauren Child uses fabric, wallpaper, paint and paper to make very distinctive illustrations. I just loved it and I think most children will also. Lauren Child is coming on Saturday.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Little, Brown paperback £7.99
This is a story of several families in the well ordered suburb of Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio. The Richardsons, mother a journalist, father a barrister and 4 children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. There comes to live in the area an enigmatic, itinerant single mother, Mia, and her daughter Pearl. Mia is a photographer and the pair move on with each new project, although Mia has promised Pearl that this is it , they will stay put this time. Mia rents an apartment from the Richardsons and Pearl and Moody are in the same classes in school. As a consequence they become friends and Pearl starts to spend a lot of time at the Richardsons house. Izzy, the youngest Richardson also likes to spend time with Mia. However, Pearl ends up being the girlfriend of Trip, not Moody, which causes some tension between the brothers.
In the end the story is about the relationship between mothers and babies. Adoption and abortion and the morals and ethics of both are crucial to the story. The dilemmas faced by the characters are many and not easily resolved. A family friend of the Richardsons adopt a Chinese baby, whose mother, having abandoned it, wants it back. Mrs Richardson decides to investigate Mia’s mysterious past and Mr Richardson represents the adoptive parents. The ensuing court battle divides the community and families.
The story starts with a burning house and a missing teenager. It examines the difference between the love of a mother and the protective nature of motherhood, as well as the problems of raising a child from a different culture. A great read, easy to get into and a gripping page turner for the last 100 pages.
The Clockmakers Daughter by Kate Morton Pan Macmillan hardback £18.99
This is a doorstop of a book but easy to read and involving so not as bad as it looks! the story really of a house, Birchwood Manor, and the people who have lived in it, past and present. It starts in modern times with Elodie, an archivist who is cataloguing a leather satchel which contains a picture of a beautiful girl but no clue as to who she is and a sketch book. On the face of it these two items do not seem related. The satchel and sketchbook belonged to Edward Radcliffe, a renowned artist. However one of the pictures in the books remind Elodie of a house in a story her mother had told her as a child. It has a river in the front, a weather vane with a moon and a sun. Thus she starts investigating the house and its occupants. It has been a boarding school, and Elodie’s great grandmother had been evacuated there during World War Two. The story is told across 150 years and has more than one narrator. A tip for readers, when the Clockmaker’s daughter is the narrator the chapters start with a roman numeral, as you might find on a clock face.
Kate Morton was born and raised in Australia. She studied speech and drama and writes because she loves that sense of immersion in another world. Her mother was an antique dealer and thus her fascination with old things. She also has an obsession with old houses and the stories they could tell.
Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy by Tim Harford Little, Brown paperback £9.99
I have bought 3 copies of this book so far. It is just the most fascinating volume. Written by Tim Harford, of the Radio 4 programme More or Less about statistics, it is about the things that have changed the way we live. Not necessarily the most significant inventions in economic history but fifty illuminating stories about how inventions have shaped the modern economy. For instance paper. Without paper the printing press could not have been invented and of course we would not have books. He discusses the Plough and barbed wire both of which changed agriculture. Until the invention of barbed wire no one could satisfactorily contain cattle or sheep and so farmers were a bit nomadic. The invention of barbed wire allowed farming to be settled and land to be ‘owned’.
Of course with most inventions there are winners and losers. The invention of the barcode and its move to be used for retail penalised small producers and stores as they had to change their labelling system and buy scanners. The invention of property registers benefitted the settlers in many countries and disadvantaged the indigenous population who had lived on the land for thousands of years. refrigerated trucks, shipping containers, plastic, concrete, the pill, TV dinners etc – all told in a wonderfully understandable way.
Tim Harford is a senior economics columnist at the Financial Times. He has written other books including The Undercover Economist which is his moniker for the FT. To me he is the Brian Cox of Economics, making economics easy to understand for ordinary mortals. The radio and podcast of this book which was originally a radio programme has won many awards as has More or Less.
A History of the World in 21 Women by Jenni Murray One World hardback £16.99
This is such a good read. 21 chapters about 21 women who have mad a mark on world history. From Isabella of Castile, a controversial choice as she was the instigator of the Spanish Inquisition as well as an important figure in Spanish History, to Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie to Madonna, it is all here. As in her last book, which was the same formula but British history, the choice is a personal one and many people may disagree with her choices. For instance she picked Benazir Bhutto rather than Indira Ghandi, and Hillary Clinton rather than Rosa Parkes. Nonetheless it is fascinating. A good ‘dip into’ book as each chapter is around 14 pages but such a lot is packed in, both serious history and anecdote. I am not sure whether she worked out that she needed a composer, an artist, a politician, a scientist a writer etc but many different walks of life are represented. There are people here who have previously only been names to me, such as Dowager Empress Cixi as well as several people of whom I had never heard.
Jenni writes in a magazine style, thus making it very accessible. All the choices have both biography and anecdote to flesh out the character. In many instances Jenni explains how she came across the person or how it has affected her or modern people i.e. how the legacy has lived on and still is having an effect.
Sunny Side Up by Susan Calman Two Roads Hardback £16.99
Described as a Calmanifesto of happiness, this is, as you might expect, a funny book. It has a serious message that if we were all a little kinder to each other the world would be a better place. This is undoubtedly true and I am not sure that one book could make it happen. I actually believe that if we all read a bit more it would be a better place as we would all be a little more thoughtful and considered. It is a funny book, as you would also expect from a stand up comedian, who won the hearts of many people in her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing last year. It contains a lot of her quirky outlook on life – how she loves cats more than most people, why she has never wanted children, life on tour – as well as a good deal about her life – the horrors of buying a flat with a bathroom full of mirrors, her appearance on Celebrity University Challenge as well of course as Strictly. A real feel good book
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles Cornerstone paperback £8.99
So many people have recommended this book it had to be read, although I have not finished it. It is a great piece of fiction. Well written, funny, uplifting and soon to be a TV series with Kenneth Branagh. It is about Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt is sentenced to house arrest on June 21 1922 and told that if he steps outside he will be shot. he is escorted to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow where he lives for 38 years. He is befriended by a bored 9 year old girl, Nina, who has mysteriously a pass key to all the rooms and with which they have great fun spying on meetings, and this so improves his life. Later in the book, Nina leaves her daughter Sofia to be looked after by the Count and all the staff of the Metropol, he is now front of house in the restaurant, help t look after her. Set against the backdrop of a turbulent period of Russian history this is just a great read. The count is a witty and elegant man and the book is written in that same way.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 4th Estate (Harper Collins) £8.99 paperback
This is a fascinating book, the story of two children as the book starts, although they are adult by the end. One is German, Werner Pfennig, a boy in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta. The other main character is Marie-Laure, a blind girl, living with her father who is the Keeper of the Keys for the Natural History museum in Paris. Their stories are told in alternate chapters and one wonders how the author is going to have them collide. Werner is a clever child, fascinated by electrics and radios in particular. His skill in mending old radios has him and his sister listening to science programmes at night and being fascinated by them. It also get Werner into the Hitler Youth Academy, which he sees as a way out of being in the army and killing people. Marie-Laure has lost her sight aged 6 and her father makes a model of their neighbourhood which helps her to navigate her way around. However, Marie- Laure finds herself leaving Paris when the Germans invade and she and her father end up in St Malo with an uncle who is transmitting messages by radio to help the resistance.
There is a little additional mystery to the story as the Museum has a diamond, known as the sea of flames as it is a blue diamond with a red centre. To hold this diamond is rumoured to help a person live for ever, but those around that person may suffer misfortune. The Museum makes 3 copies and sends the real thing and the copies off out of Paris, each with a different person and no one knows whether they are carrying the real one or a fake. Marie-Laure’s father is one entrusted with a stone.
Overall the story is beautifully told with marvellous descriptions of places, people, things, feelings etc; a great sense of time and place. The disruption of the leaving of Paris which must have been a terrifying ordeal, especially for a blind person and the bombing of St Malo later in the war after the D Day landings give a real sense of what it might have been like.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Pan Macmillan £14.99 hardback
This is the story of Jaxie Clackton, a teenager on the run fearing he will be blamed for something that is not is fault. Jaxie lives in a poor district in Western Australia. His father is abusive to both him and his mother. But when his mother dies he cannot understand why his aunt does not come to fetch him nor why his mother did not take him and leave his father long ago. In the beginning of the book – so not giving anything away – his father dies because he has jacked up the front of his car on something other than the trolley jack which he no longer has and he won’t take the car to the garage as it costs too much. The hi jack has failed and the car has landed on his father and he is dead. Knowing that everyone will think he kicked it out from under the car, as he is a rough tough guy and everyone knows he has cause to hate his father, Jaxie takes off. The rest of the book is about his journey. He is heading to see his cousin, Lee, the only person he believes understands him. This is a long journey especially on foot and trying to avoid being seen in case the cops are after him. His father’s best friend is a policeman. Through the journey we learn about his troubled past and his friendship with the ex priest he meets, exiled in the outback. The priest seems to take him as he is, without judgement. Gripping, tense, dramatic. Quite a lot of swearing if anyone is of a delicate disposition. This was a radio 4 Book at Bedtime
My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding
Penguin £9.99 paperback
I thought a memoir/autobiography would be a good addition to a reading list and we have seen quite a lot of Clare Balding on TV lately. This is a very interesting book, especially if you are a horse person or like horse racing or a dog lover. Her father was a horse trainer of champion race horses including Mill Reef. It has chapter headings that are the names of animals that have been important in her life.She grew up in a very animal oriented family, all rather eccentric in different ways. Her mother sounds quite sweet and sometimes charming, her father rather chauvinistic (the year he won the Derby with Mill Reef he would not remember the other life changing event of that year, Clare’s birth.) Her grandmother sounds rather horrid with seldom a good word to say and she has a younger brother with whom she has a close relationship and he accompanies her on some of her adventures. from being protected as a toddler by her bulldog Candy to riding in a race against Princess Anne, this is an unusual memoir, told honestly and straightforwardly with no shirking from the stories against herself. It is funny, sad but never cloying and told in an imaginative style.
Walk Through History Victorian London by Christopher Winn
Ebury Press £9.99 hardback
This is the sort of hardback that fits in your pocket. It is a series of walks that take in various Victorian landmarks as you go around. There are illustrations and descriptions of the landmarks from the best Victorian loos in London to the Houses of Parliament. and from churches to law courts to clubs, stations, pubs and palaces. I have not done any of the walks completely but I have done bits of several and found it a useful guide especially to the hidden gems that you would not notice were they not pointed out. It may add an interesting element to a visit to London which many people do in the school holidays.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Pan Macmillan £8.99 paperback
This is such a great story. It is the tale of three women, set in 1820’s Ireland. The book opens with Martin, Nora’s husband being carried into their cabin, having dropped dead at the crossroads where the villagers normally bury people who have committed suicide. The house soon fills with the neighbours, smoking, drinking and generally speculating about what has happened but not before Nora has sent her 4 year old grandson, Micheal, away. He is unable to walk or talk although when Nora visited her daughter and her husband when Micheal was two, he could do both. Nora is ashamed of the boy and fearful that the crowd will upset him. Her daughter, Johanna, has died earlier in the year and the boy’s father has left him with his grandparents. Enter Nance Roche, the ‘herb hag’ a local woman with the gift of second sight and an understanding of herbs and plant medicines. She comes offering to do the ‘keening’ for Martin. After the wake is over, friends and neighbours encourage Nora to hire a maid to help with Micheal’s care and to care for him when Nora herself has to go to the market to sell her produce. Enter Mary, the third woman, a 14 year old who wants to earn some money to send home to her family and the more objective person bing from outside the community, although all three women are in a way outsiders.
The neighbours believe in both the priest and his ability to heal, indeed he is called Father Healy as well as the Good People of the title, the fairies who live at Pipers corner nearby. Is Micheal a changeling, a child taken by the fairies and replaced by one of their own? Does that explain his condition deliberately left vague by the author? This is tense, unputdownable stuff for the author of Burial Rites.
Hannah Kent herself is from Adelaide in Australia.
Meet me at the Museum by Louise Youngson
Transworld hardback £12.99
This is an enchanting book. It is about a woman, Tina Hopgood, whose best friend, Bella, has died of cancer and she is feeling sad and a bit lost. They had planned since their schooldays to visit the Silkeborg museum in Denmark where Tollund man is exhibited. They had learned about this human body, found perfectly preserved in a peat bog, in primary school and it had captured their imagination. A book about the find was dedicated to Tina and some of her schoolfriends by it’s author, Professor Glob. Suddenly with Bella’s death it was too late. On a whim she writes a letter to Professor Glob, expecting to hear nothing back. However, Professor Glob having died, the curator of the Museum, Anders Larson, had recently been widowed and he too is lonely and a bit lost. This leads to a correspondence that is fulfilling for them both. They are able to share things in letters and emails that perhaps they could never have said had they known each other face to face. The story is told entirely in letters.At first they stick to the subject of Tollund man and their shared love of archaelogy. Tina is a farmers wife in East Anglia and is finding her life unfulfilling. Had she a choice about where she ended up? As time goes on the letters become more personal and some of their innermost thought and regrets are given voice. Lovely writing and a fascinating read. Tollund Man is a real body inthe Museum at Silkeborg and Professor Glob. Thought to be 400 BC and perfectly preserved in the oxygen free acidic peat bog. Experts have examined his insides and find he ate some kind of porridge made from grains including flax barley and knotgrass. From his injuries it looks like he was hung. he still had a noose around his neck. He can be seen although the only original bit is his head. It is attached to a replica body as of course it started to deteriorate as soon as it was pulled out of the bog.
The Idiot by Elif Bautman
Vintage paperback £8.99
Interesting book, shortlisted for the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction. Concerns a young woman, Selin, who finds herself at Harvard. Many people will recognise the teenage Selin, considered clever in high school who finds herself amongst clever people at university, many of whom are cleverer than she. But the teenagers all think they know it all and probably don’t. She is, however, naive and has not come across many of the things we now take for granted like the internet and email. Struggling through a series of classes with titles like ‘Constructed Worlds’ the story is perhaps a look at the pretentiousness of the avant garde. Running through the whole story is a relationship with a man called Ivan, a Hungarian who encourages her but gives little in return in the way of commitment. She, being infatuated , thinks of him all the time, and it is s good description of that difficult exhausting but exciting time of discovery of oneself. Also as a young woman she feels constantly inadequate as to how she looks. My image of her is of someone neither fat nor thin, neither pretty nor not pretty. Just a normal person. But of course that constant nagging feeling that she herself is unhappy in her own skin, lacking in confidence and constantly on guard against being noticed, standing out from the crowd or saying something stupid.
The second half is in some ways more interesting as she goes to Hungary for the summer vacation really to be near Ivan but of course he is seldom around. She gets on a programme to teach english in the villages in remote parts of the country. Does she find herself? I am not sure.
This is a funny book, laugh out loud funny in places, handed an ethernet cable, Selin says “ what are we supposed to do with this – hang ourselves?”
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury paperback £8.99
I think if you read nothing else this summer this should be the book. Winner of the Bailey’s Womens Prize for Fiction it is a fantastic read. About a family, Isma the older sister who has to take on the parental role to the twins Parvaiz and Aneeka. Their father has abandoned them years ago and is rumoured to have died en route to Guantanamo Bay. Their mother dies and so Isma is the parent. She gives up her career an university place to care for them. Once they reach adulthood she feels she can take up a place at a university in America. Parvaiz chooses that moment to disappear to Syria where he is working for the media arm of ISIS, telling himself he is only working for the media arm, not beheading people. He is trying to live up to his father’s need for jihad. Isle tells the police where he has gone and Anneka cannot forgive her and tells her never to contact her again – “we have no sister” she declares. She is more angry with her sister for the betrayal than her bother who has betrayed them both. Enter Eamonn – who is at first interested in Isma and then in Aneeka. Eamonn is the sone of the Home Secretary so when Parvaiz decides he is not doing the right thing and wants to come home, Aneeka hopes to persuade Eamonn to help. The tension mounts. Its is hard to put down.
It is considered to be a modern take on Antigone but it is just a great novel.
Is it not essential that you know the story of Antigone.
Tin Man Sarah Winman
Headline paperback £7.99
A stunning book from the author of When God Was a Rabbit and A Year of Magical Thinking. The book opens with Dora, Ellis’ mother, winning a raffle and choosing to have a picture of sunflowers as a prize, rather than the whisky which the men at the dance at the community centre including her husband think is the better prize and urge her to take. She gets home and hangs it on the wall, threatening her husband that she will kill him if he does not respect it and leave it where she put it. This is 1950 when life was, perhaps, a little different.
Then we fast forward to 1996 when Ellis works in the motor plant at Cowley as a panel beater, renowned for his ability to ‘feel’ a dent and beat it out. He is on nights for the reason that his wife of 13 years has died and he cannot face them alone. We discover from his narrative that he and Michael have been childhood friends who both have fearsome fathers and spend their youth cycling and swimming away from home. But now his mother has died and his father has a new woman, Carol in his life. He and Michael have been friends but like many very longstanding friends they see each other all the time for periods and then not at all for other periods although that does not after in the end as they can take up where they left off. However Michael has died also from AIDS. The peripheral characters are also exquisitely drawn.
The story is told in two halves from the viewpoint of the two friends, Michael and Ellis.
I will say no more about the story as it will give too much away. Suffice to say it is a story of love in all its forms – friendship, marriage, lovers, maternal and loss on the same scale. Beautifully, poetically lyrically written, short – a perfect summer read.
It sounds a very sad book and it is on some levels but the descriptions of loneliness and the kindnesses of some people, the way people avoid the subject of the loss of his wife and some people are able to mention it without causing upset more than make up for it. So wonderfully observed and such beautiful writing it is still an uplifting read
In A Country Garden by Maeve Haran
Macmillan paperback £7.99
This is a light hearted summer read in true Maeve Haran style. Four friends in their sixties at various stages of life, love, divorce and health. Perhaps quite typical of people in modern life . I read the other day that more than 40% of over fifties live alone. One has parents that require a lot of help, another has to sell the family home as part of a divorce settlement. They hatch a plan to live together in what the local people call a “new age old age commune”. Joined by a reluctant husband and an energetic new fiance, they ignore the protests of their children and pool their resources in a lovely manor house in the country. Only Laura holds out, determined she still has some living to do, especially now she has met the dashing Gavin through an online dating app. It is the sort of thing many people talk about but few actually do – friends living together, supporting each other rather than ending up in the care home. This is funny, a summer rom com in book form.
Cartes Postales by Victoria Hislop
Headline paperback £7.99
This is a series of stories within a single story. It is an interesting way of presenting the material, both imaginative and descriptive of both modern Greece and the Greece of a bygone era. It starts with a girl called Ellie who lives with a landlady in London and has a humdrum job. She gets a series of postcards form Anthony which are addressed to someone else who may have lived at the address previously or he may just have the wrong address. She looks at the pictures and is enchanted by the blue skies and azure sea, using them to decorate her flat. . She also reads the backs and gathers that Anthony is a heartbroken young man and the intended recipient has broken his heart. For this reason he is spending some time in Greece travelling around trying to make sense of what has happened. Then the postcards stop and a notebook arrives. This tips Ellie over the edge and she chucks in her job and sets off to find Anthony in Greece and follows his journey described in his notebook. On the way she reads what he has been told in tavernas, at bus stops some mythical tales, some quite modern ones that could become myths. The photographs add to the atmosphere.
Another great summer read. Richard of Richard and Judy said if you had never been to Greece reading this book would make you want to pack your bag.
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey
Hardback Faber and Faber £17.99 out on July 4th in paperback £8.99
Great story by Man Booker prize winning author. Peter Carey is one of three people to win the man Booker prize twice, JM Coetzee and Hilary Mantel being the other two.
This story, is of Irene Bobs and her husband ‘Titch’ . They live in Bacchus Marsh near Melbourne in Australia. Titch would love to have a Ford dealership but his father, Dan, seems intent on preventing Titch being awarded the dealership by trying to achieve it for himself. To promote their chances they embark on the Redex trial which is a race around Australia that takes place in the the 1950’s. They take their next door neighbour, Willie Bachhuber, as navigator. Willie has been sacked as the local schoolteacher for hanging an annoying child out of the window by his ankles.
It all goes swimmingly to begin with but of course things go wrong, engine failure, dust, and Dan all conspire to make this a real trial. At one point Titch is missing and a condition of the race is that all personnel finish who started to avoid disqualification. However they pass through aboriginal ancestral lands and are confronted with some uncomfortable truths. The characters are quirky and eccentric and sometimes likeable. The story is well told and although it has a serious side it is also very funny in places. Peter Carey comes from Bacchus Marsh and his parents ran a General Motors dealership so he is talking from experience. This is the first time that he has written about the aborigines and the incomers treatment of them. This could be a good summer read, though maybe wait for the paperback for holidays after July 4th.
The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan
hardback Two Roads £14.99
This is the second novel from Ruth Hogan whose first, The Keeper of Lost Things, was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice which is a filip for any author – especially a debut novelist.
The new one is the story of Masha, whose son, Gabriel, died when he was two. Years later she is still grieving for her lost son. She walks the dog Haizum though the cemetery, where she talks to some of the graves as if they were her friends. Masha also goes swimming and practises holding her breath to see what her son might have experienced when he drowned. So all in all she is a person messed up by grief. She meets Sally Red Shoes who, like her, hangs out in the cemetery and sings her heart out, also feeding the crows. She also meets Kitty Muriel at the swimming pool and these two eccentric ladies help set Masha on the road to acceptance. People don’t recover from the loss of a child, but they learn to live with the pain. The other story running through the book is that of Alice who is a single parent of difficult teenager, Mattie. Alice is faced with her own mortality. The story is told with both Masha and Alice narrating their separate stories and you are thinking ‘how are these going to reconcile?’ When the denouement comes it is a very clever twist.
Dear Mrs Bird by A.J.Pearce
hardback Picador £12.99
Another debut novel, this time from A.J Pearce. It is about a young working girl, Emmeline Lake, during the second world war. She leaves her post as a legal secretary to take up a post at Launceston Press, believing that she will get to be a lady war correspondent. Instead she is the junior to an agony aunt called Mrs Bird. Mrs Bird is very emphatic about the sort of questions she is willing to answer. These do not include : marital relations, premarital relations, extra marital relations, sexual relations, religious activities, physical relations, cookery and so on. Questions about any of the forbidden subjects are to be torn up and put in the bin. There is a love story, in fact more than one, running through the book. Emmy cannot bear that people who really need help, or they would not have written to the agony column, get nothing and so she starts to answer some of the letters herself. I think the best thing about this book is that it is written in 1940’s language, set against the Blitz, is funny and demonstrates wartime grit and the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’ in exemplary fashion. A thoroughly enjoyable read!
Mrs Bird is not a very likeable figure. She sweeps around in a fur coat and hat, spends very little time in the office, swooping out to help with one good cause or another. the whole building seems to breathe a sigh of relief as she heads out the door!
The Hour of Separation by Katherine McMahon
Hardback £14.99 Orion
This is a gripping story, told by two girls, Estelle and Christa. they are tied together because Christa’s father was smuggled out of Belgium during the First World War by Estelle’s mother, Fleur, supposedly killed while helping Allied soldiers to escape. Christa comes from Harewood Road in Watford (Katherine McMahon used to live in Bushey I think). First Estelle comes to the UK after the war to visit several of the families that her mother helped. Christa goes to Belgium and spends some time on Estelles’ family farm, taking time out before she starts her teaching job. The second World War is looming and her parents are far from happy about that. There she meets Estelle’s two brothers – brooding good looking Robbe and dependable Pieter. When war breaks out Christa is forced to return home but before she does so she does something she will regret for the rest of her life. Christa returns to England changed by her experience and Estelle decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps and join the resistance. Little do they dream that Fleur was betrayed by someone close to them, and that the legacy of the betrayal has consequences for them all.
The title come from Kahil Gibran “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation” The inspiration for this book was a trip across Belgium and Holland to Amsterdam and the realisation that Anne Frank was born about the same time as he own grandmother. And how different their lives were..
Best Short Stories by Somerset Maugham
Hardback Macmillan £9.99
I love a short story but the reason I brought this is because it is such a beautiful edition.
This is a great series and there are many many titles. Pollyanna, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret garden, Grimms Fairy Tales, Moby Dick and many more children classics as well as The Dubliners, Jane Eyre, Dickens, Wuthering Heights etc. Great gift books and so many to choose from , you could start a collection for someone you love and have books to give them for ever!
What you Want to See by Kristen Lepionka
paperback Faber £7.99
This is a crime novel but not quite the classic crime. The library definition of a crime novel was that it had a detective and a body.
This story is narrated by Private Investigator Roxanne Weary, who is clever, bisexual and a bit inclined to drown her sorrows in alcohol. So far so normal for the genre. She is hired to trail a woman, Marin Strasser, by her fiancé as he believes she is having an affair. However his cheque bounces and so she gives up tailing her and she is promptly murdered. She starts investigating that and feeling sorry for the fiance, hopes to clear his name as he is the prime suspect. There are more murders and it seems Marin was tied up in antique dealing and fraud on a grand scale. Plenty of twists and turns and an ending you don’t see coming.
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett
paperback £ 8.99 Weidenfeld and Nicholson (published this month)
This is a nostalgic look at the music of the late 60’s and 70’s. The story revolves around an ageing singer/songwriter, Cass Wheeler. She has been off the scene for ten years after the death of her daughter following the break up of her marriage to Ivor who was a member of her band. Now she is gathering songs for her new greatest hits album with is to be the story of her life in her songs, not necessarily her hits but the ones that tell her life story. As she listens to her back catalogue over a day in 2015 she reminisces about what she was doing and who she was with when she first wrote the song and laid the track. It is written with a style that kind of puts you in her head without her thoughts being necessarily put into coherent form by the author. Very hard to describe but some things come out, as thoughts do, as they occur to her, not necessarily in complete sentences. It is a good story though, covering some themes of family, love, infatuation, loss, and the excesses of the music scene at that time. Many of the minor characters are particularly interesting .
Perhaps the most interesting and innovative thing about this novel is that it is structured around the 16 songs that the main character, Cass Wheeler, is choosing for her comeback album. The author has gone on to get a singer, Kathryn Williams, to create music for these songs and record an album. I haven’t listened to it yet but am intrigued to do so. Each chapter begins with the lyrics of a song, supposedly from a previous part of the fictional character’s life and sets off the reminiscences and then we are brought up to the present day with the preparations for the launch party to be held that evening.
Choral Society by Prue Leith
paperback £7.99 Quercus
This is a plain ‘feel good’ read about 3 women who meet at a choir practice and become good friends. One, perhaps inevitably given the author, is a cookery writer, recently widowed and despondent as she has been ‘let go’ by her newspaper and replaced by a celebrity. Another is a successful but single businesswoman and the the third is the many times divorced, slightly outrageous good time girl. It is a story of female friendship and how each woman battles with her own problems and how they help each other. There are some quite raunchy descriptions of some of the behaviour, slightly surprising me although not sure why. It is quite well written and I particularly liked all the foodie bits as they seemed so genuine. It describes very well how people can beat themselves up about unimportant things. Chic lit for the over 50’s I would suggest.
Time is a Killer by Michel Bussi
hardback Weidenfeld and Nicholson £12.99 (published this month)
This psychological thriller starts with a car crash in which 3 members of a family are killed when their car comes of the road whilst on holiday in Corsica. The surviving member of the family is a 15 year old girl called Clothilde. Twenty seven years later Clothilde takes her own family back to Corsica, where her paternal grandparents still live on the family farm. Her husband, Franck and daughter Valentine are with her. She stays on the same campsite as her family had stayed on every year in her childhood. Reminiscing about her life before the crash that stole her beloved brother Nicholas and both parents, Clothilde starts to receives information about the crash that throws doubt on the story she has believed all these years. Her husband is keen to enjoy the holiday and stop chasing ghosts but Clothilde persists and the narrative keeps switching between her diary entries, aged 15, and the present day and is the story of how she unravels the past. It is clear that someone else is reading the diary which she has not seen since the day of the crash and believes lost. It is a totally gripping story with many twists and turns and cul de sacs before the truth is revealed at the very end. Well written and translated from French. Michel Bussi is the second bestselling author in France. He is a professor of geography at the University of Rouen. The best selling author (I know you were wondering!) is Guillaume Musso.
Michel Bussi also wrote After the Crash and Black Water Lilies, the first of which is one of my top ten books.
Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
Paperback £12.99 Allen and Unwin (published this month)
This is the story of a concert pianist – divorced, not a little arrogant, successful New Yorker. He leaves his wife whom he has known since music school and who has given up her promising concert career to teach music and bring up their children, for a much younger woman. He has had many affairs as he has travelled the world and perhaps has not had enough time for his children when they were growing up. Then disaster strikes and he gets motor neurone disease. He is soon unable to play the piano, or do anything very much for himself as he progressively loses control of his limbs. Consider the fate of a man who can still walk but cannot get out his door key. Eventually he is is such a bad state that he needs care and help just to cope with life at all. Fed through a tube and having to cope with voice recognition machinery. It is a sad story but sheds light on what it might be like to be such a person. It develops the relationship between his carer, Bill, a cheerful chap who helps and his ex wife who also looks after him and is there in the night when he needs help as well as during the day. This is the author who wrote Still Alice abut dementia.
Lisa Genova is American she has a degree in Biophysics and a PhD in Neuroscience from Harvard so a well equipped person to write this novel about ALS or Motor Neurone Disease
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
paperback £8.99 Vintage
Well this is an old book first published in 1931 and more recently by Vintage. It is about Lady Slane, an 88 year old and as the book opens her husband has just died. her children gather discussing what to do with mother, who will look after her, how they will dispose of her house. She has been married to the Viceroy of India and has throughout her life largely been seen and not heard. The children are shocked when Lady Slane announces sh plans to rent a small house in Hampstead she remembers from 30 years ago when it was owned by a Mr Bucktrout. She will take only Genoux, her 86 year old french maid, and her children may see her by appointment but no grandchildren or great grandchildren may visit at all, being noisy and disruptive. The children, all fairly old themselves, are horrified, although relieved that none of them have to have her live with them. Mr Bucktrout still owns the property which he lets only to the ‘right sort of tenant’ of whom Lady Slane is one. One of her sons, Kay, is a collector of antiques and astrolabes (an instrument for measuring the incline of celestial bodies) and has a friend Fitzgeorge. On a visit, Lady Slane and Fitzgeorge strike up a conversation and continue to meet occasionally. When he dies he leaves his fortune and very valuable art collection to her. She immediately gives it away with disregard for her children who come over as being acquisitive.
The book is funny in places, serious in places and although old it is still relevant, dealing with the problems older parents can present, the place of women in society, (rather relevant today) life’s influences and controls.
The foreword is written by Joanna Lumley
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
paperback £10.99 Penguin
This was first published in 2008. It is written by psychologist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge. It concerns the ideas of neuroplasticity – that our brains can continue to grow and regenerate throughout our lives. I found it quite convincing – it is illustrated throughout by case studies. There are amputees who suffer from phantom limb pains who are cured by ‘magic’ Through a series of exercises they manage to ‘rewire’ their brains. There is a woman born with only half a brain who learns to function, if not normally, considerably more normally than anybody could predict. A group of children with autism are being put on programmes that rewire their brains to operate more normally. Stroke victims who regain mobility. When I studied psychology it was believed that the brain grew in synaptic connections until you were about eight years old and from then on it was downhill. This turns that around and as long as we keep using our brains for complicated tasks that require us to ‘pay attention’ we can continue to make new connections and maintain some brain power. ‘Use it or lose it” Having said that there were some bits I thought a bit weird – particularly the psychoanalysis chapter as I am not entirely convinced by that. There are also some experiments on animals described which some people might find upsetting. However, overall I thought it a totally fascinating book with lots of ‘stories/case studies’ to hold my interest all the way through.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
paperback £8.99 Simon and Schuster
This is a gem of a book. Short, but so beautiful, so lyrical that the story is a glowing golden one. Jane , housemaid and orphan is employed in March 1924 in the household of the Niven family who have lost their sons in the First World War. Jane has nowhere to go on mothering Sunday when all the other servants go home to visit their mothers. She has a tryst with Paul, son of the neighbouring Sheringham family. They had been having a sexual relationship for a long time. At first he pays her to have sex but latterly it has become a pleasurable experience for them both. As in modern times, Paul has an ‘empty’ house as the family have gone out. He himself has a lunch arrangement with his bride to be in only 2 weeks time. So for the first and last time they have sex in his bed in his bedroom. Afterwards Jane wanders about the house naked, hoping not to be caught of course but enjoying the ‘sinfulness’ that it embodies. It is a golden March day, more like June and the goldenness is so easy to imagine, pervading the story like a light. What happens after that is pivotal to the rest of Jane’s life. There is a looming sense of tragedy
It won the Hawthornden prize When Alice Warrender, the daughter of a Scottish baronet, born at Hawthornden, set up the award for “a work of imaginative literature by an author under 41”, with a prize of £100 – now £15,000 – and a silver medal, she might not have foreseen that it would still be going strong. Now sponsored by Drue Heinz, a patron of art and literature who eschews publicity – a very secretive prize!
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
paperback £ 8.99 Penguin
This is the story of a family but it starts as a story of obsessive love of a student, Ingrid Torgensen, for her lecturer. Gil Coleman. She will not be told that it is not a good relationship – she like many before and since – knows best. Eventually she gets pregnant with Nan and subsequently Flora who largely tell this story. As the story opens Ingrid has disappeared twelve years previously. Gil has had a fall and insists he saw Ingrid although it is presumed that she is dead, drowned. Flora rushes home and starts to piece together the story of her parents marriage. Ingrid’s story is told in a series of letters, placed in the book collection of Gil. It is a very clever structure for the novel. Gil is meant to be a writer and has a writing room that no one is allowed to enter. The house, previously the swimming pavilion to a larger house, is stacked floor to ceiling with books that Gil has collected. His published work is scant and seems to be largely pornographic, not that we are party to any of the writing. As Gil lies dying his daughters try to make sense of the relationship and of him.
It is a story of squandered love and how easy it is to waste talent and keep secrets.
It is a book with a strong sense of place. It is so easy to picture the pavilion, the writing room and all the books.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
paperback £8.99 Penguin
The is an epic novel, spanning seven generations and three continents. It is the story of slavery starting with the rounding up of slaves in West Africa and their transportation to the cotton fields of Mississippi.
Effia is sold by her father to James, a British slave trader but as a bride, not as a slave. Her half sister Esi is part of a group of people rounded up by other Africans and sold as slave to the traders. Their fates are different and the book follows the subsequent generations and the impact that slavery has on their lives and how it reverberates down the generations. From missionary schools to the slums of Harlem, the story is held together by the slender thread and is totally readable. There are people who try to escape, some successful and some punished for their attempt. There is Quey, Effia and James’ son who is unwilling get involved in the slave trade and suffers a loss of funds and status as a result. It is well researched and extremely enlightening on the subject of slavery. A tale of tragic inhumanity but also the indomitability of the human spirit.
The slaves were held before they were shipped to the cotton fields in the southern states of America in Cape Coast castle where Effia and James lived and the slaves were held in the basement with women stacked on top of each other as there was so little room. So many died in the transportation and many before they even got on the ship because of malnutrition and illness
The Atlas of Beauty by Mihaela Noroc
hardback £25 Particular Books (part of Penguin)
Michael Noroc is a photographer who has travelled all over the world photographing people. This is a collection of her photographs of women from very many different countries. They are all beautiful in their own way and it is just a glorious book to look at and one that anyone could give their mother. It has a little potted history of who the people are and what they do. Women of every stage and age of life, every religion and many occupations. A charming book!
This is just a beautiful book.
Educated by Tara Westover
hardback £14.99 Hutchinson
This is a fantastic read although the subject matter is so well described and frightening as to be almost unbelievable. Fact being stranger than fiction, it is the story of Tara Westover, a girl brought up in Idaho. One of seven siblings, her family are Mormon and her father does not believe in school. Four of the children are born at home and have no birth certificates, indeed no records at all as they have never visited a doctor and never set foot inside a school. At sixteen Tara decides she wants some education and sets about getting into BYU, Brigham Young University, a Mormon school. Despite many setbacks and the serious opposition of her parents she achieves it and goes on to Cambridge on a scholarship were she achieved an M Phil, and thence to Harvard. Then she returned to Cambridge eventually receiving a PHD.
The father, Gene, is what might be called a survivalist, believing that the world will end and he has stockpiled guns, food and water in a bunker. He is possibly also bi polar as Tara comes to realise when she studies psychology. The children all have backpacks ready to run for the hills should it become necessary. Her brother Shawn, bullying and cruel, is alternately loving and seriously violent so that Tara is constantly defending herself or more usually giving in to whatever it is he wants her to do from calling herself a whore to apologising. Her parents do not defend this youngest child from the older brother, rather turning a blind eye to it so that in time Tara wonders whether it really happened or she had made it up, as she is constantly accused of. The father runs a junk yard and the children are all expected to help. Health and Safety is not a consideration and there are many accidents, some serious. Believing that this is the Lord’s work, there is no medical intervention, even when the father loses half his face in an explosion. Tara’s mother is an unqualified midwife and herbalist but does not follow any particular course, just her own inclination.
All in all this is an interesting book, a story told well, without self pity, but quite uncomfortable to read.
A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray
paperback £9.99 One World Books
This is a history as you have not seen before and a good Mother’s Day present. History told through the lives of twenty one women who refused to succumb to the established laws of society, whose lives embodied hope and change and who still have the power to inspire us today. We start with Boadicea and end with Nicola Sturgeon and work though Jane Austen, Mary Quant, Elizabeth I, Constance Markievicz ( first female elected to House of Commons but as she was from Sinn Fein she did not take her seat), Barbara Castle. A chapter on each one gives a short potted history and the reason why Jenni Murray finds them so admirable.
My favourite is probably Mary Somerville who is the person on a Scottish £10 note and the person for whom Somerville College Oxford is named. She was a mathematician, scientist and artist although she was very largely self educated as her parents felt education was not good for girls making them “morally and physically unfit for motherhood” – an attitude which persisted for many years. Mary was intrigued by science and had papers presented to the Royal Society – of which she was only an Honorary Member as women were not admitted – her husband presented the paper.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Atlas of Beauty by Mihaela Noroc
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
paperback £8.99 Harper Collins published last week in paperback
The hardback remained in the top ten for weeks and weeks and was the second best debut hardback selling novel of 2017. It is about the lovely Eleanor Oliphant who lives alone and has no real idea of how to behave socially. She goes to work every day, Mummy rings on Wednesdays and Eleanor stays at home alone every weekend. Her Friday evenings consist of buying pizza in a supermarket and a bottle or two of vodka which she drinks over the weekend. But she is fine. She doesn’t need other people, she is content and self sufficient. All that changes when, one evening, she leaves work at the same time as her colleague Raymond. They walk along together and come across an old man, Samuel, who has collapsed in the street. They call an ambulance and a few days later visit him in hospital. This becomes a routine and soon Raymond and Sam are her friends. After going to a concert she discovers what it is like to have crush on a pop star, something that often happens to teenage girls, but perhaps less often to 29 year old women. Determined that he is the one, Eleanor treats herself to a bit of a makeover. She is sure he will notice her when she next encounters him and goes about achieving that.
The book is sad, funny, profound and has some extremely unexpected twists and turns. It is really about loneliness. he reasons for Eleanor’s isolation are gradually revealed. the message is that it is never too late for any of us to change.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Hardback £12.99 Simon and Schuster
I have to admit I started this as a proof some time ago and put it down again, then thought I should give it another go as the subject matter was so relevant. It is about an MP who has an affair with his young, pretty blonde researcher, Olivia, calls it a day and then is accused of rape. The book opens when the press have got hold of the story, it is about to break and James Whitehouse, junior minister in the Home Office and best friend of the Prime Minister has to confess to his wife, Sophie, whom he met at Oxford. The prosecution case is given to Kate, single, barrister, and with some kind of axe to grind although we don’t know what. The book concerns the effect of this on his wife and children of the ensuing court case. It is told from the wife’s point of view and the prosecuting lawyer, Kate. The narrative is split between James, Sophie, Kate and Ali, a close friend of Kate’s ,each giving their own perspective. Published this month, this is a courtroom drama with a side serving of what it might be like to be under siege by the press. I have often wondered about “faithful” wives in this situation. Some insight here.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
paperback £8.99 Little, Brown
This is a novel about the real Underground railroad that helped slaves escape the masters in the southern cotton and sugar plantations and travel north to where slavery was not endemic. It was a series of safe houses, underground tunnels and sympathetic people who helped the slaves escape. Our story is about Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation who manages to escape but her master engages the notorious Ridgeway, a slave catcher, to track her down and return her. It contains terrible scenes of man’s inhumanity and is an enlightening read. It starts with Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother being marched from her West African village to the slave ship and thence to America. Cora’s mother Mabel walks out on her and she is eventually left, a young girl, ostracised even by her own people, as a slave to Terrance Randall, a particularly cruel man. When her friend Caesar proposes escape she at first turns it down, but later decides it might be the only way to survive. It is the story of her escape through the different states and from body snatchers, night riders, sinister doctors, heroic station agents and conflicted abolitionists.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
A reviewer in the Guardian picked out something one of the characters said : “ America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – with all its heart it believes – that it is their right to to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation should’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft. cruelty.
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
paperback £8.99 penguin
Helen Dunmore died last year and this is the last book she wrote. Regular listeners will know that I am particularly fond of her writing. This book concerns a place in Bristol, overlooking the gorge, where John Diner Tredevant, husband of the narrator, Lizzie Fawkes, is building a terrace of houses. It is set in the 18th century and there is some background of the French Revolution. Her mother, Julia, widowed when she was a small child has remarried and her stepfather, Augustus Gleeson, is a radical reformer preaching republican views. As now this was an uncertain time and the investors that John hoped would buy his ‘luxury’ houses become more wary and eventually the project folds. This provoked a crisis i their lives as they flee their creditors.
As ever with Helen Dunmore, beautifully written, glorious prose, and an interesting historical background make for a good read.
Helen Dunmore was walking her dog when she came across a grave and wondered what people leave behind if they are not famous – just ordinary. “Only a few people leave traces in history, or even bequeath family documents to their descendants. Most have no money to memorialise themselves, and lack even a gravestone to mark their existence. Women’s lives in particular, remain largely unrecorded. But even so did they not shape the future? Through their existences, through their words and acts, their gestures, jokes caresses, strength and courage – and through the harms they did as well. they changed the lives around them and formed the lives of their descendants”
The Good Father by Noah Hawley
paperback £8.99 Hodder
This is from the same author as Before the Fall, which we talked about last year sometime. A father, Dr Paul Allen, the main character in this novel of suspense, is a surgeon in a big hospital in new York. He has a son Danny by his first wife, Ellen, who lives in California. He has twins with his present wife Fran. He has seen Danny off and on all his life since he and Danny’s mother parted when Danny was seven years old. Now 19, Danny is filmed holding the gun that’s shot presidential candidate and popular Democratic politician, Jay Seagram. His father refuses to believe his son capable of such an act, but the evidence is pretty damming. It seems Danny has dropped out of college and has been on a year long road trip. He lives by getting a few days work here and there, sleeps in his car and generally has become a ‘drop out’. In the fracas after the shooting Danny has a bullet in his leg, shot by a Secret serviceman.
Like many fathers might in his position, Paul Allen looks back on his interactions with his son, to see if he can find a reason. he also looks at the other serial killers in the US to see if there is a pattern. Thriller on the surface but also a book about parent child relationships.
Other assassinations and mass shootings are researched by Paul in his endeavour to understand how his son came to be in this situation. I think as a doctor and scientist he is looking for an explanation. Another thing I have often wondered. When someone does something so heinous as to kill another human being, it clearly has an effect on all the family and friends of the person. How do those closest deal with that? This book looks at one possible explanation.
Women and Power by Mary Beard
hardback £7.99 Profile Books and London Review of Books
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, and obviously a very clever, successful woman. This is the text of a couple of lectures she gave to the London Review of Books, one in 2014 and one in 2017. her aim was to “work out how I would explain….to the millions of other women who still share some of the same frustrations – just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them (sometimes quite literally) from the centres of power. This is one place where the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans can help to throw light on our own. When it comes to silencing women western culture has had thousands of years of practice. “ Using modern examples – Hillary Clinton as Medusa and Diane Abbott’s treatment when she got the figures wrong as compared with Boris Johnson in the same election when he had no clue about a particular policy and bumbled his way through, Mary Beard has given enormous food for thought. You can see one of these lectures You Tube and it is very thought provoking.
This book is no 3 in the Sunday Times list this week. Clearly a book that has captured a moment with the #metoo campaign and the current preoccupation with equal pay and the gender gap.
Joan by Simon Fenwick hardback £25 Macmillan
The biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, a most interesting woman, ahead of her time. She was a nurse and a photographer as well as a society beauty.
She was born in1912, to a wealthy, well-connected family and died in 2003 so her life spanned the majority of the twentieth century. She was brought up in Dumbleton in Gloucestershire, her mother an heiress and her father a successful politician. She was ‘lightly’ educated as education was not thought important for girls at that time. Through her first lover Alan Pryce-Jones she met many very fashionable people of the 1930’s such as John Betjeman, Cyril Connelly and Evelyn Waugh. She often featured in the gossip columns because of her social affairs and her fashionable clothes. She also was a great traveller before that was a common thing to do. She went to Russia and New York. Becoming interested in photography she started taking pictures of her friends. It was a way of earning some money aside from her family. She developed an interest in photographing architecture and took pictures of buildings destroyed by bombing. In 1939 she married a journalist, John Rayner who worked for the Daily Express. It would seem their ideas about being faithful to each other were different and in order to escape Joan trained as a cryptographer and went to work in Cairo where she met Patrick Leigh Fermor. They were together for the rest of their lives but were very often apart as Patrick seemed to ‘need’ to travel. They ended up living in Greece and Joan taught herself greek by reading translations of Agatha Christie novels.
The Little Big Things by Henry Fraser hardback £12.99 Orion
This is the inspirational story of Henry Fraser, whose brother Will plays for Saracens and who himself had a promising rugby career until a tragic accident left him paralysed from the neck down. This is the story of how he overcame that to become an artist using his mouth to hold the brush. You have had him on the programme I think. The book is the story of his accident and his struggle to come to terms with what happened and how he, with the help of his family, parents and three brothers has overcome his disability to learn to paint with his mouth. The forward is by J.K.Rowling who came across his story on the Saracens website and took up his cause.
This book will make you cry, laugh and stand in awe of this young man’s courage.
The Snowden files by Luke Harding paperback £8.99 Faber
This is the story of Edward Snowden, angry young man, who leaked a huge amount of information. Working for the American National Security Agency he gathered vast amounts of information about how the agency, with some help from our own GCHQ uses new technology to spy on the entire planet. It is written like a novel with a tense, thriller like narrative. It reads like a spy story – clandestine meetings when Snowden, under an alias, meets journalists carrying a rubik cube with code words for them both to say. I am in the middle of this and am thoroughly enjoying it, learning a lot and finding it hard to put down.
The author is an award winning Guardian journalist. It was the Guardian that first ran this story in the UK.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla paperback £8.99 Unbound
A series of essays about the experience of being different; what it means to be black, asian and minority ethnic in Britain today.
People like the poet Musa Okwonga, a child of Ugandan Asians who has now gone to live in Berlin, a more welcoming city than London, sad that he has done what the racists said, if you don’t like it go somewhere else. The journalist, Coco Khan, the comedian Nish Kumar, all in all a total of 21 actors, writers, journalists and bloggers. The title came about because Musa Okwonga once said to the editor that “the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job stealers, benefit scroungers, girlfriend thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.”
The book has been published by Unbound, funded by readers. It is an interesting way of publishing. You can check it out on Unbound.com
Histories by Sam Guglani hardback £12.99 Quercus published in October
The life of a hospital in a series of interconnected stories told by members of staff and patients. It is a story, told over a week, in one hospital and each day is recounted by someone different, from consultants to domestic staff to patients. All of it is fiction but as it is told by a consultant oncologist we may be sure it is medically informed. He captures the raw drama of the hospital, the fear of patients, the nervousness of the junior doctor and the anxiety of nurses as well as the ‘invisibility’ felt by porters. Whilst many books are set in hospitals, and indeed many TV dramas, none quite captures the varied points of view of the staff like this. The writing is poetic, the atmosphere tense, and the outcomes not guaranteed. The book examines the relationship with patients desperate to hear that they are ‘curable’ and doctors treading that fine line between their need to seem certain and hopeful with their professional judgement. “Medicine with compassion and honour” I read one reviewer describe this book as.
The World Cup of Everything by Richard Osman hardback £14.99 Hodder and Stoughton
This is an hilarious book which bears a resemblance to Pointless. It is a series of x vs y situations and you argue with your family/dinner guests/kids/mother-in-law/partner about which is the best and enter your conclusion at the end of each section. The sections are on such things as the best flavour of crisps, the best sitcom, top pet names, best Disney films etc,
Quirky, fun, great game for after Xmas lunch or Boxing Day, great present for anyone who is difficult to buy for.
James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes by James Acaster hardback £18.99
James Acaster, comedian, used to appear every week on Josh Widdicombe’s radio programme telling the stories of the scrapes, near misses and ridiculous situations he got himself into. This is a collection of those stories. It includes car crashes, sleeping in bushes, getting lost when away from home, all told in his distinct way. It is funny and reads like a series of short stories so does not ned to be read all in one go. Arranged chronologically, starting when he was five and forgot to take his towel to school, it heads on through his life when he seems more than most to be prone to mishap.
Funny and a good book for anyone who loves Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo or Room 101, on all of which he has appeared. He has had five consecutive nominations for Best Comedy Show at the Edinburgh festival.
Marilyn by Andre de Dienes £14.99 Taschen hardback
The life of Norma Jeane Dougherty before she became the famous Marilyn Monroe, told by fashion photographer Andre de Dienes. Stunning book with gorgeous pictures. This is a beautifully produced series from Taschen called Bibliotheca Unversalis which comprises almost 100 titles including a couple of others I have brought along A History of Photography and The Book of Bibles. There are books on flowers, gardens, chinese, artists, movies, record covers, jazz etc. well worth £14.99
100 Getaways Taschen £34.99
This is my coffee table book this year. It is a book for armchair travellers and dreamers. In two volumes it is full of glorious pictures of fantastic places that most of us can only dream of visiting. A huge book which represents tremendous value for money.
Couple of stocking fillers
Mrs Scrooge by Carol Ann Duffy
Mrs Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy and several other titles the series e.g. The Christmas Truce etc
Short Stories Somerset Maugham
Poetry of the First World War And 203 other titles in the beautifully produced Macmillan Collectors Library including children’s titles like Robinson Crusoe, Five Children and It, Mowgli Stories and classics like Orlando by Virginia Woolf, I Capture the Castle, Ross Poldark,
Not much here for children . My best children book this year is Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst Great picture book times at 5 – 7 year olds about some of the wonderful people who have made history like Mary Seacole, Amelia Erhart and of course Emmeline Pankhurst. If you have a teenager to buy for I would recommend a biograpy of a particular sports star they were interested in. e.g. We have signed copies of Billy Vinipola’s autobiography.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
published by Faber paperback £8.99
I thought it would be good to choose an Ishiguro book as he has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is his most recent book.
It concerns a couple Axl and Beatrice who live in Iron Age Britain where memory seems to have been mysteriously stolen. They live in a roundhouse but because they are old and once had a fire they are no longer allowed a candle to light the house in the evenings. The houses in the village are all interconnected by tunnels and corridors. The settlement is run by elders and leaders, although it is not clear by what authority other than they are not old. All and Beatrice think they have had a son but cannot remember quite whether they did or where he is. They set out to find him despite knowing nothing of his whereabouts. they assume they will find him. They meet a ferryman whose duty it is to transport people to the island of the dead. Couples may not be transported together unless they can prove that their love for each other is true and devoted. They spend the rest of their journey anxious that they will fail his test. Along the way they meet a Saxon knight and a Saxon boy and it is clearly a ‘quest’ novel in the Tolkeinian sense, the quest being to slay a dragon and thus lift the ‘mist’ that memory has become in Iron Age Britain. They come across Sir Gawain the Green Knight, who has been tasked by no less than King Arthur himself with protecting the dragon. As there is doubt that King Arthur existed it seems to be a play on what memory really is about. There is memory and myth and myth seems almost to become memory in the human mind.
I thought it was a great read, although a very unusual book.
Kazoo Ishiguro is Japanese brought up in Uk from age 5 but within a Japanese household and culture.
The New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Another unusual book, about lost memory. I promise I do not pick a theme and then the books. One of the book groups I attend was reading this and I have to say it is a good read. About a man who is found on the quay in Trieste in 1943, with severe head injuries. He has lost his memory and his language. A german doctor Petri Friari nurses him back to health and on the strength of a name tag in a shirt with the initials SK decides he is Finnish and sends him back to Helsinki, where he tries to learn Finnish in the hope that his mother tongue will help him to re connect with his past. When he arrives in Helsinki he is taken in by a hospital, which the german doctor has arranged. A shaman like pastor befriends him and they have long philosophical discussions which he mostly does not understand although as time goes by he gets better at grasping the gist. All the time he has a nagging feeling that all is not well. A nurse falls in love with him but he resists her being as she says ‘in love with his past not the future’. This is a book about love, loss and the madness of war. It is such an interesting and different read.
The author works as a translator for the EU in Brussels, an Italian journalist and writer. He invented a language called Europanto which is a mixture of many european languages.
The Party by Elizabeth Day
£12.99 hardback published by Harper Collins
This is an exciting book about anxiety and obsession. It is told by two characters Martin Gilmour and his wife Lucy. Martin has had a very difficult childhood, his father having died when he was very young. He was sent to boarding school at maybe too early an age and was bullied. He has a close friendship with Ben Fitzmaurice, idolising him really from school onwards. Ben has everything Martin does not – money, confidence, good looks, class. He, Martin, gets invited to the Fitzmaurices home for Christmas and exeats from school and becomes almost part of the family. Whilst at Cambridge there is a terrible traffic accident and Martin takes the rap when it should have been Ben. The result of that is the the family are very grateful and the repercussions reverberate down the ages. The action opens when Martin is being interviewed by the police after a tragic event at Ben’s party. We don’t know what it is that has happened until very close to the end. Lucy, Martin’s wife, provides the alternative narrative through entries in her journal. She has been Martin’s defender and fights his corner in many different situations.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
£8.99 Penguin paperback
By the author of Olive Kitteridge, this is a stunning novel about a mother daughter relationship. Lucy is in hospital, having had her appendix out but complications detain her there for 9 weeks, separated from her husband and daughters, aged 5 and 6. After three weeks her mother, from whom she has been estranged for years appears at her bedside having travelled from Amgash Illinois to New York. why she has come after all this time and their relationship, current and past are the subject matter of the novel. Her husband hates hospitals and between work and sorting out the children he seldom visits. Lucy has had a difficult childhood with an abusive mercurial father and a mother too weak to protect her from him or from the environmental school and home that they found themselves in. At first they live in a garage attached to an uncles house and they move into his house when he dies. She and her siblings were ostracised at school and she describes being lonely as a child, finding solace in reading which determines her to be a writer to help others be less lonely. The story is told looking back and is one of those quiet, compelling, sad but powerful books that leaves you meditating on your own family relationships. Lucy describes being lonely as a child and it is clear that in many ways she still is despite being a successful writer.
Elizabeth Strout is American and won the Pullitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
£8.99 Little, Brown paperback
A friend gave me a copy of this book as she was sure I would enjoy it and she was right! This is the story of Viktor, a Jewish car manufacturer and his wife Liesel and Christian. When they marry in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930’s Liesel’s father gives them a plot of land on which to build a house. They employ an architect, Rainer von Abt, to design them a modern house. Liesel’s father has reservations about the choice of glass, steel and chrome as building materials but Viktor is convinced and the house is built. It has white ceilings and floors and a wall of onyx that changes as the sun moves. They fill it with musicians, poets and artists and everyone who sees it is wowed by its modernity and views over the city. While the house is being constructed, Liesel is expecting their first child, Ottolie. The house is a major character in the plot and the story of the family and the house are really what makes the narrative. War is coming and the run up to war in Czechoslovakia is tangible in the anxiety of Viktor to protect his family. He accuses his wife of not believing that Czechoslovakia will be invaded. “Don’t you read the papers?” to which she replies that she does. “The fashion pages” he retorts. Because Viktor is Jewish and Jews are not allowed to own businesses he fears for the future. The family move to the US just in time.
At the very beginning of the book we meet Liesel visiting the Glass Room as an old, almost blind woman. The glass of the building allows the readers to see what the characters can not. Like all humans they are flawed and that in part is what makes the story one of betrayal, love, lust as well as historical fiction and architecture. A great read!
It is based on a real house, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I looked it up and it looks just as I had imagined it would from the descriptions in the book.
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
hardback £12.99 published by Little, Brown
Jessica Fellowes wrote five companion volumes to Downton Abbey, which was written by her uncle, Julian Fellowes. This is her first foray into fiction. She has found an unsolved murder that really happened and which has a connection to the Mitford’s albeit in a peripheral way and she has woven a story starring Louisa, a nurserymaid to the younger Mitford’s, and Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters. The murder of Florence Nightingale Shore takes place on a train between London and Brighton and is described in the very first pages of the book. Nancy and Louisa set about solving it, with the help of Guy, a returning soldier. This murder was quite a scandal at the time, especially as the victim was a nurse in the first world war and the Boer war and had only recently returned. We are in the 1920’s and instantly we are in a glamorous age, after the first world war. The Mitford’s were well connected and well off. Nancy and Louisa behave like many teenagers now might, going out at night, but not being quite honest about their whereabouts. It is an interesting idea and when I met her last week she told me she thought she had enough murders or unexplained deaths to cover all the Mitfords. She has researched in police files and newspaper cuttings and coroners courts to create an authentic situation.
The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
paperback £8.99 published by Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Regular listeners to the book slot will remember that I recommended A Whole Life by this author which made the International Man Booker shortlist. I enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t wait to read this one. Published 2 years earlier in 2012, the story of The Tobacconist is set in Vienna just before the outbreak of WW2. It concerns a certain Franz Huchel who is a country boy sent to the city by his mother to be apprenticed to a tobacconist who ‘owes her a favour’. At first the boy is awkward and finds the city overwhelming but soon settles into his stride and finds himself serving Sigmund Freud and falling in love with a sexually active Bohemian showgirl, Anezka, although he does not see her as that. He seems oblivious to the rising tension in Austria and to the fact that Freud is leaving Vienna and his boss finally disappears. He is obsessed with the young Anezka and the descriptions of that infatuation are very realistic. We wonder as readers why,knowing that the genocide of the Jews is happening, Franz does nothing. He is really a naive boy, blind to the events unfolding around him and obsessed by his infatuation with the bohemian girl, Anezka. It is a coming of age story and Franz does com of age in the end. Perhaps the book is an attempt to explain how the ‘man in the street’ finds it difficult to grasp the enormity of what was happening around them.
Things Can Only Get Worse by John O’Farrell
hardback £16.99 published by Transworld
John O’Farrell is previously a comedy script writer, having written for Spitting Image, have I Got News for You and Chicken Run. His first book was Things Can Only Get Better which was about the life of a Labour activist in the 1980’s. Since then he has published 5 novels, all very funny. Now he has published this book, subtitled Twenty Confused Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. Along the way he has stood for parliament in Maidenhead, where he grew up, against Theresa May. To give you a flavour he describes taking his parents in the car with the megaphone. His mother on being given a turn yells out ‘vote for my son John’ and only just managed to stop herself telling Maidenhead how well he’d done in his cycling proficiency test. Then she hands it to his father who tries to use it like a telephone. ‘No darling, it’s not a telephone – you speak into it – tell them to vote for John! then and irish voice “Don’t tell me what to do!”
It is a political book, obviously but it is funny and makes you question and helps you understand how democracy works in Britain.
Although John O’Farrell is known to be left wing this book would be enjoyed by someone with a less defined political view? Alan Johnson writes in the inside flap ‘John O’Farrell couldn’t be unfunny if he tried, but this book is even better than his famous take on Labour’s eighteen years in opposition. Hilarious and insightful in equal measure, this is vintage stuff from maidenhead’s finest political brain”
A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink
hardback £10 published by Pan Macmillan
You will remember we discussed The Last Act of Love written by the same author after her brother aged 17 was knocked down by a car and left in a coma, surviving for 8 years, until the family took the heartbreaking decision that they would turn off the machinery that was keeping his body alive. This is from the same author and is a book about how she has coped with that appalling situation and the ensuing depression that it caused. It is not a self help book, she is at pains to say, but a book about how she managed that may help others. Ultimately it is about whether a broken heart, caused by a variety of different events, is allowed to define the rest of a person’s life or whether they can move on in some meaningful way to allow themselves some happiness.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
hardback £14.99 published by Harper Collins
This was long listed for the Man Booker. It is a wonderful book. About the disappearance of a teenage girl on holiday in mysterious circumstances. At first everyone in the village is searching and shocked and there is no other topic of conversation. `But in that strange way that life goes on when something terrible happens and it is hard, if you are in the thick of it, to understand how normal things still happen, life does go on. Jon describes how, over 13 years and in 13 chapters, the shock becomes less and slowly the ripples run still. He notices how the cows must be milked, the sheep dealt with, nature carries on and people do too, all the time keeping the tensions there that the girl will be found in the old lead mines, in the boiler room of the school guarded by the strange school caretaker, in the house where the woman who never goes out lives…. He is a master storyteller, describing country life, village life and the seasons passing. We are reminded just how short and almost unimportant our individual lives are. A lot may be read into what is left out as well as what is said.
This is one of my favourite authors for the quality of the writing, the calmness of the book, the observations of life that slides past day by day, month by month, year by year.
A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
hardback £18.99 published by Viking (Penguin)
This is an autobiography from one of our greatest historical biographers. Claire has written biographies of Shelley, Pepys, Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy. Beautifully written as you might expect and as objective as it impossible to be. She has had a very hard life in many ways and also a very successful one. The daughter of a french academic and an english composer, and brought up in both cultures, her parents marriage was passionate at the start but fraught at the end. her father never liked her, a fact she sees to have pretty nearly always known. When her own marriage failed he wrote to her husband saying he couldn’t live with her mother, so he was not surprised he could not live with Claire; hardly the act of an affectionate father. She lost a baby and her daughter committed suicide when only twenty, both completely heartbreaking events, and of course defining. Claire has been the literary editor of the New Statesman and the Times, a Man Booker prize judge, reviewer as well as biographer. She played with the Attenboroughs as a child and lived in Gloucester Crescent made famous by Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van. It is a compelling, enthralling book.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
published by Vintage £8.99 paperback
This is not a new book but many people have recommended it to me. It is a long book but all the better for that as I didn’t want it to end. It is set in Ethiopia and the US and is written as if it were an autobiography, although it is fiction. It starts with the birth of identical twins, conjoined at their heads and separated immediately. Their parents are a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, who dies in childbirth and a surgeon, Thomas Stone, who departs unable to deal with the loss of their mother and his difficulty in assisting at the birth. They are brought up by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors who find themselves running Missing Hospital. The boy twins are named Marion and Shiva and it is Marion who is the narrator throughout the story. The boys both become surgeons as is the author and it is the medical descriptions and the strong sense of place that give this novel the sense of autobiography.
There is the backdrop of Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian uprising as well as the growing up of these boys. They often think of themselves as one organism, Shivamarion, but do not always look out for each other. We have family betrayal, falling in love and death at every turn. Marion has a childhood passion for Genet, the daughter of his nanny with whom he grows up, which later has dire consequences. Reviewers have compared this novel as having the scope and ambition of Salman Rushdie or Dickens and it certainly has that feel but is its own voice. It has a huge cast of characters, all well drawn and interesting.
I found the medical information fascinating; descriptions of operations, the decision making process, the responsibility of the surgeon and the importance of the outcome. Shiva ends up as a world expert in fistula repair and Marion as a trauma surgeon. The author is a doctor and this undoubtedly reflects his experiences
Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre
Published by Quercus in July hardback £14.99
Not a thriller and not a comic but a suspenseful gripping novel about Antoine, a 12 year old when the story starts in the small French village of Beauval. He lives with his mother, his father being an almost completely absent figure. His mother works and the young Antoine is left to hie own devices for a lot of the time. The action starts around the millennium at the turn of the new century when great things are expected. First of all Antoine, whose closest friend is only 6, loses his dog. Devastated he carried on and in a tragic accident an action of his causes the death of his friend. Panic stricken, he hides the body and spends his life praying/hoping that it will never be discovered. The descriptions of small town life in a village where everyone knows everyone else’s business are wonderful as is Antoine’s view of his mother just at that teenage age where mothers are put on earth to spoil one’s fun and definitely do not know anything. Most readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the portrayal. Antoine is not particularly likeable and is not much liked by his peers. Well written and translated. A good read with a wonderfully brilliant twist at the end.
What Alice Knew by T.A Cotterell
Published by Transworld paperback £7.99
This is a bit of a thriller or maybe domestic noir is the new definition. The story is told by Alice Sheahan, a portrait painter of some renown. She is married to Ed, a popular and successful obstetrician. To all intents and purposes they are the ideal family. Both have well paid, satisfying jobs, they have 2 children, a boy and a girl, they seem to have friends as well as being quite focussed on the family. Then one night, out of character, Ed goes to an after work party and gets drunk. What he does after that is the hook that keeps the reader dangling until the very end. Suffice to say, a girl dies, a past secret is revealed in rather a cunning way and Alice and Ed challenge and doubt each other in equal measure.
It is a good page turner and throws up some interesting questions about morality – who decides what is right, is the greater good sufficient justification for smaller wrongs, when does a lie cross the line from a white lie to a full blown wrong?
That the author studied history of art shows when he describes the artist at work, the paint palette and the theory concerning how an artist does or should perceive his subject.
T.A. Cotterell is a man writing from a woman’s point of view yes and he gets it right. I would love to know why he chose that voice and not a third person narrator maybe because it is Alice who seems to occupy the moral high ground
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Tinder Press hardback £18.99
This is a memoir but with a difference! Instead of a chronology of all the things that have happened to a person this is an account of 17 near miss death experiences in the life of this best selling author. Maggie O’Farrell is the author of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, After You’d Gone and the Costa Prize winning The Hand That First Held Mine. She has led an unlucky life or a lucky one depending on your outlook. She is unlucky to have faced death so often in her forty odd years but lucky that on each occasion she has come through to tell the tale. Wonderfully written and not chronological she recounts nearly drowning twice, the risk of childbirth inexpertly managed as well as what is probably the most life changing event which may explain all the others is having encephalitis aged 8. She is very ill and takes a long time to recover, indeed she says has never recovered fully, still having some problems with balance, spatial awareness, an inclination to fall especially on stairs and a left hand that does not work as well as it should. These near miss death experiences make her rather reckless in her teenage and young adult years. Becoming a mother changes her attitude again. She says she went into being ill as one person and came out of it another.
This has the capacity to be a depressing read but it is absolutely not. Maggie O’Farrell is such a talented writer the tales hook you in and had me spellbound.
Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah
Published last week by Hodder & Stoughton hardback £12.99
Sophie Hannah is a master storyteller of the psychological mystery story. This one is set in America which is a departure from her normal locations. Set in Arizona in an ‘over the top’ resort where one’s every wish is catered for almost before it is wished. The story is about a woman, running away from her family in the UK because she is pregnant and her husband and children do not want their lives interrupted by a baby and all that entails. Cara takes off to ‘sort out her head’ and decide away from home what she wants. She books into this resort online and has no real idea what to expect except luxury and has rather recklessly spent a good deal of the family savings on her trip. The author pokes gentle fun at the excesses of the sort of people who choose to stay in such a place so there are some very funny moments. However by accident she discovers that overhears a conversation about a missing child which she has seen. Melody is missing presumed murdered by her parents who are serving a sentence for her murder. Cara, arriving at the hotel very late is directed to the wrong room and sees a teenager with an adult in the room that she later discovers could be the missing Melody. The husband turns up in hot pursuit and Cara promptly disappears/is kidnapped. Gripping page turning. An absorbing read with some twists and turns that have one guessing to the end.
Have Your Cake and Eat It by Mich Turner
Published by Jacqui Small hardback £22
This is a delicious recipe book for cake! Perfect timing with Bake Off returning. Full of delicious recipes for cakes, biscuits, flapjacks, muffins, cupcakes etc. She has subsituted some of the refined sugar, some are dairy free and some gluten free. So in general it has healthier options.
It is beautifully photographed and has step by step instructions to make sure of good results.
Mich Turner is a pretty famous cake maker, having made cakes for HM The Queen, Madonna, Piers Brosnan, Gordon Ramsey, David Beckham and Simon Cowell. She is the founder of the Little Venice Cake Company and lives locally in the Gerrards Cross area of Bucks. She has an MBE for services to the catering industry and has been on TV in Saturday Kitchen and as a judge on Britain’s Best Bakery.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore published by Cornerstone £7.99 paperback
I am not sure where this suggestion for a book group book came from but it is a good one. A book I would not have picked up otherwise.
It concerns a young girl, Ada Sibelius, home schooled, socially awkward, only child of a computer geek, David. He works at the Boston Institute of Technology as a developer of early artificial intelligence. Ada is 12 when we meet her and she knows no other life than going to work with her father each day and working alongside his colleagues in the computer labs of the institution. When her father starts showing the signs of Alzheimers, Ada is take in by one of his colleges and neighbours, Diana Liston, and has to go to school for the first time. The descriptions of school and how both Ada and the Liston boys are treated at school are so real, most people will recognise the different characters who are ‘kind enough’ to include Ada in their circle of friends. However all is not what it seems and things are thrown up about David’s past that shake Ada’s roots to their core. She sets out to discover who he really is or was. All her life David has been setting puzzles and codes for Ada to solve, including the one that becomes a thread through the book. He was working on ELIXIR, a form of artificial intelligence that perhaps has still not been invented. Ada later on in life describes the feelings of not being up to date with technology which may everyone over the age of 8 has felt. The book moves forward and backward in time with many twists and turns. I cannot give away the end but I can say it is clever and not what I had guessed along the way.
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks published by Penguin £9.99 paperback
3 years ago James Rebanks started using Twitter, just posting his daily life – lambs being born, sheepdogs being trained, work on the fells. Soon he had 60,000 followers. An article for Atlantic Monthly led to a book deal with Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin/Random House). He said “I wanted to write the book because I love books, and I think they shape the way people see the world and whether they value things. “
He thinks most people think of the Lake District in a romantic way, not as the patchwork of traditional family farms. Believe me, this is no ordinary hill farmer. Oxford educated, self propelled and passionate man, he thinks farming is too important to be treated as a business and food too important to be treated as a commodity. The whole of the Lake District farming community have worked to make the landscape what it is, building every wall, planting every hedge and owning and rearing every sheep. This is a charming, informative book about a farming life, the seasons and the tasks that go with them. Mating, lambing and dog training as well the sustainability of that way of life are all part of the narrative. Competitions, markets, weather, seasons andrelationships are all described in a most beautiful way.
James Rebanks has a degree in history from Oxford and is a UNESCO consultant on the impact of tourism.)The Lake District has just been declared UNESCO world heritage site – maybe due to his influence
Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell published by Penguin Random House £12.99 hardback
This is a real mystery/psychological thriller. Ellie, golden, fifteen years old, daughter of Laurel and Paul, disappears one day just before her GCSE’s are about to start and is never seen again. This tragedy destroys their marriage and consumes Laurel completely for years. When her remains are found there seems to be some sort of closure but there seems to be no evidence of where she has been in the meantime. The police treat her as a runaway until the remains are found. What unfolds is darker than one can imagine. One day a handsome stranger walks into a cafe where Laurel is and sweeps her off her feet. Before long they are in an intense relationship and Laurel meets his daughter, Poppy. All is fine but Poppy looks just like the missing Ellie.
It is a book about secrets, deviousness, meticulous planning and how easy it is to deceive. The story is largely told by Laurel and some chapters by Ellie and a couple of others. It is always interesting to have the same facts from several points of view. I did not guess the end there are so many twists and dark corners to turn.
Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood published by Vintage as past of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Penguin/Random House) £8.99 paperback August 3rd
This is a great story. No need to know the Tempest, although not a disadvantage to know it either. The story centres on Felix, a grieving father and husband whose daughter, Miranda, has died as has his wife. He is really a lazy man and works as artistic director of a theatre company. He allows other people to do so much of his job that after a while they raise they can live without him and save the cost of his wages. he goes to live in a rented cottage out in the sticks, nursing his anger at being sacked and gets a job as a director of theatre within a prison as part of a literacy through literature programme. He is known as Mr Duke. (In the Tempest a play is staged by the Duke of Milan) . This programme is in it’s fourth year and is in danger of being axed as being expensive for prisoners (and they don’t vote) so some big wigs are coming along to see for themselves. one of them is the Tony who stole his job as artistic director. Revenge is sweet.
Ultimately a play about redemption, grief, and revenge. The prisoners understand revenge. they are allowed to rewrite the dialogue and do so into rap. They are allowed to swear but only using the words in the actual play they are acting in.
The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood Published by Headline £ 7.99 paperback
A real feel good book this. Great holiday read. It is a story about an 11 tear old Boy Scout who is dropped off each Saturday to help 104 year old Ona Vitkus . He charms her and starts to record her life story in parts. he is obsessed by the Guinness Book of Records and by numbers. He is desperate for her to live the longest and turns up one Saturday with the ten most common ways of dying that he wants her to avoid including slicing her thumb off while slicing a bagel. The Lithuanian born lady is told she needs ‘docs’ to prove her age but she has none, no birth certificate noting. One Saturday the boy does not turn up so she assumes he is ‘just like all the rest’ . the 2 weeks later his father turns up and carries on the good deed where his sone left off. Somehow, the father , estranged from Belle, the boys mother, feels closer to his son while with Miss Vitkus. Eventually he takes her and Belle on a road trip to visit Laurentas, Ona’s son in the hope he has her birth certificate, he is only 90! There are lists from the GBR – always in 10’s and related to the story. e.g travel lists – furthest travel backwards
The themes are of loss and mourning, reparation and redemption. It is beautifully written, heartwarming, funny and uplifting.
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal paperback published by Maclehose (Quercus) £8.99
This is a medical drama. A 19 year old boy heads out to go surfing very early in the morning with 2 chums. Will they find the awesome wave they seek? They cram back into the van they have travelled in, cold and shivering and set off home. However the van has 2 seat belts, not 3, and they have an accident when the driver nods off. The passenger without the seat belt Simon Limbeau, is catastrophically injured. Thus starts this novel, first published in french, and subsequently translated by Jessica Moore. It is lyrical and descriptive of all the characters, from the pain and disbelief of the parents to the character of the nurse in charge of the organ transplant programme. The whole story takes place within 24 hours as organs deteriorate once the brain is dead. We meet the recipients, the surgeons, the nurses. The story is dealt with sensitively and translated poetically. The translator is a poet and musician and it shows. It could be mawkish but is not and many people said they could not put it down and recommended it to me. Although on the surface this is a grim subject in a way but it is not a grim book. It is instructive in the process of organ donation.
The Faithful by Juliet West hardback Macmillan £12.99 published this month
This is the story of Hazel, a 16 year old girl when the story begins. She has an absent father and certainly what we, in todays time, would regard as a neglectful mother. Left alone in the house Hazel is attracted to a camp of young people in the nearby coastal village. They turn out to be young blackshirts, followers of Oswald Mosley. Befriended by one of them, Lucia, Hazel is drawn into their way of thinking and seems to find Mosley charismatic. Lucia is a bouncy upper class young woman who gathers up the lonely Hazel. There is a working class boy, Tom, who Hazel meets secretly in the late evening when he peers over her garden wall. The camp is only here for 2 weeks but the friendships live on. Hazel ends up sharing a flat in London with Lucia and Tom ends up going off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The in-betweens would spoil it for the reader so we will not give any more story away. Readers will be surprised by the amount of smoking that is mentioned now that we are much less used to seeing people smoke. However it is a little piece of our history that most of us do not want to think about.
I loved Hazel as she was a feisty independent spirit refusing to behave the way society and her mother expected her to although she was careful to hide her motherhood when at work as mothers were not expected to work and she would have lost the job)
The Children Act by Ian MacEwan paperback Vintage £8.99
This is a gripping story about Fiona Maye, a high court judge and Adam an almost 18 year old boy. The boy is suffering from leukaemia and the hospital have brought his case to the High Court because he is refusing treatment as it would involve a blood transfusion which his religion does not allow. The parents support him in this decision although, like every parent in such a terrible situation, they are distraught at the prospect of losing their only son. The case is confused by his age as he is almost 18 and therefore close to being able to take his own decisions about his future and there is precedent for children being able to take such a decision at the age of 16 if they are mature and would seem to know their own mind. Fiona visits the boy in hospital, having heard both sides of the case. What she decides obviously affects Adam but it also has lasting repercussions for her, as she and her husband, who have no children, have reached a crisis point in their own relationship. The husband complaining they are more like siblings than spouses wants to embark on an affair before he is too old. he has not had sex with Fiona for “seven weeks and a day” and he is keen to have one glorious affair. he does not want to deceive her though so wants her blessing.
It is wonderful writing as we have come to expect from Ian MacEwan and if you have not read anything by him I should start now. You could try Enduring Love, Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach. Ian McEwan has a fascination for the institutionalised powers? (His books are about surgeons, scientists, spies, people who seem glamourous.)
Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thien Paperback Granta £8.99
This books was recommended by a friend and although I am only half way through I am loving it. It takes a little bit of sorting out at the beginning to work out all the relationships but is so worth the effort. The story concerns a young girl, Jiang Li-ling or by her english name, Marie Jiang. She lives in Canada with her mother. Her father has ‘disappeared twice’ from her life – once to go to Hong Kong and a second time when he committed suicide. That same year she and her mother take in a relation, Ai-ming, fleeing China, having got into trouble during the Tiananmen demonstrations. There is a book within a book, in that there are 31 notebooks, transcribed and hidden during the cultural revolution, when owning a book was considered a crime. It seems to have been transcribed many times and so we have an imperfect account due to transcription as well as being a particular point of view.
With Ai-ming to whom she becomes close Marie discovers her past from the Chinese civil war in 1949 to the present day. About her ancestors, two sisters, Swirl and Big Mother Knife who were tea house singers and how her father was a famous composer and was friendly with Sparrow, the son of Big Mother and Ba Lute, himself a great musician. From the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, central to this family of musicians, to starvation, labour camps and the whole panoply of effects of the cultural revolution the scope of the book is astonishing.
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice hardback £14.99 published July 6th.
This is the story of which many people may have read of Ruth and Simon Fitzmaurice. Ruth born and bred in Co Louth is married to Simon. they live in Co Wicklow. They have 3 small boys and Simon is a successful film maker when he develops motor neurone disease. The book is about their fight to be ‘normal’ as long as possible and for Simon to live as long as possible as full a life as possible. As Simon deteriorates they decide to have another baby. Both families and all friends think they are mad and maybe for a moment they do too when they discover that they are expecting twins. However this proves to be a life affirming event and family life is chaotic, exhausting and everything you might expect with 5 young children and a life threatening condition. Simon talks through a computer ‘with an american accent’ as the only bit he can still move is his eyes. he breathes through a ventilator and is nourished though a tube. He manages to make a film and money is raised through crowd funding to allow a longer shooting time as clearly working under these handicaps means everything takes longer. Ruth finds salvation in her darker moments from her friends ‘the tragic wives swimming club’ Two other women – Michelle whose husband is in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident and Aifric, her schoolfriend. They swim in the sea in all weathers and all times year, finding peace in the water and in their friendship.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith paperback £7.99 Published by Polygon imprint of Birlinn
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency so may be known to many listeners. If not I can commend anything by him as a light, amusing, read. The No 1 ladies Detective Agency is a funny series of books about a female private detective, Precious Ramotswe her relationship with the local garage owner, L.B. Maketoni and a series of cases to solve, all set in Botswana.
This book is not in that series and is another funny standalone book about Cornelius ‘Fatty” O’Leary and his wife Betty. They live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, (that is open to considerable mispronunciation) and set off on the trip of a lifetime to Ireland. From the get go Fatty’s luggage is lost, his clothing disappears from the drier in his hotel so he has nothing but a pair of shoes and later in the book something happens to them also. Calamity after calamity befalls them. Their fellow guests cause Fatty discomfort and us, the readers, amusement. It is a quick easy read, perfect for a plane or train ride.
Roots, Radicals and Rockers by Billy Bragg hardback £20 Faber & Faber
The subtitle of this is How Skiffle Changed the World. Billy Bragg argues that skiffle was the link between jazz and big band and modern rock and pop. He tells the reader that the famous George Harrison quote that Lead Belly led to The Beatles misses out a bit The Lead Belly led to Lonnie Donegan and Lonnie Donegan led to The Beatles. It is a fascinating book even if you are not that interested in the history of music. There are many references to the giants of pop and rock. Billy Bragg tells us that George Harrison begged to borrow the cash, aged 13 , to attend every one of Lonnie Donegan’s six night stint at the Liverpool Empire. Of course Lead Belly had recorded Rock Island Line before Donegan but it was Donegan that took it into the charts and started the stampede to buy guitars and join a skiffle group with its washboard and double bass. Up until then teenagers listened to what their parents wanted them to hear but from then on we can chart the rise of pop and rock through punk and spot the difference between popular music and pop music.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney paperback £8.99 Hodder & Stoughton
This won the Baileys Womens prize for Fiction in 2016 and the Desmond Elliott prize for fiction. It is a dark tale of the underlife of Cork. Opening with an accidental murder it covers drugs, alcohol, prostitution with a cast of characters who really one shouldn’t like but somehow cannot help but like. Ryan, aged 15, has an alcoholic father and his other has died. Despite being the local drug dealer and a dropout from school he has the lovely Karine as his girlfriend. Maureen has accidentally murdered someone by hitting them with a ‘holy stone’. Maureen lives next door to Tony Cusack, father of Ryan. Tony gets involved in the disposal of the body. Then the floor has to be cleaned and the tiling replaced. The story is funny as well as dark and has plenty of blaspheming. Lots of very funny scenes – Maureen going to confession to admit the murder being one. Over it all the catholic church holds sway. The elephant in the room. Warning – lots of vulgar language!
Spies by Michael Frayn paperback £8.99 faber & faber
This won the Whitbread prize in 2002 when first published. It is now on the A level English Literature syllabus. It is a delightful modern classic (my definition) the story of a boy, Stephen, bored with his uneventful home life and bullied at school, his friend Keith, a neighbour who is a rather domineering character who knows it all and does little for Stephen’s fragile ego. Keith convinces Stephen that his mother (Keith’s) is a german spy. they have a cup inside a hedge from where they can watch the comings and goings of the street in which they live. They plot her movements and make notes. At one point they find her diary with a mysterious ‘x’ against certain days. Also an exclamation mark against some. An adult reader may easily guess what these mean but to boys in Britain during World War Two they are indications of her ‘other life’. The story is told from the point of view of Stephen’s adult self returning to look at the street he get up in and reminiscing his way through the plot. I loved some of the detail e.g. Keith’s parents never speak to Stephen directly, they always talk to him through Keith – would your friend like a drink? The descriptions summon up life in a more innocent time before mobile phones and the internet. It is funny, sad, moving and great storytelling all in one small book.
10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow up Strong and Free by Steve Biddulph paperback £16.99 published by Thornsons
This is a new self help book from the author of Raising Boys, Raising Girls and the Complete Secrets of Happy Children. It proposes that there are 10 main things a girl needs to be happy and strong and able to cope in the world of social media. they include : To be loved and cared for, to be cherished by a father or father figure, to have a special passion or interest , to have wise women who will help her become and adult etc. It is interactive so every few pages you are invited to do a self evaluation quiz, or an idea to give a quick rating to. These instant response items get you personalising the ideas and applying them to your own life, your family and especially our daughter. Things have got better for girls, he posits, throughout the last hundred years. People fought hard for our daughters to have more equality and opportunity and to be less pushed into the narrow boxes of what a girl, or woman, could be. He says abut 10 years ago all this started to change . and why – social media of course and the pressured and competitive way we live today.
The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale paperback Bloomsbury £8.99
This is the true story of a Victorian child murderer. In 1885 Robert Coombes and his 12 year old brother went to Lords cricket ground. What nobody knew was that Robert had stabbed his mother to death in their small house in East London. It is a sad and sorry story, gripping in its intensity. The truth gives the whole saga a tension and drama. Their father was a seaman and was away for months at a time. It was widely reported that Robert and his brother Natty were not easy children, but whether they were any more than boisterous boys in need of a bit of discipline is unclear to me. Their mother seems a bit inept and also quite an angry woman, who hit them regularly, although that may be true of very many Victorian mothers – “spare the rod and spoil the child”
The intricacies of the trial are well told and Robert eventually goes to Broadmoor, having been declared insane. There as a child he mixes with adult criminals, also insane and receives treatment that might be a good model for today. He stays there 17 years before being released, travelling to Australia and becoming a soldier in the Australian army, serving in Gallipoli and France. He received a military medal for Gallipoli service.
He ended his days in Australia where he had taken in a boy, Harry Smith, who had been beaten by his father. The author met Harry Smith as an old man in a nursing home. Not clear whether he knew about Roberts past or not but that he spoke warmly of him is certain.
Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler hardback Hodder & Stoughton £20 published this month
This is a memoir by the gardening guru Alys Fowler. It is an account of an exploration of the canals around Birmingham where she lives as well as a personal journey. She describes the flora and fauna of the canals, explored in an inflatable kayak with different friends and her link with the garden which is in her blood. “I garden therefore I am” She feels she could live without lots of things but never her garden. Her training has taught her to be closely observant an she describes some things in great detail – the life cycle of eels, moss, kingfishers , bees. This book is a loving tribute to Birmingham, Alys’ adopted city as well as to the value of outside space – allotments, pots balconies. The book also describes an emotional journey. She is married to a man she just refers to as H. who suffers from cystic fibrosis. She clearly cares a lot about him but by half way through the book she finds herself in love with a woman and ending her marriage. She describes the feelings that arouses in herself as well as friends and family, including H. Getting back to the soil soothes her soul and the canals in some way satisfy her need for an adventure and mirrors her emotional journey.
Alys is a journalist and writer. She has a weekly column in The Guardian, set up Berryfields which was the garden used by the BBC for Gardeners World, now Monty Don at Longmeadow.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood Paperback Little Brown £8.99
Short stories from one of our great authors. Margaret Atwood is Canadian and writes so many different things. This has the subtitle, Nine Wicked Tales and they are!
The first three are linked stories and are about Gavin, a poet and his muse Constance. When we meet them Gavin lounges about all day and smokes weed and writes sonnets while Constance has dull jobs and sells fantasy stories to earn the money to fund his lifestyle. When he cheats on her she declares the relationship over and they break up. Later Constance writes her story Aphinland into a novel and becomes a famous writer of fantasy which she declares is all based on reality. Gavin lives to regret his cheating as she is very wealthy and far more acclaimed as a writer than he.
The theme linking these stories is that of ageing. How physically age takes its toll but more importantly, how one’s perspective changes as one gets older. Thus Constance gets her revenge by including Gavin in her story as a character locked in a trunk. we meet Constance as an old lady, recently widowed, hearing her dead husband’s voice ‘pull yourself together’ when she is marooned in the house in a snowstorm and sets out to get salt to clear her path. She uses her husbands ashes to mark her route so she will find her way home.
How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn paperback Penguin Modern Classics £10.99
First published in 1939, this is a very moving description of life in a welsh mining village in South Wales. The language is pure poetry. A touching, moving account of life in a small welsh mining town . The story is told from the viewpoint of Huw Morgan, who, as the book opens is leaving the valley in which he grew up The story is told looking back at his life starting with events when he was six years old. He comes from a big family, his parents are methodist and his father and older brothers all miners. One or two of the brothers get involved in the evolution of the union locally and their father is very unforgiving. It summons up the wonderful welsh hills and valleys and reminds us of the heavy price paid by coal miners and their families.
First published in 1939, and has been in print since.
Landmarks By Robert MacFarlane paperback Penguin £9.99
I heard him being interviewed on the radio about words and discovered this book which I hd not come across before. It is a book about the language of nature. He wrote it because he discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was losing words like bluebell, dandelion, pasture, willow, heron, ivy, kingfisher in favour of words like blog, broadband, MP3, chatroom. You get my drift.
In 2007 The author was shown the Peat Glossary – a collection of 120 terms for the moorland on Lewis. And that was just the words from 3 small villages. Every village in the upper islands would have words to contribute. Thus started this collection of words to describe nature, many of which are being lost to the language. It would seem every county has a word for a bog, a path between houses, a field a pollarded tree. The copy I have seen is the hardback but the paperback has many more words in it as people have sent them to him.
Favourite words: flippety – young twig or branch that bends before a hook or clippers
dodder – old pollard from Bedfordshire
spronky – having many roots
heavengravel – hailstones
London Lies beneath by Stella Duffy paperback published by Virago £ 8.99
This is a wonderful description of life in Walworth in 1912. Three boys and their families are the main characters but we get a great feel for the area, for the markets, and streets, as well as the poverty and sense of community. This is a community that looks out each for the other. The boys, aged 12, Tom, Jimmy and Itzak hang out together, running round the streets and parks of South London with a freedom most children today would not recognise. They are adventure seekers and explorers. When they find out about the local scout group setting up, they cannot wait to join, but how to pay for the uniform? They get odd jobs, fetching and carrying for their neighbours, including a laundry woman who has scout shirts that have been given to her by a family for whom she does the laundry. The boys are in seventh heaven and when a camp is mooted, down the Thames on the Isle of Sheppey they cannot wait to go. They are unlikely to have been in a boat, unlikely even to have been across the river. Remember the Thames would have been a very different river to the one we know today. They talk, cajole, beg and plead to be allowed to go to camp and eventually their parents agree. But disaster strikes in the form of a squall that turns the boat over. Can the community survive this? How do the families cope?
Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma published by Penguin Hardback £12.99
New fiction from a new author. Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro and lives in London. The main character in her book is born and raised in Rio and travels as a young man to Europe, settling in London where he becomes a doctor. Thirty years later, he receivers a letter from Brazil from the daughter, Luana, of the family maid, Rita, with whom, as a teenager, he had been infatuated. He tells no one, not even his wife, but it burns a hole in his brain and he spends many hours reminiscing about his life in Rio with his father and brother, his mother having died and being sorely missed. Rita is quite like a mother to him. It is such a good description of teenage angst, and of Rio. Eventually Andre returns to Brazil in search of his lost love and finds more that he bargained for.
I really enjoyed this with it’s great descriptions of life in Brazil for the wealthy and for the less fortunate from the favelas. The contrast between colourful Brazil and grey London adds to the story.
Sebastian Barry Days Without End Faber Paperback £8.99
First novelist to win the Costa book of the Year twice.
It is a brilliant tale of war, love, coming of age, friendship, etc. The story of one Thomas McNulty, aged 17, who leaves famine ridden Ireland to seek his fortune in the New World. There he teams up with one John Cole who is also escaping his life in the US. Together they get work as without it they cannot live. At first they work as miners but then, seeing an advert for ‘clean boys’ in an inn they end up working as crossdressing women entertainers for the miners who are living in an almost entirely male society. When that runs out they join the army and end up in a very strange world. The massacre of the Indians who are standing between the gold rush incomers and the gold is told with horrific reality. The 2 boys are not as appalled by it as I am. Then they carry on to get involved in the Civil War. There is a lot of warfare and a wonderfully described relationship between the 2 lads. They form an unconventional family with an orphaned Indian girl called Winona.
Before the Fall Noah Hawley Hodder £7.99 paperback NOT out in paperback until April 20th
This is a thriller. It starts with a take off of a plane from Martha’s Vineyard in contemporary Massachusetts. At the last minute one of the people who owns this private plane invites a recovering alcoholic and painter Scott to return to the city with them. He almost misses the plane but just makes it. Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes into the ocean. Of the eleven people on board, only 2 people survive, the painter and a 4 year old boy, JJ. The painter swims for miles keeping the boy afloat. (Lucky he is a champion swimmer!)
We get the back story of the other people on board, the owners and the crew, the struggle of the painter to maintain some anonymity and of course, the press, with their endless conspiracy theories. As we learn more about the people on board we develop one theory after another about what really happened.
Dreamweaver Olivia Whitworth Quadrille £10.99 paperback
Now this is a weird book for me to do as it is an adult colouring book. But it requires no reading and is so beautifully drawn that it would make a wonderfully non fattening Easter present or Mothers day present. Colouring is wonderfully soothing, requiring a bit of concentration. And I know the artist who is the daughter of our best man!
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford Faber £8.99 paperback
This is another historical novel set in America. I did not start out to have this coincidence, it just turns out that way. This is an earlier period and concerns a Richard Smith who sails for the US in 1746. He arrives with a promissory note for £1738 15s and 4d, New York money £1000 sterling. The bank is most reluctant to cash this as he could be anyone and it could be false and it is a huge amount of money. He agrees to wait for 60 days so they can write to London and see if he is genuine. He asks them to change his guineas into smaller change which the banker, Lovell, does but gives him all kinds of different currencies and some paper and some coin. he is quickly rooted of all this and has almost nothing so has to set about living on credit for 60 days, whilst keeping an eye out for his assailant. The problem he has is that once word gets round that he is rich he is a target for thieves. He makes some money playing Piquet, the rules of which are far from clear! The Guardian reviewer said that the 18th century narrator is a great comic device and I have to agree. When describing the card game the narrator says “alas the description is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again for the game has begun. We are out of time, with little enlightenment secured. Still, the reader may now find himself in as bemused a position as Mr Smith; which is, to be sure, a kind of gain in understanding.”
There is a love interest – at least he is interested in her but she is not so enamoured. Throughout the book, the inhabitants of New York as well as the reader have no idea why he has come to New York or what his plan is for such a large sum of money. He remains enigmatic throughout. The descriptions of early Manhattan are great and the historical detail is so good that you feel you are there. The sights, sounds and smells of 18th century New York are there for the reading.
The Collins Complete Guide to British Birds £16.99 paperback
This is the best bird book I have come across. It has lovely photos of birds and detailed descriptions. It also has pictures of birds that could be confused which is enormously helpful. I thought as we have spring upon us people might like a name for the lovely birds that are all round us singing their heads off. Each bird has pictures of adults and juveniles and descriptions of calls, habits and where they are to be found. A great guide for beginner or twitcher alike! Why is it the best? The pictures and text are on opposite pages – many bird books have a text section and a picture section. Also it has photos of birds you might confuse so that you can compare.
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò published by Canongate Published March 2nd hardback £14.99
Aptly named as this book Stayed Wth Me. It is told in 2 voices Yejide and her husband Akin. They are a newly wed Nigerian couple full of hope and promise. The book is set looking back at 1980’s Nigeria from 2008 Nigeria. Like many young couples the world over their expectation is that they marry and have children. This proves a problem. Akin’s family are constantly wondering where the babies are and there is considerable pressure for Yejide to get pregnant. Yejide herself is desperate to be pregnant. She has a series of stepmothers, her own mother having died. but it is clear that her stepmothers are not very interested in her but only in their own children. Poor Yejide, a hair stylist, has a phantom pregnancy before she finally does become pregnant. By the time she becomes pregnant she has tried all kinds of what we might consider cranky ways to become pregnant including visiting mystic men on the top of mountains. However there is only one way to become pregnant! Interestingly, I started liking Yejide and finding Akin unsympathetic but the story moves on to describe the pressures on him and he seems likeable too, we are all flawed humans and this couple are like the rest of us, flawed and human.
The book deals with death of children, polygamy, love, societal pressure, family ties and love. Beautifully written debut novel.There are lots of twists and turns that make the ending unpredictable.
The Muse by Jessie Burton Picador £8.99 paperback
An interesting story about a painting. The narrative moves between 1960’s London and 1930’s Spain where a family, drunken mother, art collector father and repressed daughter are at first on holiday and end up staying a longer period. They have 2 local people who help Teresa in the house and her brother Isaac, who has another job and is a political activist, in the garden. The daughter, Olive is an artist who has won a place at the Slade but does not take it up because in part she is ‘in love’/ infatuated with Isaac and she also does not want to leave her mother. Her father, Harold, is away from home on business when Olive discovers that Isaac can paint and her mother persuades him to paint a portrait of her as a present for Harrold. When eventually the painting is unveiled, Teresa has substituted one of Olive’s paintings for the original and thus starts a deception that is the mainstay of the story. Harrold thinks this is the most wonderful painting and sells it to Peggy Guggenheim so the pressure is on to produce more although Isaac is very against the deception Olive fears that her father would think a lot less of the art if he knew the true identity of the artist. Flash forward to the 1960’s and we meet Odelle and Cynth, two friends who have migrated from Trinidad to London to seek their fortune. We meet the girls working in Dolcis. Odelle applies for other jobs and finally secures one in the Skelton art gallery. She meets a lovely young man, Lawrie, who has inherited a painting from his mother. This is another story with twists and turns and although the provenance of the painting is clear – well Isaac was a wonderful spanish artist was he not? – the story shoots back and forth an all is not what it seems. The ending was not what I expected.
It is beautifully flowing prose with great descriptions
City of Friends by Joanna Trollope Published today £18.99 hardback Pan Macmillan
The story of four women, best friends since their days at university. Each has a different ‘middle age problem’ One, happily married, Stacey, is made redundant and has an aged mother with dementia to look after. Another, Gaby, has a high flying banking job and is juggling home, children and work with the help of her husband who has his own mid life crisis. Another, Beth, is a lecturer (with an assistant called Morag) when her partner leaves her and the fourth Melissa, is a single parent with a teenage son who has set up her own company. There are secrets even between the friends and moments when one or another feels betrayed or let down. All of them are strong women, making their way in the world.
Joanna Trollope is a prolific author, this being her twentiethnovel. She is very good at keeping them up to date. She mentions social media particularly in relation to the teenage children which makes the novel feel very contemporary.
Whit by Iain Banks published by Little, Brown Paperback £9.99
We haven’t ever done an Iain Banks and he is quite an important writer so time we did. A friend recommended this to me as it is quite an unusual book, first published in 1998
It is about Isis Whit, a 19 year old brought up as a Luskentyrarian, an Amish like invented religious sect in Scotland. Isis is thought to have healing powers and is the ‘Elect’ because she was born on Leap Year Day. The sect was started by her grandfather, Salvador, who has two Indian wives.
Isis is sent to London to rescue her cousin, Morag, who the sect think is a world famous babytron player but turns out not to be all she has told them back home. The sect are not willing to use money. Isis has an emergency fund but manages to get all the way to London without spending it. She floats on a rubber tyre all the ay to Edinburgh and the stows away in a car on a train transporter. Then she has a system back bussing. She gets on a bus going in the right direction but asks the conductor for a ticket to somewhere in the wrong direction. Thus she gets at least one stop nearer her goal each time she is successful. She is naive and that plan goes wrong when she gets the same conductor twice.
Funny satirical look at religion and the cults. Lots of very funny allusions. Interesting to took at society from the point of view of a complete outsider.
The Unmumsy Mum Diary by Sarah Turner published by Bantam Press hardback £12.99
A hilarious look at a year in the life of the Unmumsy Mum who despite the title is a Mum with small children.
Here is a bit about a children’s birthday party. “During the preceding week, you will threaten to cancel the party (and, in fact, your child’s whole birthday) at least 172 times. The evening before, when a tantrum over not being allowed on the CBeebies app coincides with Has anybody bought the mini-rolls? panic, you’ll resort to making pretend phone calls to warn the other parents that the party is likely to be cancelled. You may even need to ‘phone’ a class teacher or nursery key worker to let them know about the unacceptable behaviour. Cue hysteria.”
The book also describes the event in Chorleywood that took place with her first book and her feelings of being scared and wondering how the event would go. Just because you are an author does not mean public speaking is your thing!
I think anyone who has been a parent or close to a parent would enjoy it but it is a wonderful present for any parent. Sometimes when your child has a tantrum or is very difficult or won’t go to sleep you think you are alone but I think if you read this it would make you feel better.
My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley published by Bloomsbury paperback £6.99
A novel about the young Queen Victoria narrated by her companion, Miss V Conroy known as Miss V. who is the daughter of the Comptroller to the Duchess of Kent. She arrives at Kensington Palace with her dog, Dash, to be the young princess Victoria’s companion. She is always made to read first at lessons (which are not as hard as she has had at home in Arborfield Hall) to help the princess lose the german twang to her voice. Miss V reads the diary od Victoria and discovers that Victoria hates her as well as her father and indeed is pretty out of love with everyone. But then on a night time adventure Victoria climbs along the roof and into Miss V’s window and explains that she has to keep a Behaviour Diary and that THEY read it. If she expresses delight in anything it is taken away and so she has deliberately laid a false trail. Well written, interesting, and really a story about friendship albeit with fascinating details about Kensington Palace.
Suitable for 9 – 11 year olds.
Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins paperback £7.99 Transworld
I thought as the paperback has spent over 36 weeks in the top ten I had better read it. Good page turning novel about a woman, alcoholic, divorced and jobless who passes her former home when she pretends to go to work on the train each day. Whilst keeping an eye on her former husband and his new wife, she sees something else that sets her off on a course of action that changes her life. That she is a heavy drinker does not help the situation as there is a tendency to assume she remembers nothing correctly. There are three narrators Rachel, the girl on the train, Jess/Megan and Anna who is Rachel’s ex husbands new wife. Jess is Rachels name for the woman Rachel observes each morning So many novels are premised on a chance encounter or happening just as life is. Gripping, page turner of a novel, I am told the film is not as good as set in America but is true to the book in many other ways.
Aliens by Jim Al-Kalili paperback £8.99 Profile Books
This is a series of essays by experts on life out there in other galaxies. Fascinating reading! Jim Al Khalili is a theoretical physicist and broadcaster, currently presenter of The Life Scientific on Radio 4 which interviews scientists from all branches of science and seeks to discover how they became scientists, what sparked that curiosity, and what they are conducting research into currently. For this book he has gathered some of the brightest minds in space science to look into the question of what the likelihood is of there being other life somewhere in the cosmos. There are chemists, biologists, astronomers and astro physicists thinking about the likelihood of there being life somewhere else. An essay on hydrothermal vents is enlightening, one on an octopus and whether it has consciouness is interesting and the ones about aliens and how many people who claim to have seen them just shows how curious we all are about life elsewhere. The odds seem low as the series of events that started life on this planet are unlikely in themselves and some of these scientists fall on the side of possible and some impossible so we are no further forward but as all scientific endeavour has taken place in the blink of an eye in comparison to the age of the planet maybe we just don’t have the understanding yet.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts paperback £10.99 Little, Brown
I have debated with myself whether or not to include this book. I have given it to people, sold many copies, after all good value for money but never read it so felt it was time. The story of a man who escaped from prison in Australia and ended up working in the slums in India. Gripping, page turning story. The author was born in Melbourne and was serving a sentence of nineteen years for a series of armed robberies. He lived on the run in Bombay for ten years where he established a free medical clinic for slum dwellers and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gun runner and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia.
The main character, Lin, (later given the name Shantaram by the mother of the taxi driver Parbaker whom he met on his arrival in Bombay), starts out having enough money for a hotel but is robbed and found he could only live in the slums with the slumdwellers. He has been ‘adopted’ by a taxi driver Prabaker who sets out to show him the real city and when he finds himself penniless takes him to his slum where Lin sets up a medical clinic, using basic first aid. He falls in love before the robbery and feels he cannot even seek out the object of his affections now he has fallen so low and lives in a slum. All kinds of adventures follow, meetings with rats , with feral dogs with kind and not so kind people.
His story seems to follow what we know about the author quite closely although I think there is some ‘artistic license’ in use. Lin accepts his flaws and is not ashamed to admit them and is eager to learn from the Indian culture.
The book is a wonderful portrait of Bombay, a city the author clearly loves, its people and its smells, colours and bustle.
Shtum by Jem Lester Orion Books paperback £7.99 Published this month in paperback
This is story about a couple and their ten year old autistic son, Jonah. They are desperate trying to get him into a residential school and hold the belief that if one of them was a single parent this would be easier. Thus the father, Ben, narrator of the story, finds himself taking Jonah, pretending to leave his wife and moving back home to live with his father. This has its problems and soon he is drinking too much and relying on his father to deal with Jonah too much. His father despises his son for his drinking and inability to see things through. It should be said that ben has lost his job as a copywriter because of his alcoholism. So the father, Georg, a holocaust survivor tells Jonah stories about the war and this life then that he has never told his son, thus leading to more resentment. This is not a happy household! It is funny and uplifting in a way and shows that all people have worth even if they cannot communicate.
The author himself has a 15 year old autistic son so he is writing from experience.
Dadland by Keggy Carew paperback £8.99 Vintage
A biography which won the Costa biography prize. Written by Keggy Carew, daughter of the subject Tom Carew who was in the SOE during WW2. Dropped into Vichy France with a team of Jedburghs to meet the Resistance and mobilise them ahead of the D Day landings. A team in Jedburgh terms was a wireless operator, a native speaker and someone from SOE. After the war in Europe is over he is sent to Burma to mobilise and motivate the guerrillas . Living in the jungle, waging war by blowing up bridges and railway tracks, Tom comes alive. As the author writes Tom is getting dementia so it takes time and research to piece together the story of his life. It is both sad and thrilling, gripping and insightful. Tom Carew was 24 when he parachuted into Nazi-occupied France under the cover of night. He was part of the secret Operation Jedburgh, the motto of which was “Surprise, Kill, Vanish”. His role was to liaise with the local resistance, and even in daredevil company he was notably enterprising and brave, later escaping from the German army through a sewer and taking refuge with some nuns. He won the Croix de Guerre, but this was nothing to his exploits a few months later in Burma, where he organised a series of ambushes by guerrilla groups that caused significant damage to Japanese forces. Celebrated as “Lawrence of Burma” and “the Mad Irishman”, Carew was the youngest officer ever to be awarded a Distinguished Service Order.
It is a biography written with love and tenderness and to some extent amazement that he had led such a daring and exciting life. He clearly needed the adrenalin that his SOE life produced and found normal army and civilian life rather dull. He had a reckless streak that remained until the end . The motto of surprise stayed – I think he rather enjoyed being shocking.
Exposure by Helen Dunmore paperback £7.99 Penguin
This is everything you would expect from Helen Dunmore, one of my favourite fiction writers. It is a spy story set during the Cold War. It concerns two friends who have been friends for years. One is married, in a humdrum job that has required the signing of the Official Secrets Act, but he is happy with his lot as he gets home at a sensible time in the evenings and has time with his family. His own family, brother and parents are not very impressed with his choices and often tease him that he is going nowhere. His old friend hones him out f the blue and asks him to collect a file from his flat and return it to the office and hand to his secretary. The friend has taken a file home and fallen down the stairs, it would seem drunk, and is in hospital. Simon collects the file and takes it home. His wife Lily, finding the file in the briefcase where is has been hidden, takes it to the bottom of the garden and buries it, thinking she is protecting her husband.
When Simon is arrested Lily has to cope with the children, the press, her in laws and the legal system. Although this could be described as a spy thriller it is also a portrait of family life in the 1960’s.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult hardback published by Hodder & Stoughton Price £14.99
New hardback from master storyteller, Jodi Picoult. It concerns a nurse with 20 years experience who is the single parent of a teenage son. She ends up accused of murder because a newborn baby died in the hospital she worked in. The parents of the child were white supremacists, believing that white people are superior to black people. Ruth, the nurse, had come on shift just after this baby was born and did some of the newborn tests that are routine in the hospital. When she tried to help the mother nurse the baby the father told her to take her hands off and requested that she not touch his child again because she is an African American. When the baby dies the parents need someone to blame and Ruth is the scapegoat. As ever with a Judi Picoult book the story is told from several perspectives, Ruth, the father, the lawyer who is the public defender. It is very thought provoking about the subject of race relations and certainly makes the reader think about their prejudices. Great story, compelling reading.
Family Sunday Lunches by Mary Berry hardback Headline £25
Classic cookery with a twist. Beautifully illustrated with pictures for every recipe family meals from roasts to casseroles and vegetarian mains. Sides and puddings are there also. All you need for a great family meal. Seasonality is included so there are lighter recipes for hot summer days as well as slow cooked food for the darker days of autumn and winter. Some rather good veggie recipes too, not just risotto!
How to prepare ahead and AGA instructions are there also. Great present for both men and women and we have signed copies.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon paperback Harper Collins £7.99
This is a Boxing Day treat. Go out and buy it as soon as you can but sadly not published in paperback until 26th December (mad huh? Who publishes one day after Xmas, why not a week before and grab some Xmas sales?)
Anyway it is a wonderful heartwarming novel about friendship and also the opposite of that – leaving people out because they are different. The main protagonist is Grace, a 10 year old girl. Her best friend Tilly lives across the street, an the street is one of those ordinary places where not much happens. The book is set in the summer of 1976 when there was a heatwave. Grace and Tilly are on their school summer holidays with not much to do when a neighbour goes missing. Mrs Creasey’s disappearance causes a great deal of chit chat in the street and Grace and Tilly decide they will become child sleuths and solve the mystery of her disappearance. The conduct house to house searches including visiting the man no one will ever talk to because of something that happened 9 years earlier. We don’t know initially what that event was. While they are at it they decide to look for God. They find him but I won’t say how that goes as it is a funny part of the book. The book is funny, endearing and also covers some serious issues in particular that of judging people by how they look and about community.
Gracie and Tilly, her delicate best friend, decide that God would be able to save the missing lady, Margaret Creasy, so they decide to search everyone’s house for God (because He’s everywhere), including the scary man whom everyone accuses of being a baby-snatcher (Gracie was that baby, found safe) and probable kiddy-fiddler.
Gracie and Tilly learn in church that the shepherd separates the goats and sheep because, they presume, he doesn’t like the goats because the sheep feed and clothe him and the goats don’t, so the goats will go to eternal punishment. And God does that with people, so Walter Bishop seems destined to be a goat. What’s more, his house burned down with his mother in it, and that must mean something, too.
Keeping on Keeping On by Alan Bennett hardback Faber & Faber £25
This is such good value if you rate books by our old formula pence per page or by minute occupied. This is Alan Bennett’s diaries from 2005 – 2015. It was serialised on Radio 4 and is just both funny and serious. The pathos will catch you unawares. As one of our best known writers it is an enjoyable read, occasionally uncomfortable as he challenges some of our preconceptions. Alan Bennett has such a distinctive Yorkshire voice that you can hear him reading it as you read. It is sharp, funny, engaging and just a plain good read. Wonderful autobiography. He is such a great observer of people and the humdrum of everyday life. There’s lots of amusing anecdotes and self deprecating comments for which he is well known.
Colder by Ranulph Fiennes hardback Simon & Schuster £25
This is the illustrated story polar expeditions of the wonderful Sir Randolph Fiennes, eccentric and according to the Guinness Book of records our ‘greatest living explorer.’ It has maps, diary notes of his adventures and photographs of the expeditions as well as text explain how they were set up and how they were to travel through.
He was the first man to reach both poles by surface travel and the first to cross the Antarctic unsupported. IN the 1960s he was removed from the SAS Regiment for misuse of explosives (read Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, his autobiography) but after joining the army of the Sultan of Oman he was awarded that country’s Bravery medal on active service in 1971. He has led over 30 expeditions, including the first polar circumnavigation of the Earth. In 2003 he ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents in aid of the British Heart Foundation. Overall he has raised £18 million for charity. He has an OBE for his charitable work and was named Best Sportsman of the Year in 2007 ITV Great Briton AWArds and in 2009 he became the oldest Briton to reach the summit of Everest. His is a story of grit and determination. he had open heart surgery in 2003, just four months before the marathons. He is very willing to admit when things go wrong as they often do and makes light of events that I would have considered calamitous.
Nigel : My Family and Other Dogs by Monty Don hardback£20
This is a book about one of our National treasures Monty Don and his dogs. Suitable gift
for gardeners, dog lovers and Monty Don fans. it is an affectionate look at man’s relationship with dogs. The main dog, Nigel, a golden retriever, is the one we see on TV every Friday evening on Gardeners World. It is also the story of Longmeadow, the garden that he has created and worked in for the last 25 years. Utterly readable and delightful story.
Cousins by Salley Vickers Viking (Penguin Random House) £16.99
Brilliant and mercurial Will Tye suffers a life changing accident. The terrible event ripples through three generations of the complex and eccentric Tye family, bringing to light old tragedies and dangerous secrets. Each member of the family holds some clue to the chain of events which may have led to the accident and each holds themselves to blame. Most closely affected is Will’s cousin Cecelia, whose affinity with Will leaves her most vulnerable to his suffering and whose own life is for ever changed by how she will respond to it.
Told through the eyes of three women close to Will, his sister, his grandmother and his aunt, Cousins is a novel weaving darkness and light which takes us from the outbreak of World War Two to the present day, exploring the recurrence of tragedy, the nature of trangression, and the limits of morality and love. I really enjoyed this family drama.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara paperback Picador £8.99
I have to say the subject matter is dark. The story concerns the friendship of four men who meet at school and college. The main character, Jude, whose life we follow in detail becomes a hugely successful lawyer, Willem and actor, Malcolm and architect and JB an artist. The narrative opens with the four friends moving to New York to make their fortune.
It is well written and the main characters are well developed. It really concerns what people will do for their friends/lovers/partners, the inhumanity of paedophilia and the damaging effects of the care system and all the people along the way who, while not colluding, fail to intervene. The story is told from several viewpoints. Jude has been in the care system and has been abused throughout his childhood. The repercussions are many and long lasting. How he and the people closest to him deal with the damage done is the subject.
The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015 and was hugely well received when it was first published. At 675 pages it is a long book but for £8.99 should buy hours of reading.
Five Go Gluten Free & Five on Brexit Island
These are parodies of the Famous Five books with modern topical issues. There are others like Five Give Up the Booze, Five Go on a Strategy Awayday. The characters have the same names as the famous five and the style is similar. These are funny takes on modern times. Five go Gluten Free deals with the trend to ‘clean eating’ smoothies and all the spiralised food with chia seeds and brazil nuts and of course kale.
The Ladybird Book of Boxing Day
Hilarious new addition to the series which was the runaway success of last Christmas and has sold very well throughout the year How Things Work The Husband, The Wife etc The intro says “This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them. As in other books in the series, the large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text and pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope.”
I can well imagine people reading these out after Christmas lunch or with the jokes from the crackers.
Village Christmas by Laurie Lee penguin Modern Classics paperback £7.99
A series of short stories it is a beautifully written account of village life in a now and forever lost England. It covers the seasons from Christmas to harvest and reminds me what a lyrical writer Laurie Lee is. Stunning. I read bits of it out aloud for the joy of the words.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout Simon & Schuster £7.99 paperback
This won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction. It is a fascinating book, consisting of thirteen stories all of which have a character called Olive Kitteridge although she is not the main character in all of them. Sometimes she is just mentioned by a character, sometimes she is a secondary character and sometimes the main character. Set in Cosby, Maine, it is the story of a small town and how the lives of all the people are interwoven and how we all affect one another. Olive herself is an elderly, retired schoolteacher, embittered at times. She is not always kind, is judgemental, cross and unhappy. These character traits affect all around her. She is also kindly and that too has an effect. She was not a beloved schoolteacher. Through the stories the author slowly draws the character of Olive and others to life. Olive holds up a mirror to ourselves and reminds us all that we should think from time to time about how other people see us as it is not always what we would like them to see.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 years old Penguin hardback £12.99
I saw a whole shop window devoted to this book, which was a bestseller in the Netherlands, and thought I had better find out what it was all about. It is the story of the gentleman of the title who lives in an old people’s home. Bored with bingo and the petty rules of the home, he and five others set up ‘The Old-But-Not-Dead-Yet’ club. It’s aim is to have outings organised by the members each in turn, the details of which will not be disclosed ahead of time so each is a surprise to the others. They are not allowed to whine, infirmities must be taken into account when arranging outings. Etc There is a full list of the rules of the club on the back cover of the book. The book is amusing, observant, imaginative and is a story of friendship, loyalty and perhaps a lesson to everyone – inside every elderly person there is a young person who can still do cartwheels across the grass and have ambitions and hopes and dreams.
Good read, maybe a good Christmas present
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler Pan Macmillan paperback £7.99
This is the book that has stayed with me. It is about a man living in a remote mountain village in Austria. As a child he is taken in by a relative whose sister-in-law has been disgraced by having a child out of wedlock. The farmer is cruel and beats Andreas Eggers, at one point breaking his thigh bone, leaving him with a permanent limp. The boy learns not to cry and not to show emotion. This infuriates the farmer further. However the boy grows to be a very strong man and is in demand for work. He works for a cable car company doing very dangerous work. He falls in love with Marie, but finds himself unable to propose to her. His colleagues are persuaded to write his love in lights across the mountain. Avalanches are a reality in this landscape and tragically Marie and his home are swept away by one. Andreas lives a simple life, leaving the valley only once to serve in the army during the war. Captured he endures eight years in a labour camp. As he ages he accepts life with stoicism, responds to change as best he can, finally becoming a mountain guide. He is sustained by the memory of the love he once felt. It is a restrained book, encompassing what it says on the cover A Whole Life. It is set in the mid twentieth century and told with beauty and tenderness, the story of man’s relationship with an ancient landscape, the value of solitude, the arrival of the modern world and above all, of the moment and the things great and small that make us who we are.
This is a profound, humane and wise novel. It describes a way of life in a landscape so beautifully that you feel you are there, cold and shivering alongside Andreas. The author has a new book out this month, The Tobacconist.
Hurrah for Gin by Katie Kirby Hodder £12.99 hardback
This is a funny take on pregnancy and parenthood. Not a ‘how to’ book just a book for people who are or would be parents hat help you feel you are not alone in feeling frustrated, infuriated and excited all at the same time. Illustrated with stick men, it has a lot of wise words that should help parents through some of the normal things that happen to them and their children. It resonated with me, particularly the chapter about the differences between child one and child two. Babay book for the first meticulously completed, child two probably not (and in my case child three not at all!) Child one gets a sniffle – straight down to the doctors, child two limb falls off oh never mind stick it back on. Child one goes to sleep, get your head down for a nap- child two then play with child one and wonder how you found one child time consuming. The book is of course tongue in cheek and sometimes rude and sarcastic but it is funny and would be a great present for any young family.
Five Minutes of Amazing by Chris Graham with Wendy Holden Little, Brown £18.99 hardback
This is the story of Chris Graham who discovers at the age of 34 that he has a gene that will probably mean he has Alzheimers disease by the time he is 42. His brother has it, his father died of it in his early 40’s. when this discovery is made his partner Vicky is pregnant with their child. He has been a soldier in the Army and decides that he will cycle round America, a distance of 16000 miles, raising money for research into dementia. If a cure is found it may be too late for him but may save his children. This is the story of that journey. It is in places hilarious, at other times hard and at all times courageous. It is also a story of loyalty of the wonderful Vicky who manages to keep the home fires burning while supporting him from a great distance which entails a lot of very late nights due to the time difference. She is as much part of the journey as he is, finding places to stay and keeping him on track without getting lost. This man cycled through Death Valley!
Jane Austen: The Secret Radical By Helena Kelly
Almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong. Her novels don’t confine themselves to grand houses and they were not written just for readers’ enjoyment. She writes about serious subjects and her books are deeply subversive. We just don’t read her properly – we haven’t been reading her properly for 200 years. Jane Austen, The Secret Radical puts that right. In her first, brilliantly original book, Austen expert Helena Kelly introduces the reader to a passionate woman living in an age of revolution; to a writer who used what was regarded as the lightest of literary genres, the novel, to grapple with the weightiest of subjects – feminism, slavery, abuse, the treatment of the poor, the power of the Church, even evolution – at a time, and in a place, when to write about such things directly was seen as akin to treason. Uncovering a radical, spirited and political engaged Austen, Jane Austen, The Secret Radical will encourage you to read Jane, all over again. To back up the theory that she was a radical thinker. She rails against primogeniture, suggests that change voluntarily undertaken may be the only safeguard against revolution. She mentions that a drug could stop death in childbirth and in Emma she exposed the damage done by enclosure. Mansfield Park deals with slavery and there is evidence from her letters that she was not entirely in favour of the established church even though her father was a rector and two of her brothers are clergymen. The Church had a slave owning arm The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, preached to by the Bishop of Winchester which is where Jane Austen was living when she died aged 41 and Winchester cathedral is where she is buried in an unusually elaborate grave for and unmarried woman of restricted means. The problem with her publisher meant that the books were published a considerable time after they were written and so the political relevance had perhaps changed and moved on Consequently she is read as light love stories, pretty tales but not a social commentary.
Black Water Lilies by Michael Bussi £12.99 hardback published by Orion
New book from the author of After the Crash which went into my all time favourite booklist at no 4. It is set in Giverny where Monet, the artist lived. Not set in Monet’s time though. It starts with the premise that there are three women, one old, one middle aged and one young and by the end of the story 2 of them will be dead. The three women are a painter, a teacher and a widow. The town is often crowded with tourists visiting Monet’s garden but when they all go ome and the townsfolk are left to themselves a darker side is revealed. Jerome Morval, known for his passion women as wellm as art is found dead, stabbed, with head injuries and seemingly drowned. He has a postcard in his pocket which says “Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.” There are similarities between his death and a child who died many years ago. Is there a murderer in their midst, was it an accident?
There are very many twists and turns and the story unfolds in several different voices. A great read that stayed with me for a couple of days as I thought about all the clues that I had missed along the way.
The Railways : Nation Network and People by Simon Bradley £25 hardback published by Profile Books paperback out October 6th £9.99
It has to be said that I am not a natural railway buff. This is not a book I would have chosen to read but Simon Bradley is coming to the Chorleywood Literary festival so I thought it would be interesting to look at this book. Many people are of course interested in railways, my husband included. I love the end papers which have pictures of old train tickets. It is a great book to dip into, being both a social history as well as a factual history of the railways and how they have influenced the UK. And still do- think of HS2 and how it divides people and what an impact it will have on the countryside it passes through. I thought I would tell you one anecdote for the chapter on ‘Crime and Misdemeanors’ . A Mr Gold , retired city stockbroker was travelling home to Brighton when he fell from the train in the Balcombe tunnel, bloodied and missing his gold watch and train. The thief, one Arther Lefroy (who had been born Percy Mapleton but changed his name to something fancier), was able to leave the train with the watch in his boot and a cock and bull story of an unknown assailant who had attacked them under the cover of the dark tunnel. When Sergeant Holmes (not Sherlock) was keeping watch in his house he escaped out the back. Finally caught in lodgings in Stepney where false whiskers and moustaches were found among his belongings. He was hanged for his trouble. There was anothervmurder of a Mr Briggs, 69 year old chief clerk, found on the track between Hackney Wick and Bow on his way home from work. He had been assaulted in the first calls compartment. In the compartment were a stick, an unusual beaver hat and a travelling bag. Mr Briggs watch was missing. A man took the chain into a jewellers owned by a Mr Death and swapped it for another chain which he gave to his girl. Her father recognised the name Death in the jewellery box given as a plaything to his daughter and the unusual hat worn by a family acquaintance and the game was up. Franz Muller was caught.
The Cyclist Who Went Out In the Cold by Tim Moore £14.99 paperback Penguin Random House Published October 2016
This is a great read by the man who wrote Gironimo about the Italian Giro d’Italia which he completed on a rebuilt 1912 bicycle with wooden wheels and cork brake pads to celebrate the 100 years since the first Giro. This is riding the length of the Iron Curtain on a tiny East German shopping bike with only 2 gears. It is hilarious both for all the weird and wonderful places he sleeps, that wacky people he meets and the 20 countries he travels though some of them barely populated. The book is full of history of the Iron Curtain and the people who lived either side as well as those who tried to breach it. Really fascinating.
Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves published hardback £16.99 by Pan Macmillan published in October 2016
This is a Jimmy Perez novel He is the policeman. The book opens at a funeral of an old man. The mourners are by the graveside when a landslip starts. It demolishes a nearby house, fortunately uninhabited, or is it? A body of a woman is found wearing a red silk dress in the wreckage of the house. Jimmy does not recognise her and sets about finding out who she is and what she was doing in the house. He soon uncovers more than he bargained for. As ever with a Shetland novel there are many false trails and more than one person with the motive and opportunity to be the killer. And as ever the end is a surprise.
Ann Cleeves masters the climate and bleakness of the Shetlands and the customs and hardships of the people who live there. Mind you the murder rate is quite high! I think her writing goes from strength to strength.
Bringing in the Sheaves by the Rev Richard Coles hardback £20 Weiderfeld & Nicholson published October 2016
This is an interesting read for anyone who enjoys the Radio 4 programme Saturday Live. Richard Coles is a trained musician and played the instruments for The Communards with Jimmy Somerville singing and Sarah Glover, the jazz singer was the guest singer in that very famous song.
He read theology at Kings College London. After his ordination he has been a minister in Boston Lincolnshire , St Pauls in Knightsbridge and is now the priest at Finedon in Northamptonshire. This book is a collection of interesting stories of his life as a parish priest and is really about what is it like to be a Church of England minister in the UK today. It is full of drama, joy, difficulty and humour which life – and indeed death – serve up in varying measures. Very readable.
Queen Bees by Sian Evans Hardback £20 Hodder & Stoughton September 2016
This is the fascinating story of six women who, although from different backgrounds became society hostesses between the wars. –
Lady Nancy Astor, the first female MP and who rode pillion on Lawrence of Arabia’s motorbike
Lady Sybil Colefax, an interior designer and loyal friend to Edward Vlll and Wallis Simpson
Laura Corrigan, who sold jewellery to Hermann Goering to fund the French Resistance
Lady Emerald Cunard, the scapegoat for the abdication, who transformed the arts scene
Mrs Ronnie Greville, who holed up on the top floor of a London hotel as the Luftewaffe dropped bombs around her
Lady Edith Londonderry, the founder of the Women’s Legion, with a snake tattoo on her ankle.
Nancy Astor, of course, lived at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire and there is a description of a lavish party held there in 1936 with more than 1000 guests. It is full of historical facts, social information and just fascinating facts about how the other half live.
The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan £12.99 hardback published by Penguin
Elizabeth Buchan is a favourite author of mine. Her new novel lives up to my expectations. Set close to the end of the Second World War, the story is of Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton, who returns from Berlin with a German wife, to the consternation of his sisters and the fiancée he left behind. None of them can understand it and Krista, the new Mrs Clifton, suffers a good deal of rejection by them as well as intimidation from other local people.
She is made of stern stuff though and has survived a difficult childhood in Germany and so, although affected by the attitudes of the sisters, does not give in and return to Germany. In Chapter One a young couple find a skull buried in their garden. Then the action moves back to 1945 and we are left wondering right until the very end who that was and who put it there.
The book is a wonderful observation of the best and worst of families. The hurt and grief of Gus’ fiancée, Nella, is tangible as she plots and attempts to win him back. Julia, one of Gus’ sisters also has lost her man in that her husband has died and she cannot let go of her jealousy that Gus has two women while she has no man.
Elizabeth Buchan started her career as a blurb writer for Penguin. She says on her website that it was an interesting job needing the hide of rhinoceros and occasionally a box of tissues. She went on to become a copy editor at Random House before starting into full time writing. Probably a good training. I bet she read lots of manuscripts and thought I could do that! She was always planning to be a writer since her childhood. Was a reader under the covers with a torch so a woman after my own heart!
First One Missing by Tammy Cohen £6.99 paperback published by Transworld
This is a great ‘whodunnit’. It concerns a series of child murders, a policewoman working as a family Liaison Officer, and the families of the murdered children. The reader knows more or less who the perpetrator is, or at least that is how it seems but there are many twists and turns as there always are in crime books and lots of red herrings. We get to hear about the crimes from the victim’s families which is a very interesting angle. In particular the brother on one of the murdered girls who finds everyone treating him differently and struggles, as a teenager, to get to grips with all the implications of being related to a murdered girl, in a case that has become very public. Well written, suspenseful and a real page turner with an unexpected ending.
The Past by Tessa Hadley £8.99 Vintage paperback
This is another book about families. In this one four siblings, three sisters and a brother have arranged to meet at the house they have inherited from their grandparents. They have decided to have one last holiday before taking the decision to sell it. One of the sisters has come with her two children but without her husband, another has brought the young adult son of her ex partner, and Roland has brought his new wife and teenage daughter. The house has a major role in the book. You feel you can just picture it, smell it. So the holiday progresses as we get to know the very different characters involved in this family. New relationships strike up and old ones are put under strain as the family all try to live with one another and maybe discover why they tend not to live together in adulthood. Tessa Hadley is a great writer in my view, funny and with such great ability to write sentences that make you re read them for the beauty of their words. “ Just then a noisy arrival broke in on the sealed, blissful, tedious peace of the place, and her beloved only daughter and her grandchildren unfurled from an unfamiliar panting, juddering car on the road outside, like an apparition, utterly unexpected.” Like Elizabeth Bowen in my view. On the surface a calm and ordered portrayal of family life, but with the undercurrent all the time that things are about to change and not always in a good way.
Tessa Hadley lives in Cardiff and teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.
Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith £7.99 paperback published by Simon and Schuster
This is actually the third book in a trilogy but none the worse for that. It is a perfectly good standalone novel. Thrilling, as you would expect from this award winning author whose first book Child 44, won prizes including the Ian Fleming Silver Dagger Award made by the Crime Writers Association.
Leo Demidov is a Secret Agent, a decorated soldier recruited to the secret police who becomes a specialist in assessing journals and diaries for wording that could be interpreted as seditious. The book opens in 1950 with and explanation of this (perhaps dubious at least to western eyes) skill. The diary of a young woman, carefully concealed in a chimney, but discovered leads to a fifteen year prison sentence for her. He falls in love with a woman he sees at the tramcar station. In 1965 Leo’s worst fears are realised and a tragic murder destroys everything he loves. Determined to track down the killer, but refused permission by the authorities, Leo takes matters into his own hands.
Tom Rob Smith sums up for me the Moscow of the era, the suspicious nature of life and the greyness of the grocery stores, tram car stations etc. A gripping, chilling, compelling read.
Tom Rob Smith too has won Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award given by the CWA as well as being longlisted for the Man Booker with his first novel Child 44. He has a swedish mother and an English father – could be why he writes so well about snow!
Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach Chatto & Windus paperback £7.99
Great read by the author of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about secrets, deceptions and lies. At the heart of the novel is Petra, a lady of 60 something, living in Pimlico. She is trying out online dating after her children and grandchildren have left home and are living in far flung parts of the world. Her best friend, Bev, lives in Africa with her husband Jeremy, and sends those ghastly round robin missives about her wonderful life and marriage. When Jeremy visits Petra and they fall in love, there is a classic love triangle in which everyone has to keep secrets. When Bev asks Petra to visit her in Africa to help the danger of exposure becomes very real. Then there is Lorrie, a woman living in a rundown house in a rundown town in America. She and her army husband are saving and dreaming of a new life for themselves and their children. When Lorrie makes a big mistake she is desperate to make some cash and quickly. This connects her with Li-Jing, a childless Chinese woman.
The stories of these women are all told separately and how they weave together is very clever, although for most of the book I was wondering how they could collide. The characters are very real and believable. Readable, amusing, page-turning, this is a perfect book for a summer read and came out in paperback in June.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson Penguin paperback £8.99
This is a lovely easy read. A charming story, not a guide book. It is quite like the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency being both funny and warm hearted.
The story concerns one Mr Malik, an older Indian gentleman who you would not notice particularly as he does not stand out from the crowd. His doctor has prescribed a hobby to make him feel better and he enrols on the bird walks that take place each Tuesday. For years he goes along every Tuesday until he finds himself passionately in love with the leader of the Tuesday morning bird walk Rose Mbikwa. However she is blissfully unaware of this fact. Mr Malik determines to invite her to the Hunt Club ball but a spanner is thrown into the works by a rival contender for her hand in the form of Henry, a person he knew at school. They devise a competition as to who can spot the most different species of birds on the bird walk.
The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal Transworld paperback £7.99
New out in paperback this is the latest novel from Meera Syal, the actress. A talented lady she is also a very good writer. This book is about Shyama aged 48 who has married a younger man, Toby. Shyama runs a beauty salon and Toby is a farm worker at the Broadside City farm. They would like a baby, although Shyama has an unruly teenage daughter aged 14, Tara, who is definitely being a teenager. Then there is Mala, a young Indian girl trapped in a dull arranged marriage to an older man. Mala discovers that a possible way out is to have a baby for a childless couple and so she enrols in the agency which matches international childless couples to prospective surrogate mothers. India was until recently the surrogate capital of the world. Shyama and Toby travel to India to visit the agency and thus they meet Mala. The characters are well drawn and we get to see the story from many points of view. Shyama’s aging parents who live opposite, and Tara are particularly interesting. The aged parents are also very funny. Giving the ‘Punjabi Mother death stare’ is an example.
The book is very ambitious covering such themes as surrogacy, bulimia, teenage angst, childlessness, poverty, arranged marriages…
The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson paperback Faber & Faber £7.99
A gripping page turner. This mystery concerns Ted Sverson, held up in an airport, he gets chatting to a young woman Lily over a gin and tonic. They later find themselves on the same plane and he tells this stranger all about his wife, Miranda’s infidelity with the builder who is refurbishing their summer home. Ted has discovered this by spying on his wife. “I could kill her” he says. I’ll help you says Lily. Before long they are embarked on a dangerous plot really to kill his wife. Ted convinces himself that his wife is having an affair on pretty flimsy evidence. He spends a week with her at the summer home working out her normal pattern of movements and reports back to Lily. But why is Lily so willing to be involved. How many times does a person say ‘I could kill him/her’ without meaning it? Lily’s past holds some clues and the plot takes an extraordinary and unexpected twist in the middle. It will keep you reading into the night.
The Night Book by Richard Madeley paperback Simon and Schuster £7.99
This is a perfect summer read by Richard of Richard and Judy. It is the hot summer of 1976 and in the Lake District there is a series of drownings of people swimming in the lakes. Thgout to be caused by the difference in temperature between the bottom and the top of the body of water. The top has warmed up in the sunshine and the bottom remains very cold which shocks the body of anyone who dives down and causes them a sharp intake of water thus causing them to drown. The story concerns Seb Richmond, a green journalist who is working on local radio and he is sent to cver the story of the first of these drownings. As he makes rather a good job of it he soon is the person that the station sends to each inquest and Lake where the incidents take place. The agony aunt on the station is a very beautiful woman with a publicly perfect marriage but a privately rather abusive relationship. Throughout her marriage she has entertained fantasies of killing her husband and writes them all down in a book, The Night Book of the title. She is in a quandary as to whether or not to leave her husband, Cameron, with all the implications that involves when she meets Seb, himself recovering from a broken relationship in London. Obviously for an agony aunt to be putting up with abuse, when she is always telling others not to tolerate it, is a career problem. They fall in love and she vows she will leave Cameron. Then the unthinkable happens and Cameron drowns.
You will need to read it to find out how Cameron came to drown and whether or not it solved her problems.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild Bloomsbury paperback £8.99
Shortlisted for the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction, and no 2 in the bestseller list on Saturday, this is a fascinating story about a painting entitled the Improbability of Love. Bought in a junk shop by a young woman trying to make her way in the world as a cook, the painting has a voice in the narrative and some chapters are the painting’s story. It is an eighteenth century painting by Watteau. How it got to the junk shop and all the owners it has had previously are a part of the story. The young woman, Annie, has an alcoholic mother who is exasperating and loved in equal measure. Annie keeps vowing to leave her mother to get on with it but never quite manages to do it. There is a mystery at the heart of the book as well as theft and deception. The author takes a look at the pretence of the rich and the art world. There is some gentle satire of the characters who people the expensive art world. The history is fascinating and deals with the Nazi confiscation of art belonging to Jews. Whilst the characters are fictional it has the ring of accuracy about it. It has a very exciting ending but I cannot divulge without spoiling it as a read, just that it gets pacier as it goes along.
It is a good read and well researched, not least because Hannah Rothschild is the chair of the National Gallery since August 2015 and has been a trustee of the Tate, Waddesdon Manor, and is a Vice President of the Hay Literary Festival.
This Must be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell The Tinder Press £18.99 hardback published 17th May
This is another great book from a favourite writer of mine. Maggie O’ Farrell does relationships so well. This is the story of Daniel and Claudette who, at the outset, are living in a secluded cottage in Ireland. Claudette is a former film star who has essentially run away from her life as a famous person and frankly a bit of a diva. She meets Daniel when, seeing her son, Ari sitting at the side of the road, he stops to help her with a broken down car. The past invades as the past has a habit of doing. We learn that Daniel has two children in San Francisco who he never sees. When he sets off to visit his estranged 90 year old father in New York for his birthday he goes off piste and decides to visit his children. He does not tell Claudette and we start to see the rift , small at first which has the capacity to grow. There are secrets, lies, and a complicated narrative told from several points of view and several different times. Of course, life is like that and, as a consequence this novel is true to life.
I loved it. The characters are flawed and they don’t always take the right decisions. You want to shout at Daniel no don’t do that!! But, as in life, people don’t always behave in their own best interests as it is not always clear what those are. Looking back one can sometimes see the pivotal moments. Maggie O’Farrell captures that so well.The narrative jumps around in time and place as one’s thoughts and memories do.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt Sceptre books £ 9.99
This is a true story told as if it were fiction. It is completely gripping. I really enjoyed it. It is the story of Jim Williams, an antique dealer, who is tried for murder more than once. Set in the southern American town of Savannah, Georgia. The story is told by a journalist who is visiting and ends up staying for at least part of every year. The book has funny parts, and is a portrait of a town and it’s characters. Jim tells the narrator – one word sums up the people of Savannah – they’re cheap. There is a woman – a high society woman, very rich. She had a house built in the style of a Louisiana plantation house and got the foundry to make a pair of gates especially. When they were delivered with a bill of $1400 she threw a fit and said they were filthy, disgusting “I never want to see them again” The foundry took them back and not knowing what to do put them up for sale for $190. The woman sent someone down with $190 and bought them. There is an outrageous drag queen, a witch doctor, an eccentric who boasts he has enough poison to contaminate the town’s water supply which would wipe out the entire population, the great and the good and the poor and outcast. It is a great portrait of a town which reads like a novel. The four trials of Jim Williams take up the second half of the book and he spends a good deal of time in prison. The defence hinges on whether the death of Danny Hansford, rumoured to be his lover, was murder or self-defence.
A film has been made of it but the reviews would suggest the film takes a different emphasis and as a result is not as good as the book.
I liked the characters even the murderer. It seemed a fascinating portrait of a place and the characters in it although one must assume that some of it was embellished, surely all those odd balls could not live in one town. But who knows?
The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements Headline £7.99 paperback
This is a novel, published last year, based on the legend of The Wicked lady, a supposed highwaywoman in 17th century Hertfordshire. The heroine of the story, Katherine Ferrars, a real woman with whom the legend is associated, came from Markyate Cell. There is no evidence that she was The Wicked Lady but the author has taken the legend and written a gripping historical novel based around it. Katherine was born in Markyate Cell in 1634. By the time she was six, her father and two brothers had died. Her mother married Simon Fanshawe, a member of the prominent Fanshawe family, wealthy landowners with strong links to the king. The marriage was probably a practical arrangement. Katherine’s mother died in 1643 in Oxford where the family had moved for a time to be near the King who had set up court there in 1642 because of the civil war. Katherine is forced into a marriage of convenience aged 14 to her cousin Thomas then aged 16. Women in the 17th century had no rights and so although she remained the Lady Katherine her husband took over all her money and possessions. The financial pressures of the war quickly reduced Katherine’s fortunes. Thomas took up law and spent much time in London at the Inns of Court. There are no records of children being born to the marriage. Katherine died aged just 26. Left alone for much of the time it is not hard to believe that Katherine sought diversion and meeting a highwayman who taught her his trade could well have been an exciting prospect, especially as her circumstances were reduced. Highwaymen were not uncommon at that time and coaches were held up on Nomansland Common. Her ghost is thought to haunt those parts of Hertfordshire.
Stalin’s Englishman The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie Hodder & Stoughton £25
This is a well written account of the spy Guy Burgess and his various lives. This also has a local connection as he used to drink in The Green Dragon at Flaunden.
Recruited from Cambridge University in the 1930’s Guy Burgess was one of the most complex, complicated and fascinating of ‘The Cambridge Spies’ – a group of young men recruited to spy during World War II and the Cold War. Many reviewers have described him as charming and repulsive and that seems right. He seems to have been promiscuous, indiscreet, drunk and a consummate liar, all qualities that seem compulsory in a spy. His connections with people in high places and his ability to network and charm seem to have enabled him to be able to pass entire suitcases of material to the Russians. He was protected from discovery by the people in high places, notably the Foreign office. He was apparently a great socialite and kept all the letters he was sent as well as collecting gossip. Andrew Lownie says this was mostly for his own amusement but he seems not to have been above a bit of blackmail and all of this would be grist to the mill of a blackmailer.
He must have been charming because some of the descriptions of his appearance would put people off – dishevelled with food on his clothes and yet he had a lot of admirers.
His lonely end in Moscow is also here. It is fascinating and a real page turner.
Wildlife in Your Garden by Mike Dilger Bloomsbury £12.99 paperback
I just love this. A perfect book for both children and adults published jointly with the RSPB, written by CBeebies presenter Mike Dilger. It shows you all the animals that live near you whether you live in a town or way out in the country. It also shows you how to spot them, identify them and encourage them to show themselves in your garden, whatever size it is.
It has lovely photographs of animals and birds with descriptions of the identifying features to help you identify them. The animals range from tiny beetles though moths, butterflies, centipedes and the way to large animals like the fox and deer. The book also looks at different habitats, like hedges, ponds, compost heaps.
The wildlife in my garden :
It says in the book that over half of us feed birds. We are rewarded by regular visits from Great spotted woodpeckers , blue tits, great tits, long tailed tits, dunnock (that pick up all the bits the other birds drop)I have badgers that dig up my lawn regularly, muntjac deer that eat the heads off my flowers, rabbits who munch on my vegetables, squirrels who try to steal the bird food, crows who try to steal the chicken food)
The Martian by Andy Weir published by Del Rey (imprint of Ebury, itself and imprint of Penguin Random House) paperback £7.99
This is the book behind the film. Originally self published and then taken up by mainstream publishers. It is a great story about a man, Mark Watney, who is left behind by a manned Mars space expedition. The crew have to evacuate because of a storm and in the rush Mark gets injured quite badly. The rest of the crew assume he is dead and leave him, although the spaceship commander, a woman, goes back over and over to look for him until the ship is ready to go. Mark finding himself in this position is understandably a bit frightened but he is a resourceful botanist and there are modules left behind that can sustain his life for a bit. However there is enough food, oxygen and water for only a couple of months. He has to work out how to survive longer than that as he knows there will be another manned expedition landing in 4 years time. It takes about 18 months to get to Mars from Earth. How he survives and the complicated calculations he has to make to work out how it will all last long enough, how he can make more oxygen and water and how he can grow potatoes which is the only fresh food he has been left is the backbone of the story. A pageturner, thrilling to the very end, the story is told by Mark himself in the form of diary entries. We hear about the story of the rescue mission from Earth where the fact that Mark is alive has been spotted. We meet the director of NASA, Venkat Kapoor. We also follow the crew on their way back to Earth, having abandoned the crew member they thought was dead. Communications between all these different groups are at times difficult, non existent even.
This is totally believable, if the stuff of nightmares!
Poems That Make Grown Women Cry edited by Anthony and Ben Holden published by Simon and Schuster hardback £16.99 In conjunction with Amnesty International there was a volume called Poems that Make Grown Men Cry published last year
This is such a great book. A great present for anyone. Essentially 100 women that you will have heard of have chosen their favourite poems that move them and have explained why they love them and the poems are reprinted. You will find some great poetry, familiar and strange and some inspiring stories here.
Joss Stone, Pam Ayres, Caitlin Moran, Sarah Waters, Maureen Lipman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Bianca Jagger to name a few.
The Kindness by Polly Samson paperback published by Bloomsbury £8.99
This is a gripping story, on the surface a pastoral idyll, but with a dark interior that we are kept guessing about for most of the book. Julia is married and as the book opens she is flying her husband’s hawk. She meets up with Julian, eight years younger with a future academic career ahead of him. They give up everything to be together. Julian’s childhood home Firdaws is for sale and he is determined to renovate it. However there is a childhood sweetheart lurking whose intentions are not honourable and Julian seems to be there alone while Julia and their daughter Mira who is terribly ill but we do not know with what are not around we know not why. As the story unfolds it is clear that there are secrets we don’t know and everyone is not quite what they seem. It has you hanging on and sometimes not breathing. The story seems quite gently told, as if normal is how it is, and so as revelation comes upon revelation it is shocking.
Polly Samson has been a Costa Prize judge, has written 2 short story collections and a previous novel and has been short listed for prizes. She is married to Dave Gilmour, wrote the lyrics for 7 tracks on Pink Floyd’s album The Division Bell, then lyrics for On An Island and Louder Than Words. She has sung on a Pink Floyd Album and played piano on an album and on Jools Holland. One very talented lady! Her parents were very interesting, her mother had served in Mao’s Red Army and lived in a Barnardo’s home and her father came from Germany on Kinder transport. )
Everyone Brave is Forgiven By Chris Cleave hardback published by Sceptre £14.99
This is a story set in the Second World War. A woman, Mary North, our main heroine signs up to be ‘useful’ and, although she is convinced she would make a great spy, she is assigned to be a school teacher. She only has the children to teach who have not been evacuated from London or who were evacuated and then sent back. It seems black children and ‘difficult’ children were not popular in the country. It has a love story at its heart but shows war as the nasty business it is and how dangerous life is in London during the Blitz as well as in Malta where the British Army are besieged and close to starving. Interesting that the bureaucracy (at least that is what the author puts it down to) evacuates the animals from the Zoo before the children.
Mary meets Tom who is a school administrator who is exempt from National Service because of his job. He is conflicted about that though. And then we have Hilda and Alistair. Hilda is Mary’s friend, slightly jealous of her more beautiful, successful friend and in love with Alistair. Mary however falls for Alistair too so we have the classic love triangle. Mary and Hilda become ambulance drivers in London and we feel their fear as they drive around the bombed city. At first the war feels exciting and a bit of an adventure which I think is how it felt to many people. Then it becomes more real and frightening as everything disintegrates. I think it is about the war as experienced by ordinary people and as such is a well crafted story and very readable.
The story was inspired by his grandparents letters to each other written during the war. He went to Malta to research, used his family names for the characters to start with to keep it real and then changed them before publication. Whilst it is inspired by his grandparents it is not their story.
The Saffron Tales recipes from the Persian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan published by Bloomsbury hardback £26
Rather gorgeous cookery book with lots of mouth watering recipes. I think particularly good for vegetarians and vegans as it had sections for both of those as well as sections on breakfasts, mezze, salads, feasts, soups and mains as well. It is like many cookery books from elsewhere in the world having some history both of the country and its traditions, some history of both food and culture. The author is from London and has an Iranian mother. She visited Iran many times as a child and has visited and travelled around the country researching this book. Many of the recipes are the sort of delicious food, cooked long and slow and with herbs and spices. The cuisine itself is not fiery hot but a gentler more middle eastern style with sweetness and fragrance.
The Life Project by Helen Pearson published by Allen Lane hardback £20
I love this book. I read about it in the papers and you or your listeners may also have done so This is a fascinating interpretation of the little known cohort studies that have caused changes to all kinds of social norms. Essentially in 1946 scientists, worried about why the birth rate was falling in post war Britain, decided to interview the mothers of every child born in the UK in a single week in March. They were born just after the end of the war but food was still rationed and people were generally not very well off.
The scientists were keen to discover if mothers were put off by the pain of childbirth, the cost of child rearing or maybe the difficulty of child rearing. Every eligible mother was seen by a Health Visitor and asked questions about her life – did she work? Had she any servants? How many rooms in her house? Does her husband have a job and if so what? How many and what ages are any other children living in the house? 91 % of the eligible women took part 13,687. It took 2 years for Douglas, the man running the survey to process the data and publish it. By the time he did falling fertility was no longer an issue as the late 1940’s saw the start of the baby boom. However it showed something altogether more worrying- the extent to which Britain was divided by class. Babies born to the lowest classes were 70% more likely to be stillborn, working class mother sin those pre NHS days got much less medical attention and while well off mothers spent 2 weeks laying in in hospital, working class mothers were more likely to give birth at home in the family bed which was free. It was hoped that the NHS would solve these class problems. In order to measure this Douglas and his team set about tracing the 1946 babies to see what difference a change in policy might have made. The results make grim reading. The poor were still shorter and smaller, more likely get ill to die young. This was the start of a series of cohort studies , national studies of children born in 1958, 1970,1991. The author has stories of some of the people in the cohorts and her work was published as the 1946 cohort reached 70. All of the studies were run on a shoestring by passionate, idiosyncratic people. Some of the findings have changed the way we do things. The fact that smoking is bad for you starts here with studies of mothers who smoked in pregnancy. Breast feeding and eating fish in pregnancy boosts IQ years later. As the first study comes to 70 three weird correlations have come to light. The strength of the handgrip at age 53, how quickly they could stand up from a chair 10 times in a row and being able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds with their eyes shut has proved a curious predictor of early death. Those who could complete none of the tests had a mortality rate 12 times higher than the top performers.
Obesity has been another surprise. In the 1980’s members of the first 3 cohorts all saw their rates of overweight and obesity begin to rise. It did not matter if they were teenagers or forty somethings. Something in society had changed – car ownership, changing diets, greater wealth has caused an unwelcome change.
Class has remained a barrier. Well off dim children have overtaken bright poor children by the age of three. Despite all efforts to redress the balance the gulf has only widened by 16. This is a book full of wonder and explanations. Readers will find all kinds of political decisions which have been informed by these studies in this readable fascinating book.
The Millenium cohort is an interesting one. The agreement was reached too late to monitor the babies and mothers during pregnancy which seems a wasted opportunity sim=nce so much information from that period seems to affect later life. Politicians wanted a flashy Millenium cohort but did not agree funding far enough ahead for that to happen. In the end about 18000 babies were recruited but not from a single week, a much longer period was required to recruit a big enough sample.
Two of the most interesting things about the study itself are the fact that it was all started before computers and so analysing the data was a painstaking process and that because of the lack of proper funding and the fact that no one saw the long term plan they had to look for the participants all over again each time.
Two sad facts Helen Pearson in analysing why modern parents are much less willing to sign up for such a study says they have a tendency to ask ‘ what’s in it for them?’ Luckily for them the 1946 mothers did not think that because so much about pregnancy and childbirth was learned from that study that it changed it for all following generations. Fact 2- In 2015 they should have done another but instead if the 16000 babies born in a week only 249 signed up so they have to think again. )
Grrrrr! by Rob Biddulph Published by Harper Collins £6.99 paperback
A charming picture book from the award winning author/illustrator of Blown Away. The story of a bear called Fred, who always wins the ‘Best Bear in the Wood’ contest. To achieve this he has to be best at fishing, hula-hooping, scaring humans and growling at which Fred excels. A new bear comes to live in the wood and threatens to beat Fred. The rhyming story and bright colourful pictures make this lovely book about friendship a delightful read for young children.
Blown Away was about a penguin that blew away holding onto a balloon and travelled around the world before getting back to his icy home.
Simplicity and the gorgeous illustrations make this a great read. So good to read aloud as it is rhyming and I always love that.
Fact Feed by Penelope Arlon et al Published by Scholastic £6.99
This is another of the Blue Peter books, one of three shortlisted for the Blue Peter non fiction book. The results will be announced on Blue Peter this evening. I liked this best but the children who vote may well disagree. The children who read these books on our book group liked another one better called the Epic Book of Epicness.
The subtitle of this book is ‘The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Trivia’ and that is just what it is. It has sections on science and technology, the natural world and everyday life. In full colour, with mostly photographic illustrations, it is full of the most astonishing facts. Such as – in 1990 60,000 trainers washed off a ship. Researchers are still tracking them to find out more about ocean currents. Bristlecone pines are the world’s oldest living things, they can be 5,000 years old. Astronauts sometimes find returning to earth’s gravity after space travel tricky because they often forget that things don’t float so they drop them. The longest subway in the world is the Seoul Subway in South Korea at 584 miles (940km). This is a fascinating book for any age of person with curiosity. It is presented in a clear, colourful and fun way and is a great ‘dip into’ read.
When you look stuff up on the internet you do occasionally find out other things by heading off at a tangent but that is as nothing compared to flicking through a paper book like this and just reading the stuff on any page. Look on the back cover and you will see the sorts of things that are between the covers. What would you have to put into Google to find out about the 6 foods that caused wars and the 5 brilliantly brave beasts? Or the number of bones in your body and the different foods that are delicacies around the world.
The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold illustrated by Emily Gravett Published by Bloomsbury £7.99 paperback
This is a lovely chapter book from the wonderful imagination of the author of Fizzlebert Stump (another great book if you have not read it!) Many children have imaginary friends at some point. Imagine if the imaginary friends of all the children in a neighbourhood got together. They would be able to see each other and talk and best of all look out for their children. That is just what happens in this book. It is a great story with a bit of adventure about a girl called Amanda and her imaginary friend Rudger, a boy. Together they are brave, feisty and full of fun and character. An adventure would not be and adventure without a bad character up to no good. This one is a Mr Bunting who is an imaginary baddy who eats imaginary friends. He has a creepy girl sidekick and they turn up all over the place creating mayhem. The characters are believable, even the imaginary ones, and the illustrations make this a very special book. They are integrated with the text and add significantly to the reader’s experience. The book is funny, a bit creepy, very imaginative and a great read. I love that they get together in the Library, the home of imagination!
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge Published by Macmillan £7.99 paperback
This wonderful book has just won the Costa Prize for Best Children’s Book and best book across all categories. It is set in Victorian England as fourteen year old Faith’s family, father, mother and younger brother, Howard, are moving from their home to a remote island. Faith’s father wants to participate in an archaeological dig. It is clear from the outset that he has a valuable collection of flora and fauna and he seems more attached to his collection than his daughter who is a clever girl. Even while the move is taking place we learn that claims of fraud have been made against Faith’s father and he may be running away from his critics. At first the family are welcomed to the island but very quickly find themselves ostracised. Faith’s father is and intolerant and unsympathetic character. When he is found dead it is assumed that he committed suicide in the wake of the accusations but Faith thinks otherwise and suspects he has been murdered. One of his specimens, kept in a secret cave turns out to be the Lie Tree which gathers whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets.
The start is slow, imaginative as the time and place are drawn out for the reader. Once all the pieces are in place the story picks up pace and almost rushes along to its thrilling conclusion. It is clever, sad, funny and almost gothic. A great read for any age, young adult and adult.
I would say 9+. It is a bit dark although I think children like dark, after all Roald Dahl has its dark moments, as do Alice in Wonderland etc
Twenty Questions for Gloria by Martyn Bedford Published by Walker Books £7.99 paperback
This is a psychological thriller for teenagers. It is about a girl called Gloria and her first love, a boy called Uman pronounced OOman. They are both fifteen and at school together. Uman has joined her school and seems exotic, quirky, clever and good looking. After just a few meetings they run away together and allow their destiny to be dictated by a pack of cards which they cut to make decisions. The book has an intriguing format as the twenty questions are the twenty questions the police in the body of DI Ryan ask Gloria once she has returned after 15 days on the run. Her mother is present throughout and in answering the questions she tells the story of their escapade.
Throughout the book we do not know what has happened to Uman and the police clearly think he is dead as no trace is found of him. It is tense and compelling. I rather liked Uman too.
Had Gloria any good reason for running away? No she was like many young people, she had loving parents, although her mother was always out training on her bike and her father worked long hours. Did she learn anything? Yes she learned a lot about choices and said something I thought quite profound. You have to take happiness with you or make a new batch!
The Boy Who Sailed the World in an Armchair by Lara Williamson Published by Usborne £6.99 paperback
This is a Blue Peter shortlisted book. We will know this evening when we atch Blue peter which book has won. My favourites are The nowhere Emporium for fiction and Fact Feed for non fiction.
This story is about two brothers, Becket and Billy, who have lost their Mum and are being brought up by their father, who delivers fish from a van called The Codfather. The story is told by becket who is eleven. Crucial to the story is the legend that whoever makes 1000 paper cranes will be granted a wish and there are cranes all the way through the book. We get to meet beckets class at school, his teacher Mr Beagle and some of his friends including Nevaeh (Heaven backwards) Becket’s Dad has a girlfriend called pearl who is an artist and early on in the book Dad takes the boys in the middle of the night while Pearl is out to a new flat. They set up a ‘Snoop Club’ and their mission is to find Pearl because they do not really understand why Dad has moved them and they miss her. Suffice to say, lots of things go wrong and in the end some things go right.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming paperback £8.99 Vintage
The first of the Bond books, published in 1953, this is a thriller as you would expect. It was the first film to star Daniel Craig. The story line is typical Bond and culminates in a high stakes game of poker between Le Chiffre, a bankrolling warlord, and James Bond. Who knew that MI6 spies were funded to gamble by the Government? The US treasury also sent a representative with cash. There is of course a love interest, Vesper Lynd. Bond and she are captured as you might expect. I can’t tell you much more without giving away the plot but suffice to say Bond lives to fight another day. But you knew that as this is Book One! Fleming used his wartime experiences as a member of the Naval Intelligence Division, and the people he met during his work, to provide plot elements; the character of Bond also reflected many of Fleming’s personal tastes. It should be said that the Bond of this book is a bit misogynist and racist which jars in the 21st century. His attitudes would have been more normal in 1953. The dreaded SMERSH are the villains of this story which is an enjoyable well written read.
The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie paperback £6.99 Kelpies
This is a great read. It has been chosen as one of the 3 fiction titles shortlisted for the Blue Peter award, given each year to the best fiction and best non-fiction on World Book Day. It is about a boy, Daniel Holmes, who lives in a children’s home and is bullied by a group of boys from that home. He has stumbled across a strange shop which appears one evening magically between the butchers ad the ironmongers. The next day he is running away from the bullies who are led by one Spud Harper when he runs into the road. He should have been run over but at the very last moment he is saved. His saviour turns out to be the proprietor of the mystery shop, Lucien Silver, and he offers Daniel the chance to become part of that. Daniel hesitates for a very short time as he is anxious that if he does not live up to Mr Silvers expectations he will be thrown out. The thought of his unhappy life in the children’s home makes him take the risk and become a part of the Nowhere Emporium. The shop is like a time machine containing wonders and Daniel learns how to create ‘wonders’. There is a girl, of course, Lucien Silver’s daughter, Ellie. brilliantly imaginative, recommended for children of 7+.
Forget Me Not by Luana Lewis paperback £7.99 Penguin Random House
This book starts with a murder. The prologue which tells us of the death gives away that it is a female corpse but not who or why or by whose hand the death has occurred. It becomes clear pretty quickly who the corpse was, Vivian, the mother of Lexi, wife of Ben and daughter of the narrator, Rose. However it is not clear who killed her or why. There is an ex-girlfriend, Cleo, who seems to be ingratiating herself with the grieving widower, Ben himself of course. Vivian’s mother is a nurse in a local hospital and it would seem she has hopes to be allowed to look after her grandaughter. Vivian is not a warm and loving mother being more concerned with appearances than substance so she has quite a few people with reason to dislike her.
It is a compelling book that might keep you up late!
Luana Lewis is a clinical psychologist in her ‘day job’.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson paperback £7.99 Transworld
Kate described this Winner of the Costa best novel prize as a companion novel to Life After Life. It is, but only in the sense that it takes one of the characters from that book and tells their story. Teddy, who was Ursula’s brother, signs up to Bomber Command during WW2. As most of his contemporaries died, Teddy vows to live a quiet life. He is surprised to survive and does what he says, becoming a teacher, husband to Nancy and father to Viola. The book travels backwards and forwards in time taking one across the whole of Teddy’s life. The descriptions of the inside of a bomber are just so intense that you feel you are there, holding your breath over Germany as the bombs drop around you and the anti-aircraft guns fire. Teddy is the pilot of the Halifax bomber and considered a good one at that. As he flies he thinks about his childhood and the house he grew up in. Later we follow him through his life in sheltered housing and a care home. His daughter Viola is rather horrid, in my view. She takes her parents for granted and leads a bohemian life in first a commune and then at a women’s peace camp. Teddy and his wife have a close relationship with their 2 grandchildren Sunny and Bertie (a girl). Throughout the book Teddy’s memories trigger other ones, just as you or I do and the author takes us forward or backward in time to explain their significance. We all live our lives with our memories jumping in randomly all the time thus we experience different parts of our lives at the same time.
There is a dramatic twist at the end. Life After Life was a very unusual novel in that it took the life of a character and allowed her to restart it over and over again, turning back the clock and we understood that continued life was contingent on tiny things. This is a gripping, wonderful story, told with Kate Atkinson’s usual flair. One of the best books I have read in a long time.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan Paperback £ 7.99 Vintage
This is an old favourite but if you have never read it , it is a great read, a love story for Valentine’s Day! It is about more than one kind of love, obsessive love and real love between husband and wife. It has a great opening – a journalist, Joe, has planned a picnic to celebrate the return of his academic wife for a 6 week research trip. He collects her from Heathrow and they drive out into the Chilterns to a wood and field near Watlington. The descriptions of the road as it emerges on the escarpment overlooking the Vale of Oxford will take you there if you have ever been in that part of the 3 counties. As they sit on the edge of a wood to enjoy their picnic, they see a hot air balloon landing in the field in front of them and then take off again with a man half in and half out of the basket. Joe sets off to help as do a number of other people who have also seen what was happening. There is a 10 year old boy in the basket. The balloon is blown up again and they all hold on to ropes trying to anchor it down. One by one they let go, but the last person does not let go until he is very high up and he falls to his death. Joe and Jed go across the field hoping by some miracle that the man is still alive. At this point Jed, a complete stranger, seems to imagine that Joe has given him some kind of signal that he is in love with him. He then commences to stalk him, writing letters and loitering outside his flat all day every day. He never threatens overtly which means the police are unwilling to get involved. The obsessional love of Jed for Joe threatens his marriage and Joe finds himself being drawn into Jed’s world as he tries to deal with the implicit threat he feels.
A compelling read from a master storyteller. Perhaps a thriller as well as a love story.
The book fooled psychiatrists and book reviewers that the book was a case study as there are appendices which look like completely authentic scientific papers.
The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood Hardback £12.99 Harlequin
This is a classic whodunnit. Polly Carter is a supermodel who, seemingly, has it all. Good looks, wealth and a house on a Caribbean Island. But as you can guess all is not as it seems. There are a large number of people who would prefer her out of the way from her agent to the housekeeper (with whose husband she is having an affair) she has a drug problem. DI Richard Poole is puzzled by it all. It looks like suicide but why would she commit suicide? In addition his mother has come from England for a holiday and appears not to want to spend her time with him. That is weird also?
Just what you want for a fireside after Christmas read – Lots of red herrings so you keep thinking you know who it is but each is dismissed and then revived as new evidence comes to light.
Wisdom of Groundhog Day: How to Improve Your Life One Day at a Time by Paul Hannam paperback £14.99 (not published until January 28th) Hodder and Stoughton
You may remember the 1993 film Groundhog Day in which a TV weather presenter Phil Collins is sent to a new town, Punxsutawney. He is forced to live the same day over and over again and feels powerless to change anything, As a result he becomes depressed and unmotivated. Eventually he changes himself and is thus able to move out of the bubble. This book is based on that same principle – most of us are stuck in a rut, not fully awake, on autopilot. It develops a technique to help people see how to change which is a type of mindfulness. i.e. all about living in the moment, making the most of each day, releasing your authentic self and appreciating the world you are in. Everyone needs to develop resilience as that allows us to bounce back from the inevitable knocks and bumps that life throws at people.
Colour Therapy there are lots of these books around and no particular one seems different from the others
This is a mindfulness sort of task. Theory is that anything that requires a person to concentrate and therefore switch off from real life is helpful to wellbeing. Seems to work for some people and I certainly find that doing something creative, drawing or sewing switches ones mind off from the everyday and therefore is relaxing.
The Road Home by Rose Tremain Paperback £8.99 Vintage
Lev is from an eastern European country that has joined the EU. Like many others he is heading for the UK in search of a better life. His wife has died of leukaemia and his five year old daughter is living with her grandparents. On his arrival in hot dusty midsummer London he finds that his first night in a B & B in Earls Court uses almost all his cash which is not a good start. He gets a job delivering leaflets for a kebab shop at a rate of 2pence per leaflet. He sleeps on the street. Slowly he gets on his feet but the view of Britain through an incomers eyes is a fascinating one. The London we see through Lev’s eyes has poverty and wealth and everyone obsessed with status and success. He feels rage at being dependent on others.
The book has lots of great themes: loss and separation, mourning and melancholia, and what might underlie the seemingly altruistic act of moving country to earn money for your family. It is funny, sad, moving and ultimately a reflection on the experience of an outsider in modern Britain. Won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008 for this book. Has about 20 books out now. The Observer described her writing as having a delicious crunchy precision which sums it up.
The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer paperback £7.99 Faber and Faber
A tense, engrossing read about a woman and her daughter. Very early in the book and indeed this is the essence of the book the child is kidnapped, aged 8. The story then develops as to how her life and her mother’s move on from there. Both of them tell the story each from her own perspective in alternate chapters. The child is wearing a red coat when she disappears and to both of them this seems a kind of symbol of their faith. The girl’s father has already separated from the mother but we hear about his reactions too and those of his new wife.
Deliciously Ella by Ella Woodward hardback £20 Hodder and Stoughton
Ella Woodward started as a food blogger. She developed a diet of natural plant based food once she was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. This left her in bed 16 hours a day, feeling sick and dizzy. After some time on conventional medication without an improvement in her condition, she took up a whole foods, plant-based diet and gave up all meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, anything processed and all chemicals and additives, which was a pretty drastic change. She did not eat fruit or vegetables previously and was a self declared sugar monster!
Her first cookery book, Deliciously Ella was a runaway success and this month she publishes Deliciously Ella Every Day. The philosophy is essentially no processed food – so brown rice and pasta lots of vegetables and fruit especially of different colours – rainbow vegetables.
The blog developed a cult like following with as many as 800,000 hits on a single post. In addition to that Ella felt better and has gone on to be able to live a normal life, having previously been bedridden so there is something in it.
This young woman clearly has a determination that we all need to carry out our new Year resolutions. Most people seem to have resolutions to eat and drink less and exercise more so this could be a good place to start as we all kind of need a bit of a guide to do that. The recipes look nice and easy to do so that might help.
I haven’t seen the new book yet! So I am basing my thoughts on the original book.
A cracking good novel The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley hardback £14.99 John Murray (part of Hodder)
This is a gorgeous piece of writing. The language is perfect, the characters believeable and the descriptions of the place are very atmospheric. Set on the Lancashire coast it tell the story, looking back, from adulthood, of a twelve year old boy and his family’s last trip to this part of England where they went on retreat for many Easters. They hoped always that the older brother, Hanny, would be cured of whatever ailed him. He never spoke and his younger brother was expected by the mother to look after him and to keep an eye on him. The two brothers are allowed to explore the coast and come across some pretty creepy things and some things that just seem wrong. A pregnant girl who is being looked after/ imprisoned?
Creepy, atmospheric, compelling
A coffee table book for art/history/architecture lovers A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings by Dan Cruickshank £25 hardback William Collins
This is a glorious picture book with words of the 100 buildings that Dan Cruickshank, tv broadcaster and historian, considers the most important in the world and which tell the history of building. Some are picked for their beauty, some because they typify a change in the way buildings are constructed ege steel reinforcements. Architecture is in a way also the history of mankind. It houses bastions of wealth and power, temples of commerce, the arts, the dead. Shrines of learning, knowledge and politics. Some of the buildings in the book are now destroyed such as Palmyra in Syria.
The buildings are grouped into categories such as sacred buildings. Material matters about the material used to construct the building, big and beautiful
I think anyone would love this as a Christmas present.
A dip into book for fascinating history fact lovers – Footnotes to History by Giles Milton hardback £14.99 John Murray
This is a dip into book for collectors of interesting stories. It is the bits of history that they don’t teach in school but which brings history to life. There are stories of daring escapes, cannibalism and adventure as well as the story of Hitler’s last hours and Stalin’s. There is a tale of the last eunuch on the Emperor as well as geisha girls. Some are funny, many sad and some plain horrid eg Cannibalism The last Japanese soldier who fought WWII until 1974 and took some convincing that it had been over for a long time (they had to fly his commanding officer out to the Philippines)Then there is the discovery of a corpse in the mountains close to the Italian Austrian border that turned out to be 5300 years old and had lain undiscovered frozen in a glacier for all that time. Forensic scientists have pieced together what happened to him.
It is altogether a fascinating book as the title might suggest. In part Horrible Histories for Grown Ups
Another coffee table book for checking the value of your bits and pieces – Miller’s Antiques guide by Judith Miller hardback £30 Octopus Books
Another lovely picture book with the guide prices for items that many people will have lying around. Great for people who love car boot sales, or have an interest in collecting stuff, or have things lying around. It cover s everything from silverware and china to furniture to clocks and jewellery. Toys, guns ornaments it is all here.
Brilliant biography Charlotte Bronte by Claire Harman hardback £25 Penguin
This is a wonderfully readable biography of Charlotte Bronte. Whether you are a fan of jane Eyre or not it is a great read. It captures the strange life led by the Bronte family, famously living in the Parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire. The girls were sent away to school and the only son was home educated by their father the Parson. Their mother died when Charlotte was six and her sister the children’s aunt stayed on in the house to help Patrick Bronte look after the children. The first school the girls were sent to was Cowan Bridge and both Elizabeth and Maria contracted pulmonary Tuberculosis although it was thought to be typhus at first. Both girls died but notwithstanding that Charlotte and Emily were returned there. There are details about the school food. The three girls Anne Emily and Charlotte go published largely due to Charlotte’s efforts. At first under a nom de plume, all initials Curra Bell was Charlotte. They tried to publish their three novels as one. When finally Thackeray receives a copy of Jane Eyre from Charlotte’s publisher he says he wishes she had not as it kept him up all night reading.
One for children – Mister Cleghorn’s Seal by Judith Kerr hardback £12.99 Harper Collins
Great new chapter book from the wonderful Judith Kerr , author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Great Granny Gang and Mog. Story of a seal who is rescued by Mr Cleghorn and who travelled on a train and lived on a balcony. Based slightly on a true story about Judith Kerr’s father. Suitable for ages 6 – 9
The Visitor by Sophie Hannah £8.99 hardback published by Sort Of Books
Ghost stories – but not too scary
To Oldy Go edited by Hilary Bradt published by Bradt Travel Guides paperback £10.99
A books of short true stories of hair raising adventures from various authors, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Matthew Parris and of course Hilary Bradt who still hitchhikes well into her 70’s and has just walked the100 miles of the Fishermans Way in Portugal. What do they have in common? They are all over 60 and should be in their bath chairs! Great encouragement for anyone with a lust for travel who is getting on in years. Nothing to stop them traveling and having adventures
Adult Ladybird books all £6.99 Penguin
which are parodies of the originals. Taking a comic look at such matters as the middle classes, How it works:The Wife and not to be sexist How it Works :The Husband TheFull English Breakfast etc
After the Crash by Michael Bussi paperback £7.99 Orion books
We discussed this book when it came out in hardback. It remains the best thriller I have read this year so if you just want a good read for someone or a book to sit by the fire with on Boxing day this would be good.
After You by JoJo Moyes Hardback Penguin 24th Sept 2015 £20
People may remember that we discussed Me Before You by the same author back in the summer. That book ended with Will leaving Lou some money and a letter telling her to ‘live well’.
This book is the story of Lou and what happens to her. I have two friends who have read this who had not read the first one and both say it does not matter so don’t worry about that. It would still make a good read and a good present. It is a tale of Lou and what happened next. When the book opens she is working in a catering facility in an airport and at some point in order to boost sales she is made to dress in a ridiculous costume and wig. Lou is a quirky character and gathers people around her who are perhaps slightly off beat, slightly outsiders. One source of these is the ‘moving on ‘ therapy group Lou joins, a 12 week course. Some of the participants become her friends and support group. The story takes some surprising turns, not least that Will turns out to have fathered a child way back when he was at university. He did not know that and nor did his family. So this story involves Lily, her relationship with Lou and with Will’s parents who have divorced. His father has remarried and is about to become a father again. Lily turns Lou’s life upside down and accidentally causes her to have a bad fall. Enter the ‘love interest’, Sam, the ambulance man. Lou’s sister, who at the end of the previous book was a single parent, studying to become an accountant, features in this story also. Their tempestuous relationship adds greatly to the story. So without giving too much away it is about the nature of families, sisterly love and squabbles, parenting and the nature of love of a parent for a child. It is very readable, a definite page turner.
Event scheduled for Monday December 7th at Dr Challoners High School in Little Chalfont 7.30pm
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien Faber £18.99 hardback
Amazing book by one of Ireland’s best loved writers. The title comes from the way they remembered the 20th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo in 2012 which was to put 11,541 chairs in the high street including 643 small ones for the slaughtered children. Each chair represented a person who dies at the time.
The story opens in a small coastal town in Ireland called Cloonoila. It is like many small places full of characters who all know each other. Then a strange man, Dr Vladimir Dragan, who describes himself as a poet, sex therapist and faith healer and he settles into small town life but unsettles the inhabitants of the town. He particularly unsettles Fidelma who, longing for a child and in a dull marriage, falls for his charms and becomes pregnant. The healer is revealed as a war criminal from Sarajevo. He is arrested and taken away. After Vlad Fidelma is left as an outcast, damaged and alone and eventually leaves Ireland and comes to London. She finds herself among the dispossessed refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world and we hear some of their stories of atrocity, low paid jobs and the need to survive unseen. In the last section of the book Fidelma goes to the trial of the healer.
A beautifully written novel, poetic in places again about things I am not familiar with but very powerful. Her first novel in 10 years. She evokes the landscape be it city or country in a rich way, so well observed. It is full of modern detail, which gives it its credibility.
Edna O’Brien has won many awards, Lifetime Achievement etc as well as being banned and vilified for The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss a trilogy of books about 2 convent girls who run away from home to Dublin and then London. She is widely regarded as having exposed the suffocation of Irish convent life and the fate of women. Her 2 main themes are Ireland and Women. Rather left behind in this book when she steps into the wider world. She married Ernet gebler, against her mothers wishes, moved to London, has 2 sons, Carol a writer and Sasha, an architect
A memorable last line? “You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music can be wrung from it”
Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg hardback October 8th 2015 £18.99
This is a fascinating fictionalised account of the so called ‘Peasants’Revolt’ of 1381. One of the most important people in the tale is Joan, Princess of Wales, widow of the Black Prince and mother of the child King Richard II. She was by all accounts revered for her beauty which had been identified in childhood and ‘frequently polished by praise’ She expected unbroken tributes to it. She had a huge interest in wealth, jewellery and the trappings of power. She acted as Guardian to the King and thus essentially ruled England until the King was old enough to take over. When her son was a child, before he was King she presented him with 22,000 pearls of different sizes among other gifts.
Then we have King Richard (1377 – 1399) himself who by the time the Peasants revolt takes place is a young man of 14. The uprising, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, a radical cleric, was against the poll tax that had been imposed on top of all the taxes imposed to pay for the 100 Years War. The plague was around which made people anxious and the workers were keen to be rid of serfdom by which they worked ever harder and the lord of the manor took most of their earnings. It started in Essex when John Bampton attempted to collect the poll tax and rapidly spread throughout the south east of England. (Interestingly no one tried to impose a poll tax again until Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980’s and that met with considerable hostility and was quickly repealed.)
During that extraordinary summer of 1381, thousands of angry men and women marched on London and exacted their vengeance on the corrupt workings of government by summarily executing the chief officers of state, destroying some of the capital’s most important buildings and publicly burning the records of their servitude. When they confronted the boy-king Richard II in person, they demanded, and briefly won, the abolition of serfdom so that, in future, every man, woman and child in England would be free to live and work as they pleased. It was, of course, too good to be true. The forces of reaction closed in, the rebels were dispersed, their leaders arrested and executed, and the brave new world they had dreamed of remained just a dream, albeit one that would inspire generations of future revolutionaries.
Truths, Half Truths and Little White Lies by Nick Frost published by Hodder & Stoughton £20 hardback
Auto biography of Nick Frost who starred with Simon Pegg in the Cornetto Trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the Worlds End. From his early life in Dagenham to his adult life this is a no holds barred, warts and all tale. Whilst it is funny it is also a rather sad book as his life has not been uneventful. His father had been an upholsterer who rose to be MD of a company. Then he decided to go it alone. His parents set up a business making office furniture, His dad was a fine draughtsman and designed beautiful chairs. They were manufactured in bits off site and his parents put them together in the garage in the evening, ready for delivery the following day. Eventually they get an order so big they cannot fulfil it and the business goes under and everything, including his fathers dignity is taken away. The family lose their home, camp with a neighbour for a while and are eventually rehoused in Ray Lodge estate in South Woodford. The young Nick knew no one, was lonely and angry. At the age of 16 his mother has a stroke and his father a nervous breakdown “It is a sobering feeling the moment you become your parents’ parent. For some people it’s not until they’re in their 50s or 60s, but I was 16 and it was too much for me to bear. After Mum’s stroke my lovely gentle dad had a massive nervous breakdown and he was never the same again. The man I knew, the workaholic, the joker, always laughing but often absent through hard work, had disappeared. There were glimpses every now and then, but it wasn’t the same.” At 17 he attempts suicide, taking pills and drink and leaving a note. He curses when he finds himself awake again in the morning. Leaving school, Nick goes to work on a kibbutz for 2 years. Much of the story is about both the work on the kibbutz and social life which seemed to include a good deal of drinking and ham. After that he got a job in Chiquitos at Staples Corner and it was here that he made friends with Simon Pegg, a friendship that has endured and been very productive for both parties. His mother was an alcoholic and his parents moved to Wales, rather leaving him in London to fend for himself. He feels abandoned and alone. For some years he barely spoke to his mother because he hated her drinking and hated himself for hating her. Nick managed to have a closer relationship with his father after hi mother had died until his death when Nick was 39. He has good friends that really are his family now. Life has not been too kind to Nick Frost, 4 put of 5 of his half siblings and both his parents are now dead. He is the last, apart from his son Mac, now 4 years old and for whom he has written this memoir. He wants him to know he can “come to me with anything”. It is sad, funny, and does not really glamourise the booze and drugs which may have been a risk in a life so dominated by addictive substances.
Part of the Chorleywood Literary festival appearing Saturday November 14th 7.30pm Chorleywood Memorial Hall
Born Survivors by Wendy Holden and Eva Clarke Little, Brown £7.99 paperback
This is the most astonishing story of survival. Journalist and biographer Wendy Holden tells the remarkable story of three ‘miracle babies’ secretly born in the German camps during World War Two. Three women were newly pregnant when they were sent to Auschwitz, coming under the gaze of Dr Josef Mengele. The first miracle was that the Nazis ran out of Zyklon B, the gas used to exterminate the prisoners. They were then sent to a German slave labour camp where, halfstarved and almost worked to death, they concealed their condition. Then, as the Allies closed in, they travelled for 17 hellish days on trains to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria. They were helped along the way by guards, civilians and other prisoners. Wendy Holden has brought these three stories together and the three babies met for the first time at mauthausen 70 years after the events of which their mothers were part.
The book has harrowing detail and is amazingly well researched. It is intense, powerful and moving.
Wendy Holden is appearing at the Literary Festival on Monday 16th November Eva Clarke, one of the miracle babies, will be accompanying her.
Wendy Holden is a journalist and worked at the Telegraph for 18 years. She has co written books with Goldie Hawn, Frank Sinatras widow as well as novels and other non fiction.
The Ship Antonia Honeywell Weidenfeld and Nicholson £12.99 hardback
Lalla Is our 16 year old storyteller. Something has happened to the planet although we are not clear what; economic crisis, global warming and general disregard for the environment has led to a dystopian future. Bees, antibiotics and GM also seem to have played a part in the disintegration of society. People don’t exist without an identity card and will be shot if they cannot produce a card within 10 seconds. Lalla and her mother practice getting the card out in a split second. They live in a flat and daily visit the British Museum to feed the people living there but each day the number of exhibits diminishes. Lalla’s father has a plan to save them. He has built a ship that will take 500 people and feed them and keep them safe in the hope the planet will recover. He morphs into a messianic figure and all the passengers on the ship call him ‘Father’
When Lalla finds out they are sailing in circles and that they will remain doing that for 20 years she feels that there is no purpose in life. However returning seems like suicide. I found it compelling.
The Crossing Andrew Miller Hodder & Stoughton £18.99 hardback August 2015
Wonderful literature from the author of Pure which won the Costa novel of the Year award. Tim and Maud meet at the opening of the book in very unusual circumstances. They are both members of the university sailing club and are doing up an old boat. Maud falls off the deck and smashes into the concrete below. Miraculously she survives and she and Tim embark on a relationship. Maud is a very self contained person, seeming to be living in a world of her own. They have a daughter which Tim, an aspiring musician looks after while Maud goes to work as a scientist researching into pain relief. Living in a small country village, it is Tim who meets the yummy mummies at the school gate, Tim who comes from an old family with all that entails – old money, privilege and not a little misogyny. Although early in the book many people are enchanted by Maud’s straightforward stare, later people feel discomfited by her and do not know how to deal with her. However Maud, daughter of a pair of rather dull teachers, has determination in spades, a fact that Tim occasionally feels rather jealous of. When a tragic accident happens – so cleverly told in this story – it rips the relationship apart. Maud sets off on a voyage which tests her sailing skills to the absolute limit. We leave Tim behind and sail with Maud across the Atlantic. Beautifully written page turner.
The Proposal Tasmina Perry Headline £8.99 paperback Attending the festival and talking about The Last Kiss Goodbye hardback 10th September
I did not have a copy of the book that Tasmina will be talking about so I read another of her books. She has written many books and is published in 17 countries.
This story is about Amy, an American dancer waitressing in London while waiting for her big break. She is in a relationship with Daniel, a glamourous banker and hopes he will propose at the firm Christmas bash. She has seen a ring in his sock drawer and has convinced herself that will happen. However it does not as his family, present at the bash, make it perfectly clear that a dancer is not the right wife or even girlfriend for an up and coming career man. Amy is distraught and answers an advert in The Lady for a companion to go for a few days to New York with an elderly lady. Georgia takes Amy in hand and in doing so we hear her back story as a debutante and young woman in 1950’s Britain.
A Spool of Blue Thread Anne Tyler Chatto & Windus £7.99 paperback 3rd September 2015 shortlisted for the Man Booker prize
I thought we should have a look at one of the Man Booker shortlist. Picked this one for no other reason than it is available in paperback.
Anne Tyler is a favourite author so it is great to see her on the list.
This is a fascinating story, well written and shrewdly observed. The story of a family which opens with the elderly parents Abby and Red beginning to lose their grip on life as they age. Their adopted son Stem and his gorgeous wife Nora move in to supervise them and arrange a move to a smaller property. Then another son Denny, feckless and out of touch most of the time also turns up to help. Nora always calls Abby Mother Whitshank which she finds very irritating. There are some very funny scenes between the family members as Denny seems like the prodigal son. Anne Tyler uses the story of the house, the family home, to turn the clock back to Abby and Red’s early years, how they met and how they courted and found the home that would become the family home. The novel is sensitive to the indignity of old age and the tragi comedy that families so often endure. Anne Tyler is clever enough to leave some of the behaviour unexplained as it is in real life. Abby, the mother and centre of the family has always been regarded as scatty and her children would find her embarrassing as she might burst into a room when they had friends around and recite a poem she had just written. She would grab anyone with a hint of foreign ness about them and say ‘Tell me, where is home for you?’ Intrusive, sure of her welcome, self confident Abby had been a social worker. We get the story of their family when they were young as well as that of their children and grandchildren.
Spectacles Sue Perkins Penguin £20 hardback October 8th
There will be a rash of celebrity memoirs coming out in time for Christmas. This one is definitely a great one to read. Funny as only Sue Perkins can be, it tells the story of her life so far. One feels sure there is more to come.
She says that she has embellished some stuff ‘to make you like me’ but she has such a great turn of phrase and sense of humour that you might never guess which bits. She talks about her relationship with Mel, her growing up in Croydon ‘less of a place , more of a punch line’, going to Cambridge because she was told at school she should only consider a polytechnic, telling her mother she is gay, her 6 year affair with a man, the love of her dog, her new love Anna Richardson and of course the Great British Bake Off.
Little Black Lies Sharon Bolton £7.99 paperback November 2015
I thought this was coming out in paperback in October but sadly you need to wait until November for this great read. The story takes place on the Falkland Islands and is very atmospheric although I have not been there to see but it fits with my imagined Falklands.
It is a thriller and starts with a child going missing. Then another, and so this very close knit community has to accept that there is a child abductor/ murderer in their midst – or maybe he/ she came from the cruise ship that is moored in Stanley? The story is told in three different voices. First Catrin whose 2 sons were killed in a tragic accident when in the care of her best friend, Rachel. Then we hear Callum’s story and followed by Rachels. Callum is a former British soldier who served in the Falklands War and we get the story of some parts of the war from the flashbacks he has due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are twists and turns right to the very end and although I several times thought I knew who the perpetrator was I did not and nothing is resolved until the very end. It is well written and the characters are well developed and having the events told by 3 voices is a great technique as you get the story from all the points of view. One persons rational behaviour can seem like madness to an outsider.
Galina Petrovna’s Three Legged Dog Story Andrea Bennett The Borough Press £7.99 paperback August 27th 2015
Wonderful story about some zany Russians. Galina adopts a three legged dog but refuses to out a collar on it. The canine exterminator is zealous in his endeavours to rid the town of stray dogs and any dog without a collar is considered by him to be a stray. First her friend Vasily gets involved and gets himself arrested. Then Galina calls on her friend Zoya to help rescue the dog and Vasily. The two women travel to Moscow to meet a cousin of Zoya’s, Grigor Mikailovitch, who she is sure will help, being a retired person in the services, too secret to repeat. They travel to Moscow by train then Zoya sets off up the track instead of the road and almost gets killed by a train. Grigor turns out to be a bit of a ramshackle individual who says he will meet them at the Ministry in the morning at 9am. Well the two women get there but there is no sign of him. Now that Russia is a capitalist country you can avoid the queue by buying a reference number, platinum or silver or you can just queue. After a lot of waiting they discover that the Deputy Minister is at his dachau fishing and nowhere near Moscow. Another Minister agrees to meet them in a nightclub. A very funny passage where they get togged up to go to a bohemian nightclub and get quite drunk, finally meeting the Minister who gives the all important piece of paper to release Vasily and the dog.
A hilarious romp of a book, really a book length shaggy dog story.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd £18.99 hardback published by Bloomsbury September 10th 2015
William Boyd is one of my favourite writers hence the choice of a hardback book. This is the fictional story of Amory Clay, a photographer. Written like an autobiography, it has photos that give credence to that format. Amory was born in 1908 and the book is written in sections. Her family is a strange one and her uncle Greville is the inspiration for her photography career. She sees the events if the century through the lens of the camera. There is a very ‘hold your breath’ chapter where she is the photographer for an American magazine at one of the early marches of the blackshirts when she is attacked by the people she has been taking pictures of. She ends up in hospital and then back home with her parents for a long convalescence. Sneaking into brothels as well as witnessing political events, and France during the First World War, the book is a fascinating story. Part told looking back from her home in the west of Scotland and part told as a series of chapters with place names.
A Game for All the Family by Sophie Hannah £14.99 hardback Hodder August 13th 2015
This is the season for new hardback fiction, great for Christmas presents! Sophie Hannah’s books are always psychological thrillers and this one is no exception. Justine, weary of her London life as a TV executive, moves her family of husband and daughter to Devon, determined to do ‘nothing’. All is well to start with, Ellen starts at her new private school. Then Justine reads some homework, an essay that Ellen has written but its chilling subject manner worries her mother. It is about a series of murders of which a child is suspected that take place in their new home and her daughter has a role in the story. Justine is concerned that her daughter should have thought up such a disturbed story and then she comes home from school upset when her best friend, George Donbavard, has been expelled for taking Ellen’s coat which she is adamant she gave him as his mother would be so annoyed that he had lost his own coat. Justine goes marching into school but the head teacher explains that George does not exist, no such pupil has been at the school. Is Ellen mad? Is the school crazy? A page turner – compelling and clever.
The English and Their History by Robert Tombs £14.99 paperback Penguin June 4th 2015
This is a very readable history of the English from 600 AD to the present day. He covers the Civil War, the industrial revolution, the twentieth century. There are some great pictures eg Gladstone travelling on an omnibus ‘A source of national pride that politicians were treated as ordinary people’.
His theme is that those who took the name English, set up an English kingdom, and subsequently named their country England and think of themselves as English are in two way products of history: because of what actually happened to them and because of the constantly changing way they remembered their history. Almost ‘nature vs nurture’ but in historical terms. He suggests that if having kinship, representative political institutions and a national identity creates a nation then England may have a claim to be the oldest nation of earth.
Robert Tombs is Professor of History at Cambridge University so his credentials are good. He is a specialist in Anglo French history. At almost 1000 pages I have not read it all but what I have read is fascinating, very readable and represents very good value on our pence per page formula £0.014 pence per page! Would make a great present for a history lover or anyone keen on the history of England. It is a rare single volume book of the history of England.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman £7.99 paperback Hodder May 7th 2015
Another funny book about a man who is curmudgeonly and grumpy. He has his rituals of checking the bins and the parking spaces. He seems lonely and sad and he has no one. His wife has died and he has no children. He has been laid off from his job and feels life has stopped although he is only 59. Then a family move into the street and he backs their trailer in for them all the while cursing people who drive a trailer but don’t know how to reverse. This starts an unlikely friendship. It is a heartwarming story, full of humour and pathos. There are some children, a cat and the rather overweight Jimmy for Ove to dislike as well as Audi drivers, people who put their recycling in the wrong place etc
Frederik Backman is a Swedish blogger and columnist. A Man Called Ove is based on his blog. It has sold 500,000 copies in Sweden.
I have just returned from cooking for a landscape photography course in Wales. I was asked by a friend, the award winning Claire Carter, to do it and it was huge fun. So some cookery books. While I was away I missed a demo by Rick Stein form his new book From Venice to Istanbul (gorgeous Turkish food which I like very good for non meat eaters!) , I missed a talk by John Torode about his book My Kind of Food (looks delicious home cooking including dishes to ‘leave overnight’) and right as we are talking Frances Quinn who won the Bake Off last year is talking at Chenies Manor (UQirky cakes including a barcde cake and ballet shoes made of meringue). So I brought the books so you can see them. Signed copies of all of them are available. Still to come is a talk by Tom Kerridge who has a new book, Tom’s Table, but it is not quite out yet so I could not bring it. October 20th at Dr Challoners High School at 8pm
Also Peter Swanson and Sarah Ward, a couple of crime writers coming 28th September 7.30pm Chorleywood Library
Festival coming up in November 4th – 17th Sophie Hannah is coming to that
A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman Hardback £16.99 June 18 2015
Usually try not to include a hardback in summer reading but this was a book that could not wait! Wonderful story from the writer of When God Was a Rabbit.
Marvellous Ways is an elderly lady living a strange life on a caravan on a creek in Cornwall. She has lived that way most of her life, she swims in the creek and lights a candle in a ruined church each evening for a lost love. She has three lost loves. Francis Drake is a soldier returning from France belatedly after the second world war. He has remained in France for some time after the end of the war as he has nothing to come back to. However, he came across a dying comrade in the closing days of the war and promised that he would deliver a letter to the man’s father in Cornwall. After a brief but eventful stay in London he sets off for Cornwall. The paths of these two cross and Francis, in such need of being looked after, is taken in by Marvellous who encourages him back to himself.
It is a story of love, loss, family, self discovery and great joy. Poetic in it’s language – on almost any page ou can find glorious prose that merits re reading and savouring.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes paperback Penguin £7.99
Great read. Perfect beach book about two families, one from each side of the tracks or in this case the castle. The well off family with the too perfect lives have their lives changed by a motor cycle accident which leaves the son a quadriplegic. The other family, who live a hand to mouth existence become connected when Louisa, one of their two daughters, can get no other job than to be a friend to the quadriplegic Will. The story is about their relationship principally and there are a couple of other very important characters – Nathan the nurse who attends to Will’s medical needs and Treena, Louisa’s sister. The book has funny parts as well as some very sad parts. Above all a compelling read. I read it in two days although it is 480 pages and I did other things as well i.e. I didn’t just sit and read for two days.
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber paperback £9.99 Bloomsbury
Lynn Barber is the author of An Education which was made into a rather good film of the same name. This is a second volume of her autobiography focussing on her career as a journalist. She has become known for her interviews of celebrities but her first writing job was for Penthouse. She has since written for The Sunday Express, The Observer, The Times. Now nearly 70 she has interviewed some very interesting people including Salvador Dali, Marianne Faithfull, Kerry Katona and Christopher Hitchens. Some of the interviews are reprinted here with the background story as to how she came to be interviewing such well known folk as well as the other bits that were not published in the newspaper. She spares no one’s blushes and is well known for saying it as it is. She would put her success down to being the only child of dysfunctional parents which made her nosy as to how other people lived. Many other journalists might have played down their stint on Penthouse but not her.
It is readable, warm, funny, insightful and fascinating. I am not usually interested in celebrities but I found this a delight. It has a lot about the junalistic process as well as being a ‘no holds barred kiss and tell’ memoir.
Burial Rites Hannah Kent paperback £7.99 Picador
This is a real page turner and that is how it makes it onto a summer reading list. It is set in the 1820’s in Iceland and is based on a true story. In 1829 two women and one man were convicted of murder. There were no facilities for holding a woman condemned to death and so Agnes Magnusdottir is sent to live with a poor farming family in the valley in which she was born for the winter before her execution. I read somewhere that there is an axe that was especially commissioned for the purpose of beheading that can still be seen in a museum in Iceland. This book is the story of that winter. The farm is occupied by a minor government official , his wife and two daughters, Steina and Lauga. Lauga, the younger of the two is also the brightest. Having a murdered come to live with them arouses all the emotions one might expect. The book is laced with archival material and is narrated by several people including Agnes and Toti, the young priest who is sent to ‘save’ her not from the axe but from hell.
The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon £8.99 Weidenfeld & Nicholson 30th July 2015
Great story about a woman lawyer in the 1920’s when they were few and far between. Evelyn Gifford is a lawyer in London in 1926. She lives with Meredith and Meredith’s son, having come to the end of a devastating love affair. Then her father dies, Meredith announces she is going to live in France and her aunt decides to live in India. Despite pressure from her mother to go and live with her, now she is alone, Evelyn is determined to go it alone. She throws herself into work taking on a case of a servant who has been dismissed as a piece of pro bono work as well as a case of a wealthy factory owner’s wife who is trying to prove paternity of her son which she herself has called into question. Add to that a love interest which may mean mixing work and pleasure and you have a tense, gripping novel. I was fascinated by the background story of the General Strike and life in London for women then. As a former probation officer who has sat through literally hundreds of court cases, I was also fascinated by the court room drama.
Wish You Were Here by Catherine Alliott paperback Penguin £7.99
I read this on holiday so I know it is a good holiday read being about someone on holiday although I hope no one else’s holiday is like this one! What is meant to be a blissful summer holiday in a French chateau turns into a less than perfect vacation when the two teenage daughters, a mother, two sisters in law accompany Flora and James to France. Secret destinations have their appeal! Tempers flare, sleeping arrangements become confusing and the owner of the chateau, who is in residence turns out not to be the perfect host.
James, a doctor, has been offered the chateau by its owner who is a famous opera singer, in gratitude for saving her daughter’s life on an aeroplane. It comes with a couple to cook and clean. What could be better? James’ father comes along and so does Flora’s hippie mother with a boyfriend. James sister brings along a man called Max, who turns out to be an ex flame of Flora’s I imagine the chateau to be packed with people, all wanting something different from their holiday. All sorts of different activities are planned for varying permutations of the guests, many of whom are not as considerate as they should be. There would be no story if they all behaved, but you would not want to be on holiday with some of them! The descriptions of the South of France are so good you can smell the lavender. So even if you are not going on holiday this would conjure one up for you.
Best-selling author Catherine writes her books in the garden or on the sofa at her home in a rural spot on the Herts/Bucks border.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other stories published by Fourth Estate paperback £8.99
You would expect me to include a short story collection in any group of books for summer reading. Perfect for parents with very limited time. It contains 11 stories, all of which are terrific. Hilary Mantel has a very quirky style and I always said before she published Wolf Hall that each book she had written before was very individual and unlike every other story she had previously told. Beyond Black, Fludd, Vacant Possession, A Place of Greater Safety to name but a few. This story collection is the same. All very different but all compelling both because of the writing and because of the subjects. The subjects vary from Anorexia to sudden death and from literary assignations to a brilliant story about 2 children who are spying on a mansion near their less fancy homes. One tells the other that the people at the mansion have a thing living there like a ‘comma’ they sneak about trying to get a look at the comma, one of them throwing a stone when they finally see a person shrouded in blankets wheeled out onto the terrace. And of course the slightly controversial one about Margaret Thatcher.
Because You’ll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas published by Bloomsbury paperback July 2nd £6.99
This is a young adult about two boys, one in Germany who was born with no eyes and one in America who is allergic to electricity and so lives as a hermitin the woods with his mother. Their doctors put them in touch with each other and we find out all about their lives from the letters they write to each other. The boys are teenagers Moritz,16 and Ollie, 14. Moritz, the one with no eyes, has developed his other senses so that he can sense a lot of what goes on. At one point he is persuaded to use a white stick and it is fascinating to discover how very differently he is treated by his peers is his mainstream school with the prop of the white stick. The boy who is allergic to electricity, Ollie, has fits when he comes into contact even with cables conducting electricity.
The story is told in a series of letters from one to the other. Moritz starts off a bit haughty but eventually comes to see that Ollie, who is an optimist and a very upbeat character is really interested in him. They are likeable boys but curiously one does not feel ‘sorry’ for them
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante published by Europa editions in translation from Italian £11.99 paperback
A very good book. The first in a series of four, it describes the friendship between 2 young girls Elena and Lila. Both are poor, living in a neighbourhood of Naples. It is a portrait of a friendship, enduring but not always nourishing, as well as of a city. Beautifully written, poignant, and compelling the girls are about 6 when the novel starts and it finishes with Lila getting married at the age of 16. I am torn between reading the other three straight off or saving them for a while savouring the anticipation. Once they are finished I will feel bereft!
The author is a very enigmatic person. She gives no interviews and very little is known about her, not even if she is a she! Her novels are best sellers in Europe. I read a piece that sums it up well. “ The novels explore brilliantly what you might call the the psychology of influence, the question of how other people make us who we are, and how we make them – actually make other people up – in our minds.” “Ferrante’s language is so good at handling it because like Jane Austen’s, it is both remarkably clear and endlessly subtle.”
I would say the writing is reminiscent of the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy and of course Jane Austen . The neatly observed manners and etiquette of the times, the great descriptions of neighbourhoods, the threatening nature of some of the characters, so gently described but still menacing.
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon published by Cornerstone paperback £8.99
It could be any book by Donna Leon. She has written a great number of pretty classic detective novels. All are set in Venice and have the delightful detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. This one is about the sudden death of a conductor of an orchestra during a performance at La Fenice, the opera house of Venice. It has all the ingredients of a good whodunnit, a body, a large number of people with a motive and the wherewithal and an unexpected twist at the end. Death at La Fenice is the first of the Brunetti novels so for those who love to read things in order that is where to start but all are good holiday reads.
Donna Leon is American, but has lived in Venice for 25 years. Although this is a crime novel it is also a novel about Italy and Venice. Brunetti likes his food and coffee, like that other detective Montalbano from Andrei Camilleri.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier published by Harper Collins paperback £7.99
This is historical fiction set in 1850’s Ohio. A young Quaker girl, jilted by her intended, sets out to accompany her sister to Faithwell Ohio where her sister, Grace, is to marry Adam Cox a previous immigrant from Bridport where she somes from. On the way Grace catches yellow fever and dies. Honor then finds herself alone and vulnerable in the household of Adam and Abigail. These are frontier people, all Quakers and torn with the problem of runaway slaves as Quakers believe all men should have the same rights to freedom and at that time in the US that was far from what happened. Tense gripping novel with a great deal of historical detail about Quakers, quilt making, early American life, farming etc
An American author who has lived in England all her adult life, she has an English husband and son. Tracey Chevalier is best known perhaps for The Girl With the Pearl Earring. My favourite book of hers is Remarkable Creatures about fossil hunting in Dorset and based on the life of Mat Anning, a real fossil unter whose findings influenced Darwin but who was vilified because in those days science was a man’s field.
Gironimo! by Tim Moore published by Yellow Jersey Press Paperback £8.99
This is the very amusing story of Tim Moore re creating the 1914 bike tour of Italy. He assembles a 1914 bike with few modifications from a pile of parts he buys on ebay from someone in France. He spends a good deal of time respraying the rusty frame and fitting all the pieces together. The bike label (that little metal part that screws onto the frame above the front wheel) says it is a La Francaise Diamant. However stamped on the rame somewhere else is the word ‘Brilliant’ Imagining that measn it was a top of the range La Francaise Diamant he works hard. Then his online helper asks him to hold the badge in place, a treat he had been saving until the end and the badge doesn’t fir because it is not the badge for the bike he has spent so long restoring. Brilliant is another French bike manufacturer. Reading an interview with Alfonzo Calzolari, the winner of the 1914 race when he was 80 discloses all sorts of information. “ It was a massacre that only eight of us survived and somehow in spite of everything I beat them all “ He was a plucky journeyman who does what we all do but did it harder.” He gets some help form the local bike shop who are intrigued by his foolhardiness! Jim, the owner, goes with him to Saumur to a vintage velocipede market. There are complete bikes and piles of bits. Despite having almost completed his Brilliant bike he buys a Hirondelle bike built in 1914 and starts all over again.
When he finally sets off the bike has no gears, it has brake pads made of wine corks (he gets through a lot of these) and wooden rimmed wheels. He himself wears authentic 1914 biking gear. The pictures show him looking quite eccentric. he must have turned a few heads as he completed the 3162 kms of the race. In 1914 81 competitors started and only 8 completed the course from the Alps to the Adriatic. The original race had long 400 km stages as well as storms. The winner of the 1914 race was Calzolari. Tim is competing against his time and at one point has taken 4 weeks to complete what took the winner 8 days.
A funny book for anyone interested in cycling, maybe a good Father’s Day present? I am not a cyclist and I found it funny and very interesting. The account of the whole thong from finding the bicycle and the apsre parts to the final moments of the virtual race was very entertaining.
Outline by Rachel Cusk published by Vintage paperback £8.99
This is one of those books in which not a lot happens but you can’t put it down. It is about a woman who is travelling to Athens to teach creative writing in a summer school. She gets talking to the man sitting next to her on the train. He tells her his life story and when they get to Athens he invites her to go out on his boat. Throughout the book we never know the man’s name, he is referred to as ‘my neighbour’ but we know all about his life, disclosed on the plane and subsequently on the boat. Then we get the life history of several other people she meets including some of the students. There is Ryan a colleague whose history we hear. She sets the students an assignment where they must write a story about an animal. Thus we learn a good deal about them as some write about true things that have happened to them.
We learn almost nothing about the narrator. Her name, Faye, is mentioned quite a long way into the book. Although all the characters unburden themselves to the narrator, they seldom ask anything about her. She remains in ‘Outline’ The Telegraph critic summed it up well by saying that the fact of who gets listened to and who doesn’t ‘comes out to stab the reader like a ‘finger in the chest’ Faye finds power in being almost invisible to the story although she is the narrator.
It is a book about relationships, marriage, relationships, success and failure
Rachel Cusk has won prizes – the Whitbread first novel and the Somerset Maugham Prize. Shortlisted for the Orange prize,
Sicily by John Julius Norwich published by John Murray £25 hardback
A Short History from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra
John Julius Norwich was inspired to become a writer by his first visit to Sicily in 1961 and this book is the result of a fascination that has lasted over half a century. In tracing its dark story, he attempts to explain the enigma that lies at the heart of the Mediterranean’s largest island. This vivid short history covers everything from erupting volcanoes to the assassination of Byzantine emperors, from Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton to Garibaldi and the rise of the Mafia. Sicily has been invaded by almost everyone over the centuries. That may be why its history is so interesting. The Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Normans, Moors, Spaniards and Germans have imposed their will on this little island right bang in the middle of the Mediterranean.
It is interesting, well written and it would make a lovely Father’s Day present. I particularly liked the chapters on the Mafia and the second world war. The allies took Sicily under Montgomery and Eisenhower. He describes their animosity. Monty did not think much of American troops. The Story of Operation Mincemeat is mentioned and it had the Germans and Italians fooled. However the whole operation was jeopardised by story weather and seasickness which in July night have been thought unlikely. There are several weirdly interesting facts I have discovered perhaps the most weird was that the Germans were allowed to evacuate Sicily, 40,000 of them as well as 70,000Italians together with 10,000vehicles and 47 tanks. It seems no one had made a plan for blocking the Strait of Messina. Apparently in addition to the problems of the enemy, malaria, rife at the time, the airborne allies had to contend with ‘friendly fire’. The troops were left uncertain or even ignorant of what the others were doing so dangerous was it for allied aircraft to fly over their own ships that their prescribed altitude haed to bw altered from 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet. Over 400 lives were lost this way. I was intrigued that the 40 days and nights of Operation Husky also seems to have led to a deterioration in the relationship between the British and American troops, some of it Norwich contends was down to Montgomery and the competition between him and Patton and some maybe because the Americans troops were better equipped and had superior food and cigarettes.
John Julius Norwich is appearing at the Chorleywood Memorial Hall on Monday June 15th at 7.30pm. The event is sponsored by the local travel agent Ultimate Destinations and Prestige Holidays and they will be providing refreshments with a Sicilian theme Sicilian wine and pizza. www.chilternbookshops.co.uk/events for tickets
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell published by Sceptre (Hodder and Stoughton) paperback £7.99 on June 18th
Meet Holly Sykes, a troubled teenager she runs away from home after a row with her mother. The next six decades of her life are determined by this one event. The six parts of the book are organised around six people she meets on her way through life. As you might expect from David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, it has its weird moments where fantasy or imagination, or unreality push themselves into the story. Brilliant! The first and last chapters are narrated by Holly herself, the others by other major characters. One begins to see how they all fit together other than through their connection with Holly. One wonders if some of the characters have been there before and you meet them again later in their lives. Sometimes it is as if the curtains that keep the ‘other world’ at bay are pulled open and a glimpse of other creatures and dimensions are seen before the reader is yanked back to reality.
His first novel, Ghostwritten(1999), won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for the best book by a writer under 35 and was also shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
His second novel, number9dream, was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.His third novel, Cloud Atlas, was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize. He has since published Black Swan Green (longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (longisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize). His most recent book, The Bone Clocks, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014.
Shoes for Anthony by Emma Kennedy published by Ebury £12.99 hardback
Emma Kennedy wrote the Tent the Bucket and Me and if you have not read that treat yourself. That is the story of camping holidays in Britain. It certainly resonated with me.
Shoes for Anthony is a work of fiction. Set during the second world war in a small welsh mining town the main protagonist is a boy called Anthony, frustrated by the fact that he has oversized passed down wellington boots but no shoes. He spends his time playing with his friends and getting up to some boyish mischief. His father and brothers work in the mine. The backdrop of mining is so well described that you can feel the dirt of the workers. The book is funny but will also put a lump on your throat. Anthony has his father’s voice ringing in his ears that he should do what is right, not what is popular. It has a totally absorbing unexpected and thrilling second half.
Emma Kennedy’s grandfather was a miner as were his elder brothers. She was out to explore what it meant to be in an essential occupation and thus miss out on the war. From our vantage point that might have been a good thing but the war was often seen as a great adventure.
Love and Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds published by Seren June 2014 paperback £8.99
This is a novel which reminds us that we are all products of our experience and how chance things can shape our lives, often in unexpected ways. Tessa, our main character, is a middle aged woman with a husband and 2 children, one at university and the other still at school. She has hit a bit of a flat spot in life when her work for a charity seems mainly to be unpaid and is in danger of losing it’s funding, her marriage is in the doldrums, her husband describes her as a ‘one woman united Nations’. Her friend, Maggie, calls a TV station and with the connivance of her husband arranges for a personal makeover. At first she resists, and then is persuaded that it will help her cause if she does it and publicises the cause on National TV. She agrees but the experience is not one she enjoys at all and the second the TV people leave she wants to wash all the makeup off and change. She refuses to go out even for one evening looking like ‘someone else’ The TV station has mentioned that she was at Greenham Common, in the 1980’s protesting against the cruise missile base there. This momentous period in her life when she was 18 seems to have had a lasting impact although it is not something she likes talking about. The action in the book moves between 1982 and the present. It gives a very vivid account of the Greenham women’s protest and from my little bit of research it is entirely accurate. Someone who was at the protest with her, a woman called Angela who seemed not to like Tessa gets in touch and brings back more memories of the people who she lived with for some months and of the guilt she has carried with her ever since and for which she is trying to atone.
Very enjoyable book!
Kathryn Simmonds is an award winning poet, having won the Forward Prize for Poetry for her first published collection Sundays at the Skin Launderette. First Poet in residence at Charles Causley Trust in Cornwall.
After the Crash by Michael Bussi translated from French by Sam Taylor published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson March 2015 hardback £14.99
This is a crime novel. It starts with an air crash, a plane crashes into the mountains. The only survivor is a baby, thrown clear. The problem is it is the 1980’s, DNA testing has not been discovered and there were 2 babies on the plane. Two sets of grandparents hope against hope that the baby is their grandchild. But there is no way of proving it. There are no definitive pictures and no other marks or belongings that can shed light. A judge has to take the difficult decision on the balance of probability. One set of grandparents is much richer than the other and when they lose the child they employ a detective for 18 years to try to find out more. The story is told from thr point of view of the baby when she reaches the age of 18, her brother, (or is he?) and the detective whose diaries hadve been handed to the girl and subsequently to the brother on her 18th birthday. The rich grandparents have given the set who bring Lylie up a ring which has a stone the colour of her eyes. It is a family tradition. Will they give her it on her 18th birthday which might suggest she is not their relation?
Anyone but Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp published by Bloomsbury April 2015 hardback £10.99
Funny children’s book about a maid, Ivy Pocket, with a very inflated opinion of herself . “I am remarkably good in a crisis – for I have all the natural instincts of a wartime prime minister” She is working in Paris for Countess Carbunkle, who sacks her for explaining to a room full of people at a posh dinner why her mistress dribbles. Alone and lost in a foreign city she ends up getting a summons to visit the Duchess of Trinity. Ivy is entrusted with the Clock Diamond and requested to deliver it to Miss Matilda Butterfield at a ball in honour of her 12th birthday. There are certain rules – she must show it to no one, not even a glimpse and no one but Matilda may try the diamond on especially not Ivy. The diamond gives some strange powers to whoever is wearing it. So starts the adventure with Ivy boarding a ship for England and of course, trying the necklace on.
This is a funny story, with the maid saying exactly what she thinks For instance she says to the Duchess of Trinity “ no offence dear but you seem rather overexcited by this whole business. That can’t be good for your health being at deaths door and whatnot” The duchess dies the next day! But reappears as a ghost to haunt Ivy. A funny book for 8 – 12 year olds.
The author describes himself as being raised by militant librarians who fed him a constant diet of nineteenth century literature and room temperature porridge. He now lives in a an “abandoned cottage deep in the woods” from where “his only communication with the outside world is via morse code or kettle drum”
One Wild Song by Paul Heiney published by Bloomsbury April 2015 hardback £16.99
This is a much talked about book. I have heard Paul Heiney interviewed about it several times. The starting point is that he and Libby Purves, his wife, lost their sone Nicholas when he committed suicide at the age of 23. Nicholas was a good sailor and had sailed on tall ships across the Atlantic and the. He left a poem about a song, hence the title. Paul decides to take the voyage he and Nicholas had been planning. The book is the book of that voyage and from that point of view it is gripping. I am not a sailor, although I have sat in a sailing boat, I am terrified of the sea but I can see what people see in the achievement of sailing with no fuel, just wind and surviving. The sailing part of the book is the most important part and is described well. The problems of batteries that die constantly and a sail that jams and has to be cut free requiring a lot of sewing at sea. How navigation by the stars is possible, although requires a good maths brain. The story of the loss of a child could be maudling but manages not to be. It is written in a style that sounds as though the author is talking to you, telling the story. It is a relaxed and easy manner and all the better for it.
He describes a place in Brazil, Impanema, well known for a wonderful song and for being a bit lawless and dangerous. And notes that the poor people are free and the rich people live in gated, guarded communities and are therefore imprisoned. I thought that an interesting insight
The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley published by Sceptre hardback £20
I thought that as the weather improves and out thoughts turn to outdoors and some of us will be getting outside walking this weekend this was a fascinating book. It covers things like how to use leaves as a compass, skies and the weather, how to read clouds, how to use the sun as a compass.
In order to put some of the ideas into practice and to walk with people who use these signs and clues every day he goes for a walk with the Dayak, an indigenous tribe in Borneo. Compelling reading. Especially for anyone who does some walking like me – scout leader for 13 years.
It has drawings which help to explain some of his clues. This is a great present to give any lover of the outdoors full of fascinating facts.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt paperback £8.99
This is the third book from Donna Tartt. It has a gripping opening scene where the main character, Theo, is at the Museum of Metroplitan Art in New York with his mother, by this time a single parent. Of course he should be at school but they have an appointment with the Headteacher who wishes to discuss Theo’s misdemeanours with them both. As the appointment is at 11, Theo’s mother decides not to waste the morning but to fit in a bit of culture on the way. Theo meantime is hoping she will get so engrossed that they miss the appointment. Then a bomb goes off. His mother has dived back to look at something while he heads to the Museum shop with fatal consequences. Regaining consciousness Theo is stranded in the rubble with an old man who he had noticed in the gallery because he had a pretty girl with him. The man gives him a ring and tells hime to take it to a particular place. Theo puts the painting he also finds in the rubble in his bag and leaves the museum with it. This painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritious, ‘controls his life’ from there on. When Theo takes the ring to the address he finds it is the address belonging to the pretty girl, Pippa and her grandfather, Hobie , who befriends him. Theo, now motherless, stays with a schoolfriend organised by the social services as a temporary measure while they try to persude a member of his family to care for him. His grandparents refuse to tkae him in an dhe ends up in Las Vegas living in the same house as his father and stepmother, although they barely look after him. Here he meets Boris, a Ukranian who is also another outsider at school.
It is a story of friendship, one with Boris, another with Pippa, a young girl who was also a victim of the bombing and another with Hobie the friend of Pippa’s grandfather who was with her in the museum of that fateful day. It is also a thriller, with guns, drugs, car chases, thieving and deceptions.
It is a great read, though rather long. It is a gripping page turner, well written and flowing along. Everyone in our book group liked it.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
This is a new story from Patrick Gale, author of Notes From an Exhibition and A Perfectly Good Man. It is also a departure form his normal fiction in that it is historical and mostly set in Canada whereas his other books are often set in Cornwall.
This book is set in the early part of the 20th century. The tale opens in some kind of asylum but the reader has no idea why he might be there. Harry Cane is a gentleman of leisure, unused to working. He and his brother, Jack,of whom he is in awe,are educated young men. Jack becomes a vet but Harry does not have such a developed work ethic. He marries Winnie, although her brother Robert, is not entirely in favour of the marriage. Harry goes on to have an affair with a young man at a time when this would have been illegal. Stupidly he leaves a note in an autograph book and it is this act that determines the rest of his life. He is discovered and forced by Robert to flee the country, goes to Canada and becomes a farmer. His body soon gets used to the hard work. He is an uncomplaining man, getting on with what needs done. He had left saying he would send for Winnie and their baby daughter when he had managed to get himself settled. However Winnie uses it as an opportunity to divorce him and marry the man she had planned to marry in the first place. In the end he marries Petra who until their marriage had been living on the next door ranch with her brother Paul.
The story is about families and relationships. There are several very strong women characters in the book whose relationship with Harry helps him to find his way. The characters are vivid and real, perhaps because it is based on a real mystery in Patrick Gale’s family. The sense of place is also a major factor in my enjoyment of this book. The hardships and deprivations of life in the interior of Canada are so excellently described that one cannot help but be drawn in. In many ways Robert is an entirely admirable character with whom one feels enormous sympathy, in great part because his sexuality causes him so many problems.
The Apple Tart of Hope by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald £6.99
This is a children’s book for a change. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Oscar Dunleavy is a boy who makes perfect apple pies. If you are sad he makes a pie to make you happy again. Who would not feel better if someone made them an apple tart? His best friend, Meg, lives next door until her family go to live in new Zealand for six months. In her place comes another girl, Paloma, who attends his school but is far from friendly. On the surface she seems to want to be with him but she behaves treacherously and has a nutty belief system she calls The Ratio. Then, when Oscar is very low, bullied at school thanks to Paloma, neglected by Meg who has become very absorbed in her new life and has stopped replying to his emails, contemplating suicide, he disappears. His little brother, Stevie, is distraught but no amount of searching seems to find him. Word reaches Meg in Australia and eventually she returns and together she and Stevie set about finding him when everyone has given up hope and is assuming that he has drowned.
This too is a story of friendship and how sometimes you don’t realise what you have until you no longer have it. It deal with bullying, sadness, homelessness, and in an entirely credible way. It is not all sad though and has a very satisfactory ending.
I was supplied this book on Net Galley
If I Should Die by Matthew Frank Published by Penguin paperback at £7.99
This is definitely a thriller introducing a new recruit to the Metropolitan Police, Joseph Stark. He is a veteran of the Territorial Army who served in Afghanistan and his story is woven through the main story of the book. The Military Police are looking for him but why is as full of suspense as anything else. He also has a psychiatrist who he is seeing once a week who is treating him for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He, as a trainee detective, has an uncompromising female boss who takes no prisoners. It starts with the beating up of a homeless man. Police suspect a local gang of young tearaways but cannot prove it. Then the man dies and it becomes a murder investigation. Another victim is a former soldier and Stark is able to identify with this man and feels that he has been treated shabbily after serving his country. The suspense is built slowly and carefully and the back story of Stark himself builds at the same time. The ending when it comes is not what I expected. It is well written, pacy and a good read.
Hotel Chocolat A New Way of Cooking With Chocolate Published 5th March £20 Headline
Adam Geileskey, one of the contributors to the book, is appearing Chorleywood Memorial Hall Monday April 27th 7.30pm
I would never have thought of pairing beetroot and chocolate! Or Rump Steak Burger with Cocoa beer braised onions. This is a chocolate cookery book with a difference. Maybe a quarter of the book is desserts and all the rest contains things to do with cocoa that most people will never have thought of doing. Cocoa comes from South America where it was used by Mayans for thousands of years as a spice, before anyone thought of mixing it with milk and sugar to make the sort of chocolate we eat today. One of the places Hotel Chocolat cocoa comes from is St Lucia where they have revived the country’s failing cocoa industry and pay their partner farmers twice the world cocoa price. It all looks yummy!
The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi published May 7th paperback £7.99 by Harper Collins Both authors are appearing at Gerrards Cross in St Andrews Church Hall on Tuesday May 12th at 7.30pm
This is the man who wrote Men of Letters about the Post Office Rifles that we discussed on this programme a while ago. He has another book about women in WW2 written with Nuala Calvi. In a nutshell it gives the story of 3 girls who joined the 3 forces. Jessie joined the ATs and became an ack ack operator. Margery joined the WRAF and Kathleen the WRNS. It is their stories told in a totally readable way. I found it absorbing. It tells of the home life they left behind and the reasons why some of them were keen to leave as well as their adventures during the war. Although it only covers 3 women it gives such a clear picture of the times and their adventures were probably typical.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton £7.99 paperback
This is a kind of 17th century thriller. On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways. As the furnishings for the ‘dolls house’ are ordered and delivered it seems their maker has an uncanny knack of knowing what is about to happen. It becomes clear that Johannes is far from an ideal husband in all sorts of ways and the bewilderment of the country girl finding herself in the city married to a man who does not really want to spend time with her is very real. She is lonely. One’s loyalties change throughout the book, starting off by disliking the sister but by the end my view of her had changed.
It is thrilling and portrays 17th century Amsterdam very realistically. At least it feels real, obviously I wasn’t there. The descriptions of dtreet life and interiors gives it an authentic note. Has the flavour of the Girl with the Pearl Earring about it.
I am slightly irritated by the use of the present tense in a book set 300 years ago. It gives immediacy but just slightly grates.
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey £7.99 paperback
Maud is 81 and has dementia. She cannot remember things so she writes countless post it notes to herself to remind herself what to do. For instance because she cannot remember whether she has eaten or not she makes endless pieces of toast so she has a note saying don’t make toast. She visits the corner shop but cannot remember what she set out to buy so buys tinned peaches, forgetting that she already has a cupboard full of tinned peaches. She asks constantly where would be a good place to plant marrows and knows with certainty that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She has a note that says so. In her mind Elizabeth may have gone the same way as her sister, Sukey, who disappeared after the war and was never found. As a portrait of dementia, this book is excellent. The reader cannot help but identify with the daughter Helen who tries to maintain her mother’s existence in her own home and eventually moves her to live with her family. It has funny moments and anyone who has ever dealt with a relation with this complaint will know that you have to laugh or you would cry a lot of the time. It is poignant and just a good read.
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan published July 2014 by Vintage £16.99 hardback
This is going into my top ten books of all time at number 2. It is the winner of the Man Booker prize and is just stunningly unputdownable. The hero, Dorrigo Evans, is a doctor from Tasmania, who finds himself held by the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp. The inmates of the camp are expected to build the Thailand Burma Railway. This is despite the fact that they are starved, have no clothes, and many diseases. Dorrigo looks back on his life before the war as so many soldiers did and remembers how he fell in love with his uncle’s wife. His uncle had an inn in Adelaide where he stayed from time to time while on training. The uncle was much older than his wife and probably knew about the affair. There are many memorable characters in the book, One of the saddest stories was of Lizard Brancussi who went through the war dreaming of his wife of whom he has a sketch which he proudly shows poeple. After he is liberated he goes to freemantle to board a boat to Melbourne. from Freemantle he phones the house. A man answers “Dave and Maisi’es phone”. He hangs up. He slips over the side of the boat and is never seen again. By the end Dorrigo sees the japanese as pawns in the game that meant the men should be treated as “machines in the service of the Emperor”
Richard Flanagan finished this book the day his father died. He had been a survivor of the death railway.
I read this in Australia whilst visiting our son and his family. While there we went to Ballerat, a gold rush town in Victoria. There is the monument to the Australian prisoners of war, 35000 of them. It is a moving place, very thought provoking.
The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen published by Random House Children’s January 2015 £6.99
This has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and for the Blue Peter fiction award which will be announced on World Book Day on Thursday. It is a gripping read aimed at 9 – 13 year olds I would say. About a boy called Ade who lives in a tower block in a flat with his mother. She is attacked in the street and becomes agoraphobic and spends almost all her time in bed. Ade who is only 10 looks after her. At first it is fine. He gets the groceries and makes her cereal and tea, does the shopping and goes to school, keeping quiet about his predicament. He has a best friend, Gaia, who lives in another block and whose windows he can see. He likes living where he can see what is going on until one day a building mysteriously falls down and later 2 men who are looking into what happened die mysteriously. Then there are the weird plants, the Bluchers which seem to be connected. It’s a kind of Day of the Triffids for children.
Sophia by Anita Anand published by Bloomsbury January 15 2015 £20 hardback
This is a biography of Sophia Duleep Singh, granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab and god daughter of Queen Victoria. It is a fascinating account in the early chapters of the history of the Punjab. Under colonial rule, Sophia’s father was exiled aged 11, when he became the Maharajah with his monther as regent and persuaded to hand over his kingdom to the British, including the Koh I Noor diamond. Her father Duleep Singh never gets over his treatment by the British and becomes a gambler and serial adulterer. Sophia, his sixth child ends up living in a ‘grace and favour’ apartment at Hampton Court. All the family take their cue from Duleep and constantly demand money from the British to keep them whilst denouncing other aspects of British society. Sophia becomes a suffragette because she needs a cause almost to throw herself into to help overcome her tendency to depression. She struggles to get arrested because the police know what bad publicity they will get arresting her.
Story of displacement and dispossession, Anita Anand uses the novelistic approach to make the history live and be readable. Largely it works.
I thought it a very interesting read, and readable.
H is for hawk by Helen MacDonald published by Vintage February 2015 £8.99 paperback
This book has been in the charts for weeks as a hardback and has won the Samuel Johnson prize for non fiction. It is wonderfully written and is the story of how the author overcame the grief caused by the death of her father by becoming absorbed in training a goshawk. Having trained other birds of prey and read extensively on the subject she weaves in a biography of TH White who wrote The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King and also trained hawks (who knew?)
He was the author of a book called The Goshawk which had captivated her as a child. Her description of training Mabel as her goshawk is called are so vivid you are right there with her. She describes moments when Mabel starts hunting alone and gets into a pheasant reserve. You are cringing waiting for the goshawk to be seen by the gamekeeper whose birds they are. It is gripping and real as well as being well written. Almost lyrical in its descriptions.
Her by Harriet Lane published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson on January 1st 2015 paperback £7.99
A story of suspense told in the voices of two women, Emma and Nina. Each chapter takes the same part of the story from the alternate points of view. It is clear that one is almost stalking the other when their paths cross for a second time in their lives. Nina remembers the first time but Emma does not. Both characters say one thing but mean another. Nina is an established artist with a reputation, a husband, a 17 year old daughter and a house in France. Emma, on the other hand, is a young mother, frustrated by the drudgery of life with small children. You are kept in suspense for almost the whole book as to why Nina would befriend Emma and cannot help but feel sorry for Emma as she is obviously going to be the victim of Nina’s plot. The denouement when it comes still leaves some things in suspense.
I would say Harriet lane has pulled off that very difficult second novel. Her first was Alys, Always, also a suspenseful novel again about a woman who was not what she seemed and inveigled her way into the life of a family who seemed to have a ‘golden’ life.
Wake by Anna Hope published by Transworld (Random House) January 1st 2015 paperback £7.99
Remembrance Day 1920: A wartime secret connects three women’s lives: Hettie whose wounded brother won’t speak; Evelyn who still grieves for her lost lover; and Ada, who has never received an official letter about her son’s death, and is still waiting for him to come home. The book is set in the days leading up to Armstice Day 1920, 2 years after the Great War. Britain is waiting for the coffin of the Unknown Warrior to be brought to Westminster Abbey. The book is a quiet book but compelling and beautifully written. Fir us today it is unimaginable the pain that the majority of the population must have felt as everyone was missing someone. The research into how the Unknown Warrior was chosen and how the cortege was conducted are very interesting. The ending is perfect, as all three women find some sort of peace as well as a connection
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor published by Bloomsbury £7.99
If you have not read this book, which was published in paperback in 2003, then find yourself a copy and an evening and get stuck in. It describes in the most brilliant prose, the most ordinary of things. A quiet street I the north of England. You know how when something momentous happens everything else is remembered with great clarity? Like that. People are walking. playing, packing just getting on with life. We are lulled along with his wonderful poetic language when something happens and those who see it are never the same again. But in a way that is not the attraction of the book which is just the wonderful descriptions. It is written in the immediate present tense and as viewed from 3 years later and it switches between the two. The whole thing is remarkable, the ordinary made remarkeable and we don’t always talk of the ordinary. Even the extraordinary is gone in a flash and the world moves on. This almost freezes time for the day in an ordinary town. It would be in my top ten books!
Second Life by S.J. Watson Published by Doubleday hardback £14.99
The second novel from the author of Before I Go to Sleep. We have all been waiting for this second book by S.J. Watson.
His protagonist, Julia, seems to have life sorted. She is married to Hugh, a surgeon, has a child and life is sweet until her sister is brutally murdered in Paris. The police can find out nothing. It turns out that her son, who is 14 and badly affected by the murder is her sister’s child that she and her husband have adopted because her sister’s lifestyle is not conducive to bringing up children. With everyone one traumatised and the police seeming to do nothing Julia sets about investigating her sister’s online life and finds that her sister was visiting chatrooms and occasionally meeting in real life people from her virtual life. There is one particular person that Julia is convinced her sister knew and she meets him and embarks on an affair “in the interests of the investigation”
Human Universe by Brian Cox published by William Collins (part of Harper Collins) £25 October 2014
This is the book that accompanies the TV series of the same name. It is a book with pictures andd a good deal of text but is totally fascinating. Brian Cox, has such a good way of explaining things – I always wish I had a physics teacher like him. The Independent says “ he bridges the gap between our childish sense of wonder and a rather more professional grasp of the scale of things” and that for me sums it up. “Two million years ago we were apemen , now we are spacemen. That has happened , so far as we know, nowhere else. That is worth celebrating” says Brian Cox in his introduction. The sun is a star in the Milky Way Galaxy, one of 400 billion such stars in our galaxy. There are 400 billion such galaxies in the known universe. Chances are there is life elsewhere although possibly not the same kind of life. Brian Cox does not think there is another island of “intelligent life” in our galaxy but it seems almost certain that we are not alone. Given the distances however we are not like to ever be able to meet with other life forms and discuss the human condition.
The book travels through the story of the Big Bang, why man evolved here on earth It is fascinating. He explains why it seems that the stars move through the heavens, the first discovery by Edwin Hubble that Andromeda is a galaxy of a trillion stars. (Currently estimated to be 2.5 million light years away!)
There are no answers. We don’t know. But he explains very clearly what we do know. And that is that we are very small specks in the wonder that is the cosmos.
” Having said that…a little existentialism like the Manchester rain, never did anyone any harm. So lets place ourselves at the centre of things for a while and explore the immense contingency of our personal existence as a warm up for the much deeper problem of the origin of the universe itself. It’s a pretty deep chapter this so put on Unknown Pleasures, grab a bottle of cheap cider and let’s get going” It even has some guided maths about the orbit of the space station.”
Mobile Library by David Whitehouse published by Pan Macmillan January 15th 2015 hardback £14.99
In contrast to the other books this is funny. A cross between The 100 year Old Man who Jumped Out of the Window and Ran Away and The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night Time
About a boy Bobby Nusku, abandoned by his mother and neglected by his father and father’s new girlfriend. His best friend from school, where he is bullied vows to protect him and tries to become a ‘bionic ‘ man by getting Bobby to deliberately break his leg so he gets a metal rod in his leg. (this works so they then continue to attempt with his arm and skull!) Bobby befriends a girl who is also ‘different’ because she is disabled and her mother Val who is the cleaner of a mobile library. The library is about to be closed forever due to the cuts . The 3 of them steal the library and run away together. It is funny, sad, wise and altogether a good read.
He says about it that he was trying to write a modern fairy tale for adults without magic. This could be James and the Giant Peach. (library for peach) His mother was a cleaner of a mobile library.
David Whitehouse is a great supporter of public libraries, believing them to be ‘houses of education’. Yet we close them or allow them to be run by volunteers. (usually well meaning but not the same as a young library assistant who enthuses someone to read)
You are Here – Around the World in 92 Minutes by Chris Hadfield published by Macmillan at £20
This is the most wonderful book of photographs from the International Space Station. As you would expect, it contains photos of the earth from space. It is fascinating how many patterns seem to exist and he finds all kinds of things on Earth that almost mirror those from space. E.g. rock paintings in Australia some of which go back 28000 years These are called Gwion Gwion figures and according to aboriginal mythology this was a long beaked bird before he morphed into a human artist. The dunes in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia are so like them it is hard to believe the artists did not know what the earth looked like from space.
There are fantastic pictures of oceans, deserts, mountains, cities and coastlines.
A Canadian, Chris Hadfield wrote An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth. He has a list of achievements as long as your arm and has been Commander of the International Space Station where he conducted a record number of scientific experiments and oversaw and emergency spacewalk. He is an engineer by training and was a fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. As a child he was inspired by seeing Apollo 11 moon landing and he grew up on a farm in Ontario. He is married to his childhood girlfriend. He has 19 million followers on Twitter
Part of the proceeds of the book are going to the Red Cross. Chris Hadfield is coming to Merchant Taylors School on Sunday December 7th so you will be able to get a signed copy from Chorleywood Bookshop after that.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce published by Transworld at £18.99
A lot of your listeners will have read The unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was a bestseller in 2012. This is a companion volume. The premise of the Harold book was a man who, on receipt of a letter from Queenie Hennessey with whom he once worked which tells him she is dying of cancer, sets off to post a letter back and when he arrives at the post box decides to walk to the next and the next and in the end walks from Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick on Tweed. Meantime Queenie is in a hospice at the end of her life. A volunteer tells her she must write her letter to Harold to tell him the truth about everything and that she will save him by doing that. We learn all about her life as she writes a letter to Harold whom she has always loved but never told him. The reader wonders what he knew, what makes him walk all that way.
This is a compelling, well written book, funny in places, sad in places, a story of unrequited love, friendship, guilt and compromise. You do not need to have read the first book to enjoy this one, although once you have read this one you may want to.
Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder and Stoughton at £20
This is the latest from the author of One Day which was a runaway best seller in 2010 and has become a great film starring Ann Hathaway.
‘Us’ is his fourth novel, a tragi-comedy about marriage, parenthood, travel, art and science.
Douglas Petersen is woken in the middle of the night and told by his wife, Connie, that she is leaving him. Their teenage son, Albie, is leaving for college in the autumn and she intends to follow soon after.
Douglas loves his wife. The thought of a life alone terrifies him, and he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime, one that will draw the three of them closer, win the respect of his son and make Connie fall in love with him all over again.
The hotels are booked, the ticket bought, the itinerary planned. What could possibly go wrong? Well guess! Told as the story of his relationship with his wife as well as the story of their journey it is funny and poignant.
The teenage son says what “ you mean I’m interailing – with my parents?” He is just like a good number of teenagers. I can picture myself having the same reaction at 17. Parents not allowing him to stay home alone. Douglas is under pressure to win his wife and son back and the greater the stakes the more awkward he seems. Scientist has has married an artist – opposites attract – and although both profess to love the other Connie wants another adventure.
Opal Plumstead by Jacqueline Wilson published by Random House Children’s £12.99 October 2014
This would make a great Christmas present for all Jacqueline Wilson fans and is the 100th book form this great author. Opal Plumstead is a 14 year old schoolgirl, intelligent and ambitious who finds herself sent to work in a sweet factory when her life is irrevocably altered by her father being sent to prison. Opal finds it hard to adjust and to get along with her fellow workers. The kindly owner of the factory, Mrs Roberts, a member of the suffrage movement, introduces the feisty Opal to Emmeline Pankhurst. Her career in the factory has its ups and downs as she makes mistakes and is moved from one department to another, finally ending up in the design of boxes section. This story is interleaved with the story of the women’s suffrage movement and Opal’s relationship with Morgan Roberts, son of Mrs Roberts. Opal’s life is completely changed, like so many people’s, by the outbreak of WW1. It is a good read and at over 500 pages should last a bit longer than some children’s books.
Lamentation by C.J. Sansom published by Macmillan at £20
This is the sixth book in the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer/investigator in the time of Henry VIII. His sixth wife Catherine Parr in a radical Protestant and has written a little book entitled Lamentation of a Sinner. She has always kept it hidden in a casket in her chamber in the palace. It disappears despite the fact that the Queen keeps the key on a chain round her neck. A single page has been found clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer. Shardlake is asked to look into it discreetly. If it falls into the wrong hands the Queen’s life is in danger. There is murder, history, intrigue and politics in this book.
No need to have read the other books, I have only read the first one and I am loving this one. Big book 642 pages. So on our scale of pence per page or hours to read per pound it is good value. Great present for male or female any age
What Will They think of Next edited by Ian Hollingshead published by Aurum Press at £9.99
This is a book of letters to the Daily Telegraph which have never been published. They are without exception funny. A book to dip into after lunch on Christmas Day or – Nick’s suggestion – put it in the loo! Quite a lot of local people feature in the book .
Wednesday October 29th
This week we discussed some the exciting books we will be looking at during the Chorleywood Literary Festival
Life, Love and the Archers by Wendy Cope published by Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
One of Britain’s best known poets, Wendy tells her life in letters, articles and talks. A series of ‘short stories’ almost. She sold her archive to the British Library and these are all items from it. Many of them have been published previously in different guises but many have never been seen before. Easy to read, told in her usual clear style it charts her life from childhood to recent times. It tells of being sent to boarding school at 7 years old and becoming a teacher, TV critic and of being depressed and finding solace in poetry
Killers of the King by Charles Spencer published by Bloomsbury £20
Another of the authors coming to the Festival – this is a meaty history but written in a most accessible way. It is easy to read and tells a fascinating story of a bit of English history that I knew little of. Charles I as we probably all know was executed in 1649 at the end of seven years of fighting a bloody war. 135 people were convened to sentence him to his fate, against the Divine Right of Kings and in an unprecedented move in the hope of bringing peace to a traumatised land.. When his son Charles II came to the throne he set about hunting down and executing all of those responsible for his father’s death. The book is about the detective work involved in hunting down the Killers of the King of the title and bringing some of them to justice which in those days was execution. It is brilliantly written, researched and is a thrilling tale of pursuit and resistance. Many of the regicides escaped to Europe and some to America.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult hardback Hodder & Stoughton £20
Well hardbacks from Jodi Picoult are a publishing phenomenon and this one is no different. Jenna, a feisty intelligent 13 year old has been brought up by her grandmother after her mother, an elephant researcher, disappeared when she was three years old. The story is told in several different voices – Jenna, her mother, and the two other main characters, a psychic and a private detective. Jenna decides she needs to find out what happened to her mother in the elephant sanctuary she ran with her father in the US. It turns out that the detective had always been a bit unhappy about the investigation in which he was a leading detective. The psychic, who sometimes we believe feels she can communicate with the dead and sometimes even she herself feels she is a charlatan, cannot communicate with her mother which either means she is not dead or the psychic is not real or maybe that no one can communicate with the dead. Gripping, compelling typical Jodi Picoult page turner. Might make a great Christmas present.
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh published by Wiedenfeld and Nicholson (Orion) paperback £8.99
This is almost a series of short stories in that Henry Marsh, a Senior Consultant Neurologist at St George’s Hospital in London, takes a particular neurological complaint and then tells the reader about a case that illustrates that complaint. The book charts his career as a leading brain surgeon and shows with compassion and humour a little of how difficult a job this is. In addition how complicated our brains are, and how neurological conditions are often life and death situations involving the patient and the whole family. He often operates under local anaesthetic in order to make sure no damage is being done to parts of the brain whilst removing tumours.
As well as his work in the UK Henry Marsh also goes pro bono to the Ukraine and both operates on patients and mentors the doctors there. When his clinic is due patients come, often many hundreds of miles, in the hope that he can help them sometimes with the most horrendous of brain tumours.
The book is written with humour, anger at the ‘system’ and passion.
The Skeleton Cupboard by Dr Tanya Byron published by Macmillan £18.99
In a way this book is looking at brains from a completely different angle. Tanya Byron is the Times writer and TV presenter of Taming Toddlers. This book is about clinical psychology and how and why she became a clinical psychologist. It has one of the best opening lines “I first became fascinated by the frontal loves of the human brain when I saw my grandmother’s sprayed across the skirting board of the front room of her dark and cluttered house. I was 15”
Her grandmother was murdered by a pregnant heroin addict after cash for her next fix. She later admits she may not have really seen her grandmother’s brains like that but that is sort of how she remembers it. The book describes her training as a clinical psychologist and uses fictional cases, obviously based on real ones that she encountered along the way. From treating a 17 year old with anorexia nervosa to alcoholics and aids patients many of life’s real dramas are here. Again it is written in a gripping style full of her own self doubt along the way as well as the successes and failures that she inevitably encounters. It would seem with both her and Henry Marsh need to know when they cannot help as much as when they can. Interestingly I read these books one after the other in less than 48 hours and they seemed so similar and yet so different. One treating disease and abnormality and the other treating problems that society has contributed towards as well as depression.
The Irresponsible Traveller edited by Hilary Bradt published by Bradt Guides £10.99
Another collection of short true stories, this is a collection gathered together to celebrate the 40 years of publishing of Bradt guides. We have hair raising travel tales from some of the best known travel writers. Ben Fogle, finding himself stuck at a border with miles of traffic and a strike preventing him getting to where he needs to be decides to pretend one of is party is desperately ill and needs a doctor. They disguise one of their number, a lady called Ann as a casualty with ketchup, bandages talcum powder and a drip. Then they are escorted past all the waiting cars towards the front. A priest, hearing of their plight joins them to administer the last rites to Ann. Any minute they expect to be exposed but at the last moment the priest is called away to another person dying but for real this time and they are saved. Ben Fogle goes on to contract Leishmaniasis which keeps him in hospital for months. Schadenfrade or divine retribution?
Hilary Bradt herself contributes a hair raising tale of being arrested in Ethiopia. She and her American travelling companion are in a bus which breaks down in the middle of nowhere and they are forced to stay in a hotel. Some of the local students suggest that their teacher has told them that in the US black people are unable to travel on buses and go to college. Defending the position they say that it is not like that any more and that capitalism is not all bad. After the students have left a lone person sitting at a table elsewhere in the restaurant gets up and comes over and tells them they are under arrest for ‘praising capitalism’ They are to report to him at 6am the next day.
The Ark before Noah by Irving Finkel published by Hodder & Stoughton £20
An amazing story – Irving Finkel is an Assyriologist, Keeper of cuneiform tablets at the British Museum. Cuneiform is a type of ancient Babylonian hieroglyphic and few scholars in the world can translate it. Irving Finkel is one. The tablet, brought in to the Museum for him to look at , has a blueprint for the Ark with measurements and a quantity surveyors report on materials. The tablet was made 1500 years before the Biblical story was written. Channel 4 have recently constructed the Ark as specified on the tablet and floated it, although not with 2 of every species on earth aboard! It took place in Kerala and Irving Finkel was there.
Monday September 29th
May Martin’s Sewing Bible by May Martin published by Harper Collins £25 published in August
This subtitle of this book is 40 years of tips & tricks on how to make your own fashion, home furnishings and crafts.
May Martin was one of the judges on The Great British Sewing Bee.
This is a book for anyone who would like to learn to sew or who can sew already but who needs a reference book to remind them of certain techniques or terms. It has some great projects – clothing to make for adults and children, craft items like bag, napkins, cushions, bunting, puppets, puppet theatre and a Christmas stocking and Christmas decorations. It has some really good tips – I am capable of dressmaking and have made clothes, curtains, bedlinen but still some great things to learn. How to turn out a thin tube, attaching facings, zips, making bindings etc. the book is illustrated with easy to follow diagrams and lovely photographs.
A great gift for a crafty friend or for yourself so you can make some nice things for Christmas, start now! We have a craft day on Saturday in the Memorial Hall where there will be May Martin and Stuart Hilliard, Fiona Goble and others the chance to learn quilting, knitting, bring along your sewing problems to Sarah’s Sewing Surgery.
The Wildflower Path by Sarah Harrison paperback came out 11/09/2014 published by Orion £8.99
Great family saga from a best selling author. Four generations of the same family with a secret which has repercussions for everyone. Complex story spanning most of the 20th century. Helpfully there is a date at the beginning of each chapter and there is a family tree at the beginning which is very helpful for getting everyone sorted out in one’s mind. There are betrayals, disasters, love affairs, an absent father –plenty to get your teeth into
The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop published by £19.99
I do not usually review hardback fiction but have to make an exception for this new book by Victoria Hislop. Author of The island, The Return and The Thread, she has penned a new book set in her beloved Greece in Cyprus. The Sunrise is a luxury hotel in Famagusta. The story concerns 2 families principally. Markos Georgiou works at The Sunrise and although Aphroditi, the wife of the owner, hates him to start with, and she him, this becomes a relationship between 2 lovers early on in the story and remains a central theme. All the characters are fictional but the history is correct and to this day the Varosha area of the city of Famagusta is fenced off and abandoned. Apparently there is washing still on the lines, tables are laid and whilst it looks as though the people have just left, closer inspection reveals no one has been there since the coup in 1974. The Greek Cypriots were never allowed back in.
A Song For Ella Grey by David Almond published by Hachette Childrens’ Books at £12.99
Wonderfully written new book for young adults from the award winning David Almond. A retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in a modern setting. It concerns a young girl Claire and her best friend, Ella. Ella is adopted, protected and forbidden to go on a tip with the rest if their friends to camp on the sands in Nothumberland. The others, including Claire, all go and have a great time, drinking cheap plonk and cooking on an open fire etc. A young man comes along and plays his lyre to them all, enchanting them, especially the girls. Claire phones Ella from her mobile and allows her to hear the music. Ella is enchanted down the phone and is determined to be allowed to come there next time.
Ella and Orpheus are ‘married’ the next time but catastrophe strikes and Ella is killed by the ‘nest of vipers’ of the greek myth. In the myth Orpheus tries to bring his wife back from the underworld and almost succeeds but forgets at the last moment that he has been told to ‘never look back’
The story is told by Claire
The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson published by Hesperus Press at £8.99
Wonderfully funny book about a man who, rather than go to his own 100th birthday party in the old people’s home he lives in climbs out the window and runs away. In the early part of the book he walks to the bus station, buys a ticket to anywhere and is told the bus leaves in 3 minutes. He stands in the waiting room and a young man asks him to look after his suitcase while he goes to the toilet. This he does but realising his bus is about to leave, he takes the case with him and boards the bus. The young man is extremely fed up at this and follows him on the next bus. The reason he is so fed up – the case contains $100,000 ! There then ensues a hilarious series of journeys with other people getting involved from a man who has a hot dog stand to the police trying to catch up. And the young man – you’ll have to read it to find out.
The book has two stories running through it , the current journey and escape from authority and the story of Allan Karlsson, the centenarian, who has gone where life takes him and met many of the world’s leaders in his life and work. He was an explosives expert.
Monday September 1st
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Vintage £7.99
Classic story about a family who are living in a castle but with no cash. Told through the eyes of Cassandra, the middle child with an older sister and a school age younger brother, there is much make do and mend and hunger. Rose, the older sister strikes up a relationship with the family in the ‘big house’ but it is perhaps because she is tempted by the wealth and luxury in which the other family live. Wonderful coming of age story, great insight into the mind of a 17 year old girl.
Don’t Stand So Close by Luana Lewis Transworld £6.99 published 11the September in paperback
Book set in Amersham and London. About a psychologist who seems to have suffered something dreadful and has withdrawn from the world to a Hill top house in Amersham. It starts with this lady psychologist, Stella, opening the door very reluctantly on a snowy winters night to a distraught 16 year old girl who is freezing. As the story unfolds we find out why she feels threatened and how she has become so unable to function normally. Always clear that someone or several people are lying but never clear who. It is a real page turner with an ending I did not see coming!
Before the Fall by Juliet West Pan Macmillan £7.99
This is the story of Hannah Loxwood, married with 2 children and living in east London during the First World War. Her husband George is away fighting in France and Hannah is living with her ill father and married sister and her family. She takes a job and then has a taste of freedom that being away from the family can bring. She embarks on a liaison with a cultured young man, Daniel, and like all liaisons there are consequences. ‘ I think the war is everywhere: in the rain, in the river, in the grey air that we breathe. It is a current that runs through all of us. You can’t escape the current; either you swim with it or you go under..’
Love Letters of the Great War edited by Mandy Kirkby Pan Macmillan 9.99
This lady is appearing with Juliet West at the first event of the History Festival planned by the bookshop for 3 Wednesdays from September 17th. The book consists of letters from home to the forces as well as from the forces home. We have letters from Germans, as well as Allied Forces and their sweethearts. Love and home dreamt of and the trials of the Front Line complained of. Many of the writers didn’t make it back. We learn of the conditions at home and abroad through the medium of the letters. They were so important.
Men of Letters by Duncan Barrett AA £8.99
A fascinating book about the Post Office Rifles, a brigade in the First World War that trained in Abbots Langley. They were billeted in the Theatre of the Leavesden Asylum. ( now only the administration block and chapel remain and are mostly converted to housing in College Road Recruited from the Post Office workers and messengers, these men and boys found themselves catapulted into war on the Western Front.
The Post Office Rifles started as a part of the Territorial Army. As war broke out 2 train loads of them were on their way to camp in Eastbourne when the train was stopped, turned round and they spent the night at the GPO headquarters, ( the stop on the Underground now known as St Pauls was originally called Post Office) The nest morning the volunteers were told they would all be mobilised. This, combined with all the other postmen and messenger boys who signed up, left the Post Office very short of labour. Some of the post to and from the forces was dealt with by Royal Engineers postal section which itself included many former Post Office workers. Over 500 people were employed full time at the depot in London with 10 floors of the King Edward building being occupied by forces post 10000 letters a month passed through the hands of Home Office staff reaching their recipients on the Western Front within a couple of days of being sent. Letters take on a huge significance and the letters and parcels that were sent there arrived in 2 days. We would be quite pleased with that kind of delivery service today. The stream of parcels arriving at the front meant that some of the men were surprisingly well supplied and as deliveries were quick even perishable stuff could be sent, and often shared with fellow officers or friends.
The Moth edited by Catherine Burns Serpents Tail £12.99
The MOTH is the name for a live storytelling of true events. Started in New York by George Dawes Green, the first one happened in London this week. In the books are some of the best stories that have been told this way and that the editor Catherine Burns felt translated well to the printed form.
Monday July 28th
The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans published by Pan Macmillan at £9.99
The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse published by Oxford University press at £5.99
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld published by Vintage at £8.99
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri published bt Bloomsbury at£8.99
Happy Birthday Royal Baby my Martha Mumford published by Bloomsbury at £6.99
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell published by Headline at £8.99
Wednesday June 25th – more summer reading
The Beach Hut next door by Veronica Henry published by Orion at 7.99
This Boy by Alan Johnson published by Transworld at £7.99
The Unpredictable Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell published by Headline at £7.99
The Best British Short Stories 2013 collected by Nicholas Royle published by Salt Publishing at £9.99
The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman published by Transworld at £7.99
AND The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth at £1.99 available only from independent bookshops
Wednesday May 21st – some summer reading
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes published by Transworld £7.99
Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse published by Bloomsbury £7.99
The Lie by Helen Dunmore published by Random House £7.99
Solo by William Boyd published by Random House £7.99
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published by Harper Collins £8.99
Wednesday April 23rd Shakespeares 450th birthday!
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer published by Harper Collins £7.99
The Forgotten by David Baldacci published by Pan Macmillan £7.99
Catastrophe by Max Hastings published by Harper Collins £9.99
The New Sylva by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet published by Bloomsbury £50
The Story of Things by Neal Layton published by Hachette £12.99
England my England by Gerry Hanson published by Portico £9.99
Watching the English by Kate Fox published by Hodder & Stoughton £25
The English A Field Guide by Matt Rudd published by Harper Collins £8.99