Talking about books
~ at home
Our October reading
A Month in the Country by JL Carr
I have been binge reading Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series thanks to a recommendation from Eddie, which I have really enjoyed, but the book which has really brought me enormous pleasure is J L Carr’s A Month in the Country. It’s a quick read having only 104 pages and yet it has made such a deep impression on me.
It’s about a man called Tom Birkin who is a survivor of World War I. He looks back at a time when, still suffering the effects of shell shock, he goes to a village in the north where he has been commissioned to uncover a medieval wall-painting, long hidden in the church there. As he slowly reveals the painting he begins to recover. The slow pace of village life, the kindness of the people and the beauty and peace of the countryside all contribute to his belief in the possibility of a return to a normal life.
It’s a beautifully written book and I wasn’t surprised to see that it had made the Booker shortlist nor that it won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
How to Read a Graveyard – Journeys in the company of the dead by Peter Stanford
I have soooooo enjoyed this book. It’s really well-written and covers a lot of ground – from neolithic tombs to modern-day woodland burials. He’s got a delightfully light touch on what is after all the ultimate issue – and the last taboo. I thought – from the title – that it would be a sort of I-spy guide to Victorian tombstone symbols, but it is a wide-ranging discussion of funeral customs throughout the millennia, with a brilliant sweeping introduction. Then each chapter takes us to a different gravesite: Rome (three times), Norfolk, Edinburgh, London, the war graves in France, Liverpool and Bucks with information not only on that site, but all the wider issues it throws up. Really enjoyable, informative, and a good read.
Travelling In A Strange Land by David Park
I picked this book up in the library because I liked the picture of a snowy landscape on its cover and discovered it was about a man taking the ferry from Belfast across to Stranraer in south west Scotland, then driving across the A75 and further to Sunderland to collect his son from university. It was just before Christmas, the son was ill with a bad dose of flu and all flights and other public transport were cancelled because of the heavy snowfall. I was brought up in Newton Stewart on the A75 and have driven that road countless times in all sorts of weather conditions so the book appealed to me. The journey with the difficult driving conditions is certainly part of the story. He keeps in touch with phone calls back home to his wife and daughter in Belfast and checks on his ill son in Sunderland. However, the long hours alone in the car let the man think a lot about his past. The difficulties of the snowy journey are well described but the book is really more about the man’s life, how he became a photographer, met and married his wife, had his children and even more about the grief over what has gone wrong more recently in their lives. (I am not saying what that is because it is only revealed gradually as you read the book.) I very much enjoyed this short book and will certainly be looking for more books by David Park.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
This was a very thought-provoking book about the Arab-Israeli conflict . It is the story of the friendship of two men on either side of the divide, drawn together by the tragic deaths of their daughters in the struggle. As a result they spend their lives trying to understand what has happened, and to build bridges.
This was a work of fiction based, I think, on people who have done just that. The emotional distress of the two men is profoundly moving but I did find the structure of the book, measured sometimes in just a few lines to each section, somewhat irritating and distracting. Well worth reading nonetheless.
Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
I always enjoy the biographies Claire Tomalin writes and this is no exception. The book is really well researched, packed with information but always easy to read. No mean feat I think.
I wanted to know more about Pepys and she gives a terrific account of the times he lived in and the sort of man he probably was. I am only half way through and what I find really fascinating is the information about England during Cromwell’s time and then the subsequent Restoration. It must have been such a difficult time to be alive, never really knowing where your allegiances needed to lie if you were going to survive in higher circles. I knew precious little about the Restoration having never studied that period at all in History at school but I am left wondering why on earth not. Equally as important a time as anything we learn about the Tudors and it should be on the school curriculum in my view. Claire Tomalin could easily bring it to light. I am loving this book.
Forever Young by Hayley Mills
I would recommend Hayley Mills’ memoir, Forever Young. She was one of my childhood idols, and reading her book is like having a (albeit, one-sided) conversation with an old friend. There are some surprises sprinkled throughout, but nothing which could ever change my affection for her.
Dangerous Women by Hope Adams
I’m not usually a reader of historical thrillers, but after a conversation with the author (Adele Geras writing under a pseudonym) I had to give this a try. And – I confess – I was also much tempted by the fabulous cover, which I’ve been seeing in bookshops everywhere!
Dangerous Women is based on the story of a real-life voyage. In 1841 The Rajah sails for Australia with 180 women convicts aboard. During the arduous journey, one woman loses her life … the search is on for the guilty party.
But this book is about far more than that. It’s a fascinating slice of history at a time of troubling social injustice – most of the women aboard have been convicted for the most trivial of crimes. So, it’s about justice (or lack of it), gender politics, female friendship and journeys into the unknown,
Read it if you love thrillers. Read it if you don’t. This is a book full of carefully nuanced characters and muscular dialogue with great pace and atmosphere. A historical thriller that’s far more than just thrills.
She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
I listened to this on audio book, and I have to say that the narration (by Natalie Naudus) was utterly gripping! I listened on long car journeys and was almost sorry to reach my destination – every time!
This debut novel is set in 14th century China in the failing years of the Yuan dynasty. It’s main character, Zhu, who spends most of the novel under the assumed identity (and gender) of her brother Zhu Chongba, is based on the founder of the Ming Dynasty. This is a wonderful queer-reimagining of history. We meet Zhu as a starving girl-child in a peasant village whose brother is foretold to have a great destiny. When the brother dies, Zhu – ambitious and desperate for survival – assumes his identity (and his gender) and determines to fool fate itself.
Based on this premise, we embark on a story that becomes mythic, transcendent. epic and utterly compelling. It’s full of political manoeuvring, armed conflict and intense emotion. The language is pitch-perfect and the sense of place totally convincing. I can’t recommend it highly enough. A great read – a mind blowing listen!
Matrix by Lauren Groff
The only thing I dislike about this book is its title, which sounds like a sci-fi movie. Nothing could be more different! This is a glorious historical novel set in the 12th century. It’s heroine, the overly large and less than beautiful Marie, is ‘thrown to the dogs’ by Eleanor of Aquitaine – sent to a remote, poor and miserable royal abbey in England, where the nuns are starving and life is hard. She rises to become its abbess and creates a thriving, rich and collaborative community – a female utopia, if you like.
Please don’t think this is historical fiction as escapism. This is a very modern novel and a book that will make you think. It’s about female leadership, ambition and the challenges of living in community– as we all must. What has Marie created? we are led to ask. What kind of leader is she? And can she hold it all together? It may be set in the 12th century, but it will make you reflect very hard on how we live – as women and as communities – now.
I loved it.
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
If you liked Where the Crawdads Sing you’ll love this and, for my money, it’s an infinitely better book.
This is a fictionalised account of the author’s real-life family story, with her mother Betty as the main character. It was the first book Tiffany McNeil wrote, but it failed to find a publisher because the material was considered too dark – too female. So, Tiffany debuted with The Summer That Melted Everything – a gothic tale that won The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.
Set in the 1960s, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, we are given the life of Betty, growing up one of six children of a white mother and Cherokee father. Betty’s relationship with her father, Landon, is the glowing heart of this book. A total joy. The rest is rather darker and we must wrestle with violence, abuse, racism and poverty. What interested me most was Landon’s reflections on the matriarchal nature of the Cherokee culture he has lost and harkens back to; a culture that embraces female power and fertility. The juxtaposition of this with the culture in which Betty grows up – and the abuse occurring within the family itself – couldn’t be more poignant.
Dark it may be, but never gratuitous. And, after all, that’s life sometimes, right? And the darkness is redeemed – made bearable – by a thread of redemptive hope. Ultimately, I found this a joyous read.
The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe
I have long been a fan of Jonathan Coe but this book I found to be unlike others of his. An elderly lady goes through her collection of family photos and, as each photo takes her back to a time in her life, she tells of that event. She is writing the account for her cousin’s blind granddaughter and, while it is an original way to tell a family’s history – and includes a mention of Much Wenlock – I found the author became rather obsessed with how the narrator was feeling which detracted, for me, from the enjoyment of the story.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
As this year’s winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I was keen to discover its attraction. Its described as a fantasy novel so I probably should have known what to expect! The first hundred pages I found confusing and sometimes tedious, the setting being so surreal and alien I could not really grasp what was happening. I persevered and gradually the story unfolded and became – slightly – clearer. The reader does discover the identity of Piranesi and the reason for his situation but, even when the plot was revealed I cannot say that it really engaged me. If magic realism is for you, you will love it!
Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
I first read Chekhov in the late 80s, I think. The Slow Reading Group is tackling The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov at the moment and I mentioned that I had enjoyed Chekhov in the past, so a member lent me a collection published by the Folio Society.
The collection had an introduction written by its translator, Elizaveta Fen, in which she explained that Chekhov originally wrote for money, churning out hundreds of stories a year, but then received a letter from someone imploring him to use his talent better. According to Wikipedia: … as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.
In fact, bearing in mind that I’m not a contemporary reader and will be accustomed to descendants of his innovations, I found the stories very readable, with strong characterisations and thought-provoking scenarios. Apparently one of his innovations was to focus more on the middle of the story than the end, building slowly and eschewing neat or surprise endings. One of several favourites in the collection was ‘Zinotchka’, told by a man about his boyhood and introduced with the question: But tell me, can any of you boast that he has been really hated — hated passionately, hated as devils hate? Has any one ever witnessed an ecstasy of detestation?
This article, written by someone with a Russian background, chimed with my impressions of Chekhov from his writing: read it here.
I liked this quote in the article: ‘I think that it is not for writers to solve such questions as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.,’ Chekhov wrote in another diamond of craft advice. ‘The writer’s function is only to describe by whom, how, and under what conditions the questions of God and pessimism were discussed.’
All in all, I think he’s an author well worth trying if you haven’t already.
In Black and White by Alexandra Wilson
Alexandra Wilson is a young, black barrister. This book is her moving account of why and how she became a barrister and her encounters along the way. Being young, state-educated, black and female in a largely elderly, privately-educated, white, male profession is a tough call. Through her own experience and cases she describes the current failed state of our so-called criminal justice ‘system’, particularly for black people, children and victims. Being herself stopped by the police, or being assumed to be the defendant at court, this is a salutary example of the decline in a once-proud pillar of our society. There are currently several other books describing the present appalling state of affairs in our courts and I also recommend books by The Secret Barrister (Stories of the Law and How It’s broken; Fake Law), Sarah Langford (In Your Defence) and Joshua Rozenberg (Enemies of the People?)
One, Two, Three Four by Craig Brown
If you think you know enough about the Beatles and their history, think again! This excellent, informative and amusing book is a great read; the footnotes alone reveal an astonishing number of extra facts around the Beatles period. There’s been a lot of recent new publicity about the break-up and Paul McCartney’s new book based on the lyrics of his songs confirms what is implied by Craig Brown: that it was Yoko Ono who was responsible for John Lennon announcing that he was leaving the Beatles. Whatever the stories and books, we’ll always have the music!
The Ratline by Philippe Sands
In East West Street, Philippe Sands told of the origins of the new concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity through his own experience of visiting Ukraine and meeting the sons of two Nazi war criminals. One of those criminals was Otto von Wächter who escaped the post-war hunt for those responsible and the Nuremburg trials. Von Wächter died in Rome in 1949 in mysterious circumstances and this book is the story of his escape and the network which spirited many of the guilty away to South America. It’s also the story of von Wächter’s son who even now cannot accept that his father was not a good man. Best read in order, these two books are superb accounts of a period of history of which we cannot be reminded often enough, lest we forget.
The Diary of a Bookseller by Sean Bythell
The first of two books (the second is Confessions of a Bookseller) this is a delightful read for any booklover. Sean Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop, Wigtown, Scotland’s official Town of Books. His diary consists of entries throughout a year, including daily takings and sales, encounters with a kaleidoscope of customers and browsers, as well as visits across Scotland to find books and other artefacts for sale in his shop. As a matter of interest, Anna took a Readers Retreat there some years ago!
And a fabulous time we had, too! The bookshop is my absolute dream of a bookshop, and Sean is the perfect host. Anna
The Hero’s Way by Tim Parks
It is excellent that ‘live’ book events are back. Tim Parks was talking at Topping & Co in Edinburgh about his 300+ mile walk, after he retired from his Italian university position in 2019, tracing the steps of Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna in 1849. I knew nothing about Italian independence and was fascinated. This is more a travelogue than a history book but as an Englishman who’s been living and working in Italy for over 40 years he managed to tick both boxes from an outsider’s perspective. I have loved all his previous books, especially the one about his mysterious ailment – Teach us to Sit Still.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
A brother and sister in their 50s who have been living an isolated existence in a primitive English rural cottage with their mother are left destitute when she dies. It seems unimaginable that people can be so far out on the margins of society in this day and age. It sounds more like 100 years ago. Their life unravels and despite all their unfortunate, ill-informed choices you are forced to sympathise and not lose patience with them. A very satisfactory read.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
A weighty page-turning tome! This is the story of Marian Graves who, together with her twin brother, is brought up in Montana by a feckless artist uncle. After seeing a pair of aviators in the 1920s, she is fascinated and obsessed with becoming a pilot, which was a rare career choice for a woman in those days. The book charts her struggles and sacrifices culminating in an epic flight – a longitudinal circuit of the globe in a Dakota aircraft. There is an intertwined parallel narrative of the actress who is playing her in a movie and for a number of reasons starts digging into what happened on that ill-fated great circle flight.
Hermit by S.R.White
Billed as an Ozzie thriller of the Jane Harper/Chris Hammer genre, I seized on this. However, it is nothing like them. The action takes place over one day as a disturbed police officer conducts a series of interviews with a man arrested at the scene of a murder. As she laboriously uncovers details, her colleagues investigate them further. It is a study of a skilled, empathetic interrogation that produces a surprising conclusion. The author is apparently an ex-police officer from Nottingham who emigrated to Queensland.
The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
This is a children’s book with a strong moral message which has recently been republished with charming illustrations. I couldn’t resist the cover. It was written by an American woman in 1865 who had never actually been to Holland. All her research came from books and it is staggeringly accurate. I lived in the Netherlands for 11 years and only once in that time did the canals freeze over so you could skate between the towns – evidently a much more frequent occurrence 150 years ago. It inter-disperses Dutch history and culture with the narrative. I was spellbound.
I absolutely loved this as a child ~ I knew it as Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. I have ordered it it already and am looking forward to sharing it with my grand-children! Anna
The Widening Circle of Us by Peter Francis
Finally a memoir. Peter Francis has, for the last 25 years, been the warden of the residential Gladstone Library in Flintshire. He has put the Library on the map with writers-in-residence and educational programmes. I first ran into him when doing the ‘Welsh in a Week’ residential course at the library which was terrific, despite my unrealistic expectations.
Although he is not greatly in favour with the Church of England hierarchy, he is my kind of priest. He has championed inclusivity and social justice throughout his career and it is unsurprising that Richard Holloway (whose memoirs I also love) has been a friend and mentor to him.
The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn
Described in the Times Best Seller list as ‘Raynor and Moth take on a rewilding project, sequel to The Salt Path‘.
As a sequel to The Salt Path it felt unnecessary for her to then summarise that book so extensively again in the first part of this book. This was then followed by a few other walks and her mother’s difficult death, plus of course the lead up to the publication of the first book. We then finally arrived at the rewilding opportunity around page 143 and much of that was then focussed on the buildings. This lasted until page 196 when they went off hiking in Iceland for the rest of the book, finishing at 277.
So do not buy this to read about rewilding or even small farming. But it is a readable book although it can be frustrating when for most of the time the speakers are not readily identifiable when speech is reported. Also I was not sure why foul language appeared so often – maybe that is the norm these days.
A Scurry of Squirrels by Polly Pullar
Predominantly a description of the wonders of the red squirrel and the work being done for them. The author is a Scottish naturalist of repute, much involved in the re-establishment of red squirrels about Scotland from her remote farm in Perthshire. This was a very readable account of this work based on her life as a well-known wildlife rehabilitator with additional focus on other animals she has helped such as deer and birds. A very informative read and, in comparison with her previous book on pine martens, this is much more personal with many insights into her life.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
A gentle stroll through the declining years of a respectable aged lady who moves into a London hotel to while away her widowhood with fellow retirees, for she has sufficient money to do so. Like most of her fellow residents she has no visitors but when she is helped after a fall by a young chap she is able to persuade him to visit her posing as her grandson. A mutually beneficial relationship develops although on an infrequent basis. The other residents’ foibles are slowly exposed over time along with those of Mrs Palfrey and many unexpected issues arise throughout to make the read entertaining, right up to the end. Although based in the 1970s it felt much more like the 1930s but none the worse for that. A very restful read, for a change, that still held one’s interest.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
An interesting crime novel and not written in the childish manner I half expected being by this well-known author (aka JK Rowling). A disabled war-vet, Cormoran Strike, sets up as an investigative detective having not fully recovered from his army experiences. His first case is an alleged suicide that the victim’s brother suspects is murder and the book follows the complex investigation. There are many interesting turns and participants to follow as it is quite involved, but the writing is well done and creates a very plausible environment and array of suspects as well as bringing the two main characters, the detective and his temporary secretary, very much into being. A fascinating journey through all the complexities of the investigation. At the denouement there is much to recall when all the elements are brought together and the result is revealed. Probably worth reading some more of these character in the subsequent books but it makes sense to start here.
Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner
Book two of three, and I really hope there will be more. Her characters are real, her politics are robust, and the plotting is great!
Life Class by Pat Barker
I loved Pat Barker’s early writing, so I don’t really know why she fell off my radar until recently. This is fabulous, so well written, and as always with Pat Barker, the so-called glory of war is always replaced by the pity of it. So many young lives ruined for ever.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
When people like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin say that McIlvanney is the father of modern Scottish crime, I have to sit up and pay attention. This was a little dated, but great! I can certainly see how he changed the genre. I’ll be reading more.
Between Two Evils by Eva Dolan
Again, recommended by Val McDermid (who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned) Eva Dolan is one of the new breed of women crime writers for whom their politics is a crucial part of their writing. Taking on various aspects of social (in)justice, her stories are powerfully combative and her characters always fully realised. I will read everything she writes.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Previously recommended on this site by Jenny Newton, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Based on a claustrophobic hospital ward for women who have the Spanish flu and are also pregnant this was an eye-opener. It was written before our current pandemic, but so much is the same. Well worth reading, she is a fine writer and I have enjoyed all her other books.
Trick or Treat by Lesley Glaister
This is out of print but Shropshire Libraries have it. She writes so well about characters who are just ‘not quite right’. The underlying menace and sinister storyline is compelling and realistic.
Thank you so much to everyone who contributes to this book blog, and to all our readers ~ thank you for getting in touch to tell me how you like it!
Please let me have your reading recommendations for the next post by 23rd November ~ or (even better!) as soon as you like! And please let me know what your Christmas reading list looks like: which are the books you get out and revisit every Christmas time?
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