Talking about books
~ at home
books we read in January & February
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Living Mountain is a short memoir about the Cairngorms – the varied landscape, the weather, the flora, the fauna and the people who live and work on the hills there. It is a beautifully written book that made me want to walk on these hills to follow in her footsteps. The copy I read had an introduction by Robert Macfarlane which explained that it had been written in the 1940s but then stored in a drawer for many years before finally being published in the late 70s. It is a beautiful book for anyone who enjoys hillwalking. Nan Shepherd spent most of her life in the Aberdeen area and was a keen hill walker.
Rizzio by Denise Mina
Denise Mina usually writes modern crime stories set in Glasgow. This book, however, is a novella about the murder of David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots’ private secretary in 1566. Mary came to the throne when she was only 6 days old in 1542 but Scotland was then ruled by regents and she spent most of her childhood in France. When she returned to Scotland as queen in 1561 she was coming to a protestant country as a catholic queen which certainly made it a time of political and religious difficulties. She married Darnley in 1565 and he did not like her closeness with Rizzio. The book concentrates on just the day of the murder, with Darnley’s determination to have the assassination carried out in front of Mary. It gives a good picture of the various political allegiances that were present then (and makes me very glad we do not live in such volatile times). The book’s slipcover is very eye-catching – bright yellow with a blood splatter.
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
Alan Garner has long been known for his books of fantasy and other worldliness but I had never read one. So, when this came out last autumn I thought it was about time. Apparently, he averages nine years over each book as he has to “brew” his ideas until ready.
In this, a young boy living alone is visited by a tramp named Treacle Walker who gives him a medicine jar and a “donkey stone” for scouring in exchange for pyjamas and an old shoulder blade. The writing is very visual and I could imagine it as a film but probably one my grandchildren would enjoy. I admired Garner’s imagination and found his prose descriptive and playful – perhaps a book to reread sometime.
Where Shall We Run To? A Memoir by Alan Garner
Then I found this in a charity shop – written only a few years ago he looks back around eighty years to his childhood in Alderley Edge during WW2. Beautifully evocative of schooldays and also time spent out exploring on Alderley Edge. Not surprising to learn he won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar.
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
I read this for our January book group discussion. Researched over many years, it tells the true story of her grandmother, Sala, and Sala’s brothers who all escaped the Nazis in Poland and fled to Paris with varying degrees of success. Each story is told in great detail and includes photos, the most surprising being her Great Uncle Alex who not only was sent to spend the summer of 1940 in Trentham Park but also later went on to become a famous fashion designer and good friends with Picasso and Chagall.
This is Where I Am by Karen Campbell
Another refugee but this time from Somalia in the 21stC and sent to live in Glasgow. Two main characters – Abdi the refugee and Deborah the volunteer at the Refugee Council who is asked to mentor him as he adjusts to life in Glasgow. Both need help and the story gripped me from the start, moving but also humorous. A long book but very worthwhile.
Panenka by Ronan Hession
Another beautifully written story about someone needing help. This time a former professional footballer who needs to come to terms with mistakes he has made and move on with his life. About relationships and rediscovering love, confidence and knowing what is important.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa
And now for something completely different – a young boy lives with his grandfather who owns a bookshop. Then the grandfather dies and the boy is alone, what should he do? Enter a cat to help him. The cat takes him to meet other people in the book world, some who are abusing books or not appreciating them and, with the cat’s help they change people’s attitudes. The boy gradually comes to gain confidence and realise the true worth of the books in the shop. An enchanting and original idea, I can see it as an animated film.
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer
Cleverly constructed to tell a story at two different points, before a global catastrophe and afterwards in alternating chapters. The story follows Ruth who lives a conventional life in London with many friends and men with whom she falls in and out of love. She decides on a life change and travels to New Zealand to learn about whale conservation but – while she is travelling – the world changes. She never fully understands what has happened (so neither does the reader) but she learns to survive and to build a new relationship with a fellow survivor. Captivating, moving and raises the question about what is important in life and relationships.
A Town Called Solace Mary Lawson
This is the third book I have read by this author and it did not disappoint. The author’s prose is disarmingly straightforward but deals with difficult themes. The novel unfolds through the viewpoints of different people so you get to see actions from various angles which I really enjoy. One of the narratives is viewed through the eyes of a child and I think the author is brilliant at remembering how stressed children can feel when they cannot comprehend the adult world or are excluded from it. As in Crow Lake, childhood memories and trauma resurface in adulthood but I feel the author tries to resolve these issues in small but positive ways.
Silence by Shusaku Endo
An account of a Portuguese missionary’s attempt to convert Japan to Christianity in the seventeenth century. Bleak, beautifully written even in translation and absolutely riveting.
Will She Do? by Eileen Atkins
A memoir by the celebrated actress and how she built her career from dancing in working men’s clubs as a child in the East End to the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is surprisingly candid about some of her underhand ruses to beat her rivals to auditions for roles she thinks should be hers. She comes across as very natural despite her high-profile life.
State of Terror by Louise Penny & Hilary Clinton
The US Secretary of State (with her trusty assistant back in DC) is plunged into major terror events and jets round the world in Airforce Two. Touches of West Wing and Homeland but then as it’s co-written by Louise Penny there has to be some ‘Three Pines’ homage. An easy if non memorable read.
Perfect Remains (#1) by Helen Fields
This is the first in the addictive police thriller series about Luc Callanach & Ava Turner. If you like Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series then you’ll love these. Set in Edinburgh the very attractive ex interpol French detective and the home-grown DCI tackle gruesome crimes. However, these books are character driven and the best stuff happens back at the station with a host of other players in the Major Crimes unit. Would be a good tv series.
A Glasgow Trio:
1979 by Val McDermid / The Dark Remains by Ian Rankin/ Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
I was not a fan of Glasgow based (imho) overrated Shuggie Bain. However, I loved these three.
Ian Rankin (who has written about Rebus’s nemesis Glaswegian Big Ger Cafferty) has now written a Laidlaw (William McIlvanney’s morose policeman) prequel. Atmospheric stuff.
Val McDermid’s rookie female reporter in the late 70s tries to break out of the narrow confines of the traditional woman’s page stories by uncovering a major financial fraud. Runs out of steam towards the end but no question that Val McDermid is on top of her game.
The first half of the book Mayflies sees a group of friends heading from Glasgow to Manchester for a music festival in the 80s. The relationship between the two main players is supported by quotes from cult books and films. The second half takes place 30 years later when one has a terminal illness. Reading the blurb, I should have loathed this book but I loved it.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín
A fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann who was born in Lubeck to an elegant Brazilian mother and a merchant/ local official father. Marrying a wealthy Jewish wife, he lives a chaotic cultured family life with their six children in Munich while suppressing his own homosexuality. After winning the Nobel prize, the rise of Hitler sees him leaving his beloved Germany for the US. Fascinating accounts of how The Magic Mountain & Death in Venice came to be written.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Set in a middle-class Chicago suburb back in the 1970s, each member of a pastor’s dysfunctional family recounts in turn their own struggles after the pastor’s humiliation at the hands of a charismatic evangelical youth worker. Some of the back stories are a tad long (especially that of his wife) but ultimately a gripping tale.
THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES by Elif Shafak
An unusual story of the difficult relationship between a Turkish and a Greek Cypriot before and after the division of the island, as well as their relationship with various other lives struggling in this new environment. There are occasional commentaries too from the perspective of a local fig tree that witnesses the goings 0n. Sounds silly but it works very well. A daughter resident in the UK visits the island to untangle the history; untangling the secrets that have been hidden over many years. A very enjoyable read.
RAMBLING ON by Mike Harding (out of print)
The author is a former President of the Ramblers Association and also a well-known comedian and folk singer of the time. He gives an often humorous insight into the types of folk who go rambling in Britain. If he is to be believed they are a strange bunch and readily lampooned although much seems to be exaggerated – just how many walkers actually “knit their own tents”? But there will always be ‘gear freaks’ and even Heath Robinson types who just make do. And I stand corrected, these fellows never walk, they ramble whilst ridiculing the crypto (or pseudo)-ramblers who can give it all a bad name. He reveals the wide history of it all and the current variety of dubious hazards that may be encountered (eg stile crotch etc) whilst continually berating the ubiquitous Scottish midges. A brief but entertaining book especially if rambling is your thing.
HISTORY by Miles Jupp
The author is acclaimed as “the funniest man in Britain…” who you may know from TV and radio. This is possibly true but do not expect this novel to be an hilarious read. It is certainly engaging nonetheless. The tale explores the life of a history teacher, Clive, at a small public school and the environment in which he exists both at home and the school. There are many failings in both areas of his life which engage us with the challenges arising for him from both his fellow teachers, including his headmaster, as well from a long-suffering wife and children. Clive resolves to do better but not everything goes according to plan. These tribulations are cleverly written and we even feel Clive is our hero fighting against the many tribulations he encounters and the main question must be: Can he prevail? A very enjoyable read.
THE CHIMES by Charles Dickens
One of Dickens short stories from Christmas Books. Certainly not as enjoyable as The Christmas Carol although about the same length. It is the tale of Toby ‘Trotty’ Veck who shelters high up in the spire of a church where “speckled spiders, indolent and fat with long security, swing idly to and fro” and there dwelt the Chimes; old bells of many centuries ago “with clear, loud, lusty, sounding voices.” This is the tale of Trotty’s life and involvement in the locality. He is very poor but lives a very sociable life which includes his daughter, Meg. Dickens as usual uses his voluptuous descriptions and one gets very involved in Trotty’s comings, goings and encounters throughout which he seems more than content. However, he becomes very concerned that working class people are wicked and worthless. And then with the ringing of the bells various ghostly figures come to haunt him and discuss with him his actions. These experiences having passed we learn of the consequences. It is well presented as a short story.
Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah
I was looking forward to reading last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, especially with the blurb on the cover of this book promising a ‘good story’. The writing is good but it felt very dry and detached somehow. What was interesting was the story of the German occupation of East Africa – one that is not told very often.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
The first chapter of this book really made my head spin! How do you react if your partner tells you an ant has crawled into her eye and is living in her brain? She is convinced… are you? Sophie Ward begins each chapter of this book with a philosophical ‘thought experiment’, around which the action of the chapter takes place. Each chapter links with the others (at first, I thought this book was separate short stories) and examines truth, memory, reality and love amongst other big themes. Incredibly clever writing, but one to make your brain whirl!
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A re-read with the Lusaka Book Club, but it had been so long since I read it, it felt new. Wow. Toni Morrison’s writing is just something else. She is such a wordsmith. The story is harrowing. The beauty of the writing is stunning. If you haven’t read this – put it on your list.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Another re-read. A book written with rhythm, influenced by Mujila’s love of jazz. The story is set in the notorious club, ‘Tram 83’ in a fictitious city state somewhere in central Africa (but modelled closely on the situation in Mujila’s home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (he now lives in Austria). This is life lived large where tourists, prostitutes, soldiers, miners, train station operators, prospectors come together in Tram 83 in what can only be described as a riot of life.
Few and Far Between by Charlie Elder
This book describes the author’s search to see some of Britain’s rarest animals. It includes the author’s motivations and his interactions with the people who helped him find the species, as well as the animals themselves. We’re talking about animals in the widest sense: insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. It’s a sad read in some ways, for those species adversely affected by human activity, but it’s also quite humorous. The animals are rare for various reasons, with some on the edge of their range here in the UK and others highly specialised to exploit particular niches. It’s an easy read and, for those short of time, ideal to pick up for an encounter at a time.
Reflections by Graham Greene
These reviews and essays, some 75 or so spanning a period from 1923 to 1988, were selected and introduced by Judith Adamson and published in 1990. With most pieces written concisely for newspapers or magazines, it’s quite a dense read that’s better spread over short sessions with time in between to absorb what’s been said. I found it interesting to see books, films and world events through a contemporary eye. I was mainly struck by what a remarkable life Greene had, witnessing many conflicts and their aftermaths first-hand, and how adventurous he must have been.
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit
I thoroughly recommend Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. We are given a surprising and stimulating picture of an Orwell who loved gardening – both for self-sufficiency and for flowers, especially roses, which he bought from Woolworth’s for sixpence. His favourite rose was a pink and highly scented rambler, “Albertine”. So I ordered one, it arrived last week and is planted, awaiting the large and sturdy trellis I’m building. The book isn’t entirely devoted to Orwell, but every chapter is fascinating.
The Kids by Hannah Lowe: 2021 Costa book of the year.
‘Nuff said! Yes, it’s a marvellous collection of sonnets inspired by her experience as an inner London VIth form teacher. She recites and chats on YouTube ~ here
Apart from that, I’ve a pile of old William books (Richmal Crompton) that I’m enjoying again – memories of reading them in bed with a torch! I recommend them (there are many) as comfort reading when you’re unwell, as I was during December.
I’m also reading Ruth Rendell (Inspector Wexford) – recommended to me by an uncle many many years ago, and only just taken up, and Peter Robinson (Inspector Banks) ~ more comfort reading!
Lie Down With Lions by Ken Follet
Finally, a thoroughly researched novel set in Afghanistan in the eighties when the Russians were there. A thrilling read, and very instructive. I think I understand Afghanistan a lot better now.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I loved it (my first time of reading!) and was amazed at how much I identified with the central character!
Benedictus by John O’Donohue
Beautiful poems and reflections on many aspects of life that we all have to deal with ~ birth, death, loss, relationships …
In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan Richardson (not available on bookshop.org)
A fascinating and enjoyable book that looks at some of the women of the Bible from a feminist perspective! The author is a radical Methodist minister, a poet and an artist. I came upon her when I was researching ‘A Women’s Christmas’ via Facebook. More here.
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! I love how the list is so varied ~ what a wide reading range we cover!
Please let me have your reading recommendations for the next post by 15th March ~ or (even better!) as soon as you like!
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