Talking about books

 ~ at home

 

BOOKS WE’VE BEEN READING

I hope you enjoy this month’s selection – do let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you agree, disagree, or have anything else to add. I’d love to hear from you!

Thank you to Nicky for the short story selection; if you have a favourite short story, please add it in the Comments.

Suggestions for next month need to be with me by first thing Monday March 8th please.

Ever since Rad’s contribution to the December edition of Talking about Books I’ve been meaning to respond with some recommendations of short stories – since they are something I particularly enjoy and because I have read hundreds of them since joining The Reader.  Here is a short (and rushed!) selection.

Nicky Bennison

Readers Retreat, Leicestershire Shared Reading

Some favourite short stories:

I first was charmed by the art of the short story at university, when I read Katherine Mansfield, who seemed so adept at conjuring up moods and places in just a few pages.  Much later, I did an MA in creative writing and focused on the short story – so I wrote some, as well as reading them. And then, eight years ago, I trained with The Reader to be a shared reading practitioner.  In shared reading, the typical session includes a short story and a poem, so over those years I must have read hundreds of them, by a wide variety of authors. (I love my job!) What follows is a small(ish), personal selection of favourite titles and authors, some well-known, and others less so.

Among the big names it’s hard to beat Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield.  Almost any of their stories can engage you and steal your heart.  One of my favourite stories of all time remains Mansfield’s Bliss: it is perfectly crafted, totally bonkers, funny and heart-breaking. Alice Munro’s tales tend to be quite long, but pack as much in as you’d find in many a novel. 

Ernest Hemingway’s style is not everyone’s cup of tea but two of his stories have stayed in my mind – the short, haunting Hills Like White Elephants and the longer Big Two-Hearted River. Read this, and feel your heart-rate slow: it’s a brilliant piece of writing about a young man going fishing. He’s a veteran of the First World War so there are other issues at play, but only subtly.  It’s magnificent!

Staying in North America, Tobias Wolff writes a good story.  The Chain is one of my favourites, and one which I admire a great deal for the way it’s written. He’s very clever at getting you to feel the way a certain awareness is building in the protagonist. You can find it in his collection Our Story Begins which contains a wealth of other brilliant stories, including Bullet in the Brain… yes, it’s as shocking as it sounds!

Tim Gautreaux is a writer I hadn’t come across before I joined The Reader, but I am so glad I discovered him.  He comes from Louisiana and writes about the Deep South; his characters are often what might be dismissed as ‘white trash’, often flawed, usually struggling – but his stories are so full of humanity it’s easy to fall in love with them.  If you can find his collection Waiting for the Evening News, snap it up, it’s a treat! The stories are often very funny, albeit in surprising ways: I particularly like Welding with Children, concerning a put-upon grandfather trying to look after his neglected grandchildren for the day, and Easy Pickings, where a would-be thief meets his match in an old lady, who feeds him into a stupor, and her friends. It’s hilarious! I’ve never read anything quite like these stories.

Closer to home, it transpires that a lot of the British writers I like and admire are women.  Helen Simpson’s The Door, from a collection called Constitutional, is terrific: it contains the sentence ‘My mind had been behaving like a bonfire; feed it a dry and crackling little worry and it would leap into flame.’ Say no more!  She captures what it’s like to be a modern woman, and her earlier stories about parenting small children are funny and certainly struck a chord with me.

Joanne Harris, most famous for writing Chocolat, is an accomplished short story writer too. Tea with the Birds is a favourite: a delicate story of a young woman finding her place in the world having been in a psychiatric hospital for some time, and making a connection with someone in an unexpected way. She has written a series of stories about two old ladies in a care home, Faith and Hope, which are poignant, full of life and funny – worth looking out for.

I could go on… but I’ll finish by recommending some other authors that I think might convince you that the short story is a wonderful thing: Jane Gardam (try Snap and The Kiss of Life for starters), Helen Dunmore, Carol Shields, Sue Gee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy Whipple and Kate Chopin.  Give them a try, and see what you think.

(There’s always Chekhov of course, and James Joyce … but as I said, this is just a personal choice!)

 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal is set in Birmingham in 1981 and based around real events at that time. The author grew up in Birmingham and has said she wanted to write “something authentic and true with respect for the people for whom being in care isn’t a literary trope but a lived experience.” Leon is in foster care and he finds his life hard to understand but the story we read manages to be sad, funny and moving all at the same time. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell was a book that resonated in more ways than one last year. A birthday present in March so I began reading it in lockdown and was transported back to Stratford 1596 during the plague. Aged just eleven, Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet dies and his family mourn. What this book so beautifully evoked for me was a time in history, the streets, the buildings, the people of that time and their way of life. I grew up near Stratford and know its 20th century streets well so could imagine it all.

Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy is set in a cold 1947 London. A French woman named Albertine takes a part time job speaking conversational French to the elderly Monsieur Ka. As their friendship develops, he relates to her his story and the reader discovers that he is the son of Anna Karenina, Sergei, whom she left when she eloped with Vronsky. At this point I had to seek out the film of Anna Karenina to watch and remind myself of the story. This book is a clever and gripping narrative in which the author has imagined a believable sequel.

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy is the heartfelt story of a young Jamaican girl which could be partly autobiographical. Born in London to parents who came to England as part of the Windrush generation to seek “a better life”, Faith struggles to find her identity and place in a society where there is still discrimination. Her parents send her to Jamaica for a holiday and in the second half of the book we meet the extended family through her eyes for the first time as she begins to regain confidence and feel that she fits in. 

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie begins as a young man is incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay with the question – how did it come to this? We are then taken back to Nagasaki in 1945, via India in 1947 to a post-independence camp in Karachi through to 1980s Afghanistan and 9/11 in New York. A tragic story but one which involves believable human beings whose loyalties are torn and who have no easy answers. Beautifully written but I finished it wanting someone else to read it so we could discuss it!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – Each year six of us in book group read the six short listed Booker books before the prize is announced. Last year I got to read this book back in September and I would certainly have voted for it to win. Since being awarded the prize, Douglas Stuart has said a great deal about the writing of it, it took him ten years, he began it with no expectation of it being published and he has called it a” love letter to Glasgow”. I read it as a window onto another world, in 1980s Glasgow when children roamed the streets often with empty stomachs, where boys were expected to like football and, if they were “different” they were relentlessly bullied. Sounds miserable but there is Glaswegian humour in there too and some great characters.

Sarah Akhtar

National Women's Register, Trentham

Redhead by the side of the road by Anne Tyler

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and it has all Anne Tyler’s hallmarks – brilliant observations of family dynamics, social misunderstandings amongst ordinary people leading ordinary lives. You can always identify with the feelings and tensions described which is perhaps why her books are so interesting.

The only problem for me was that it ended rather abruptly when I felt there was still so much to explore and progress further. Nevertheless a very enjoyable read even if its brevity made it seem a bit flimsy.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Having really enjoyed  H is for Hawk, I bought the above series of nature essays before Christmas. They are often very short so you can read one whilst waiting for a kettle to boil but they are beautifully written and shine a light very often on beautiful natural phenomena  and their reasons for being. Why do you get a swarm of flying ants in summer or what surprising bird activity would you find in the centre of New York? The answers are all in the book. Well worth dipping into.

Hilary Tilley

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

My husband recommends:
The Three Body Problem by: Cixin Liu
He says it’s a modern Sci -fi Classic written by a Chinese author. It won the Hugo Prize and has been endorsed by Barak Obama & Bill Gates.
It reimagines the laws of physics & applies them to the future of civilisation, space & time, but in a compelling, story-driven narrative.
K Lawrence

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

If you’re looking for an uplifting read with a truly lovable hero then try The Smallest Man, a great historical debut just out. Nat Davy, the small man of the title, is based on Sir Jeffrey Hudson, Queen Henrietta Maria’s dwarf who was immortalised in paint by Van Dyck. Nat’s mother once told him ‘Nat. You’re small on the outside. But inside you’re as big as everyone else. You show people that and you won’t go far wrong in life.’

Set against the background of the English Civil War, this is a story about being different, but not letting that hold you back. About taking a chance even when odds are against you. And about finding a courage that’s bigger than you can ever hope to be. 

This book was a pleasure to read from start to finish. And it left me smiling. I think we need a book like that right now, don’t we?

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

You’ll have to wait a little while for this one. It doesn’t publish until 8 April, but I was lucky enough to be given an advance proof and I wolfed it down!  This is a dual time-line novel moving between World War Two and contemporary Malaysia. Its about hidden secrets, long buried fears and the trauma inflicted by events decades after their occurrence. At the heart of the story is compelling daughter/grandmother relationship. Durga returns to Malaysia after ten years in Canada to visit her grandmother for Diwali. Both women are difficult, have skeletons in the closets and obstacles to overcome if they are to reach any kind of understanding either of themselves or each other.  The writing is compelling and the setting – rural Malaysia past and present – is beautifully brought to life. It covers a period of history of which I was entirely ignorant – the immediate post-war ‘Emergency’ in Malaysia. I highly recommend it.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Like many of you, I expect, I turned to Shuggie Bain after its Booker success. It’s a deserving winner, no question. It’s hard to say enough about how good this book is. Brutal, honest and occasionally harrowing, it is ultimately a story of love. Along the way though, it’s also a story about the destructiveness of drink and the life-shredding impacts of grinding poverty in modern-day Britain. I applaud Douglas Stuart, not just for winning the Booker, or writing a magnificent book, but for giving us an account of inspiring survival. Shuggie, for all the blows to his body and wounds to his heart, finds that he can still dance.  I think this is a book everyone should read. It reminds us of the qualities that make us human. You might think you’d like to turn to something cheerier in these difficult times, but that would be to miss an ultimately life-enhancing reading experience. Shuggie Bain may not be cheery, but it is, ultimately, uplifting. I’d recommend reading it alongside Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn, which gives us a similar experience, recounted from a female perspective.

 

Annie Garthwaite

Writer

Actress by Anne Enright
I enjoyed this much-praised novel, but not quite as much as I expected. As usual with Anne Enright the writing was good, and the invention in this novel was glorious – I really wanted to Google Katherine O’Dell and all the films she was in. It was cleverly constructed too. It was a good post-Christmas read.

Outline by Rachel Cusk
I’d been saving this first book of a trilogy for New Year reading, and I enjoyed it very much. The outline of the title is that of the protagonist, who tells her story through the conversations she has (when she says very little, actually) with the pretty much random people she meets on a trip to Greece to tutor a writing course. I think it is a book that will reward re-reading, and I will definitely finish the trilogy. Although the protagonist (a writer) is alone, the themes she crafts from the stories she hears as well as isolation, are about family, marriage, divorce, how we make ourselves when our previous lives implode, and of course who we are.  The mood is even, measured, in fact the protagonist seems pretty shut down, but the hints at plot are subtle, and the scenes and characters are all (within its middle-class milieu) believable. The scene in the first creative writing class taken by Faye the protagonist (we only find her name out on page 211 of 249!) I thought was hilarious, having sat through a few of these types of classes myself. Excellent.
(Also Reviewed by Mireille Juchau in the Sidney Review of Books March 24, 2015)

The Old Stones – field guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland Ed. by Andy Burnham
This was a Christmas present I have really enjoyed dipping into, looking up sites I know and finding new ones. There are short essays by academics and enthusiasts (one has a theory that Stonehenge was hung with tin mirrors and used to teach the path of the sun), good pictures for many of the sites and good descriptions for access. We are planning to walk part of the Ridgeway in early summer with friends (we can dream can’t we?) and it was good to look up sites along the way, as well as finding even more in Pembrokeshire that we haven’t visited yet. Also I now want to travel to Ireland and the Scottish Islands!

Persuasion by Jane Austen
What can I say? My go-to when I want an absorbing read and a happy ending!

Jack by Marilynne Robinson
I haven’t quite finished this yet (but having read the other three books in the series, Gilead, Home and Lila I more or less know what’s going to happen – the stories are shared), but I am enjoying this book a great deal. I found the first long section that was just a two-hander between Jack and his potential lover Delia hard to get into – they are both the children of reverends and there was a lot of protestant theology in their conversation which I think went right over my head. But once passed that you get on to the touching love story, the actual jeopardy of a mixed-race relationship in mid-century USA, and they are just likeable characters. Not quite my favourite Robinson – that is still Lila at the moment – but a great read.

My favourite Marilynne Robinson, and in fact this is always in my top ten, is Housekeeping ~ have you read it?

Christine Leaman

Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock

Here’s what may be called an eclectic collection, or otherwise a butterfly mind settling on the nearest flower!

I hate spoilers (I don’t even read the blurb on the cover) and hope you will gather my preferences from my fairly sparse descriptions.

The first three Rebus novels Ian Rankin. At last I’ve found Rebus and decided to start at the beginning which I think is essential as his back story sets his character in place for the next twenty or so books. Well-written page turners, intelligent and interesting although you need to read something else between them.

I’ve just started these, too, Philip!

The Warden and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope  are a sheer delight. Like Middlemarch, my first lengthy classic Covid read last year, these have been sitting on the shelves for years (I suspect others may have a similar experience). These are the first two of the six Barchester novels and I’m really looking forward to more stories set in and around that West country town. It’s salutary to think that these Victorian novels presuppose on the part of the reader a wide knowledge of the classics, some Latin, the Bible, Shakespeare and so on. The pleasure of reading them is, for me at least, enhanced by stopping from time to time to look things up. When those books were written, there was no television or radio to distract you!

Two Lives by William Trevor.  I first read these two novellas, Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria about thirty years ago and have always promised myself to read them again as I was so moved by them. Set respectively in rural Ireland and in Italy, they are beautifully written as are all Trevor’s stories.

The Anarchy – The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple   This is the story of the East India Company and the creation of Empire in India. A good, solid account of a subject about which most of us know something but probably less than we think. There’s much background to India before the Company arrived and plenty about the odious ‘Clive of India’.  An astonishing story which leaves you with much to think about.

How not to be Wrong – the Art of Changing Your Mind by James O’Brien. I don’t listen to LBC radio and was unaware of O’Brien until I heard him at the online Hay Festival last year. This book is a sequel to How To Be Right… in a World gone Wrong (which I haven’t read) and is a polemic against ill-informed opinion and prejudices. It’s important to recognise your own biases and to change your mind, which he has done in at least two important examples. He is strong in his views and may not be to everyone’s taste but like all good books, it makes you think.

How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by Ece Temelkuran.    This powerful book by the Turkish activist writer and journalist is a warning about how a democracy slips into autocracy and dictatorship. Using her own country as the basis for what is happening in countries such as Hungary, Poland and others where the extreme right is on the rise, including France and even the UK, is scary. Beware governments which seek to restrict the oversight of parliament and to attack the independent judiciary – who can I be thinking about?

Philip Browning

Talking about Books and Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

I read this in the weeks before Christmas with a slow reading group. Almost all of us enjoyed it and it was certainly a tonic in difficult times. Set in a department store in the 1930s, it used letters and other correspondence to tell the story of an engaged woman who decides to spend a year living independently in London before her marriage. We discover the twists and turns of her personal and professional life through this correspondence, often obliquely and sometimes abruptly.

A short and easy read, the book still manages to convey vivid detail of the time, place, people and social milieu. It’s peppered with delightful sketches by Ann Stafford, which somehow capture situations in just a few strokes. I’d strongly recommend this title to almost anyone, and it’s essential reading for readers who particularly like epistolary novels.

The Comedians by Graham Greene

I read my first Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, with the slow reading group and have meant to read another ever since. This one is somewhat similar – another male protagonist trapped in a difficult political situation – I’ve just watched the film of Our Man in Havana, which treads similar ground. However, this time the tale is set in Haiti of the 1960s and told in the first person. I think watching the film made me more aware of the humour in Greene’s writing and I noticed it more while reading (for example, a character has stood against Truman on a ‘vegetarian ticket’ and the fact that he was a [minor] Presidential Candidate recurs amusingly).

I can’t decide what it is I like about Greene’s writing. I think his style is straightforward, so you hear what he’s saying rather than noticing how he’s saying it. Here, his central character is analytical, self-aware and perceptive of others, so you get detailed insights into what’s going on. There’s an interesting thread about an American couple who have campaigned for better treatment of black people in the US and then struggle to justify the actions of people in Haiti who happen to be black – they tell our hero that he mustn’t judge people by the colour of their skin (which he doesn’t) but they’re doing it by expecting black people to be better, fairer or kinder than white people.

All in all, I think there’s a lot to interest in quite a short novel (287 pages in Vintage Classics).

Marian Newell

Talking about Books, and Slow Reading Group, Much Wenlock

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
Set in Trinidad this is a three hander. A woman, her son and their gay lodger alternate in narrating the story. It took a while to get used to the lack of punctuation (to show when it is dialogue rather than thought) and the dialect. However when I did, it was quite the page turner. I did not previously know that a third of the population of Trinidad was of Indian ethnicity and this book is culturally very rich. The description of the food is mouthwatering. A worthy Costa First Novel Winner.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Booker Prize winner for 2020. This reminded me why I am wary of over hyped books. The mother is an alcoholic and Shuggie, her youngest child , thinks it is his responsibility to help her to recover. Locked into a deprived existence on benefits in Glasgow  there is no chance. I was irritated by the inevitability of it all. It had all the misery of Angela’s Ashes without the hope of Poverty Safari.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
The stories of 5 literary women who lived in a Bloomsbury square in the years between the wars. I knew about Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf but the others were new to me. This was a fascinating insight into the lives available to educated women who sought independence and did not want to move straight from their parents’ home to a husband’s. An excellently researched companion piece to the delightful epistolary novel Business as Usual that the Much Wenlock Slow Reading Group enjoyed recently as Marian covers above.
10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
And so to Istanbul where a murdered prostitute’s mind flashes back over her life in the minutes before her brain shuts town. The story is then picked up by her 5 closest friends – a varied group. Very atmospheric depiction of the city with its smells and food and the life of its underworld in the decades up to 1990.   Shafak is a Turkish activist as well as an author and now lives in London.  I have struggled to finish her previous novels but I made it to the end with this one!
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
A  siege takes place one morning in a private liberal school in the English countryside. The Headmaster is shot in the first pages after an explosion in the grounds.  No one knows who the gunman is.  The back stories of the characters, pupils, teachers, parents and police drive the plot.  A couple of thrilling and unexpected twists maintain the tension and keep us guessing to the end.
Jenny Newton

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

I found this to be an absolutely delightful novel. Based in the summer of 1920, told by a young man back from the war, ‘nerves shot, wife gone, dead broke’. He has been hired to restore a medieval mural in a Yorkshire village church, his intention is to hide away there, immersed in his task and cut off from the world …  what happens to him during that summer, the people he meets and the relationships that develop are sensitively and insightfully described and beautifully told.
Meg Parkinson

Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

I’ve been re-reading this (for the umpteenth time*) . We also watched it on DVD last week, and the film is also excellent, with Colin Firth in one of his first major film roles – and as gorgeous as ever! The book is set in 1920, the 25-year-old protagonist has been through the hell of WW1 and has come to a village church in Yorkshire to uncover a 15th century wallpainting. Very gradually over that summer he begins to heal through encounters with local villagers (brilliant pen-portraits throughout), his fellow WW1 archaeologist, and an impossible passion for the vicar’s wife. Beautifully written, this very slim novel will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

*At the moment – ie lockdown number three (? I’ve lost count!) – I’m often returning to old favourites, cos I need their ‘known-ness’.

I think lots of us will recognise that feeling, Char!

However, I am also reading a HUGE amount of new poetry, so I haven’t lost my need for adventure!  I highly recommend Tess Jolly’s debut collection Breakfast at the Origami Cafe And here’s a link to a few of her poems.

 

Char March

Poet

The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924)

Reckoned to be one of his better but less recognised Richard Hannay tales. A bit like later Sherlock Holmes stories, Hannay is lured out of retirement but in this situation to subvert an international incident. He becomes enchanted by an archcriminal; hypnotism is involved. This enables Hannay and his wife to effect devious schemes to rescue the hostages. As usual it is well written and very readable and carries you along with some clever twists. Very much old school literature but he is of renown for a reason. 

A Country Scrap-Book by Lilias Rider Haggard (1950) 

Yes this is his daughter, his youngest child. She certainly has his way with words, too. A treatise on her rural life during the war years from 1940. Her experiences as a farmer and the farm’s place in the natural history of the area around their Norfolk farm is eloquently described. But she also comments on the implications and effects of the war. Many of these observations have amazing parallels with life now under Covid lockdown. She also introduced me to a number of old words for the likes of a group of herons (a sege) or another name for a bittern (a mire-drum). Always useful to know !  

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2019)

This was recommended by others in our reading group, so I escaped to the marshes of North Carolina. A very engaging book. It had elements of other books I have read recently – the down-on-their-luck agricultural family surviving against the circumstances. I’ve found them in Iceland, Scotland and other parts of America. This is well written and it moves along at a brisk pace once one has settled down to the leaping backwards and forwards in time. But it does work and it comes together very neatly while keeping you captivated and entranced by the main character, the Marsh Girl, Kya of whom most of the nearby village are suspicious. Gradually her family disappear and abandon her and she is left to fend for herself.  Very enjoyable and a compelling read. No wonder it has been top of the book charts currently.

 Wildwood by Roger Deakin (2008)

The author died quite young at 63 but had lived, with considerable renown, in a tumbledown Elizabethan house he bought in 1970 where he developed his rural credentials. He had a wide network of skilled and well-known friends and colleagues and he describes various visits to these experts which add to his own insights. He was at the forefront of popularising wild swimming and swam daily in his own moat which was one of the early features he renovated after purchase. The book’s focus is anything connected with wood (but very broadly). This takes us from local wood-land and work experiences, on to visiting individualistic, foreign woods in places such as Australia and Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan, where there are giant walnut tree forests and also wild apples and almonds. Even higher up are alpine meadows. These countries provided the origins of our apple trees courtesy of the Silk Road traders.  In fact the desert edge I had expected is lush and green and, although poor, it sounds delightful. He examines the craft of woodworking even down to the merits of differing grains and the varying properties of individual woods. Throughout, his descriptions are insightful and captivating.

Donald Adams

We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms

The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes (out of print)

This is Volume One of ‘The Human Predicament’ and long philosophical passages made it a difficult read. Set in 1923 between the Wars, the main character is Augustine, an unassuming, upper class young man. At the start of the book, he is wrongly accused of the murder of a child, and to escape the hostility of the local people, he travels to Germany to stay with wealthy relations.  This is the time of the Munich Putsch, when Hitler tries (then unsuccessfully) to establish the Nazi Party.  There are detailed descriptions of Hitler’s going into hiding before his capture and imprisonment. (That was when he wrote Mein Kampf apparently.) Augustine then falls in love with the blind daughter of his host and hostess, but fails to propose to her before they pack her off to a convent as they can’t think what to do with her. Meanwhile back in England, we hear the sad tale of the dead child’s family who now live near Augustine’s sister, and whose lives contrast sharply with the German relations. The only reason I would read The Wooden Shepherdess which is the next volume, would be in the hope that things became happier!  However, difficult though this book was to read, I think it had valuable things to say and probably needs to be read at least twice to be understood properly.

Too Loud a Silence by Jo Jackson

This is a local author’s first novel and I found it a Good Read.  The story takes place in Cairo in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring. It tells the story of Maha, adopted from an Egyptian orphanage as a baby, and brought up in the UK. She now wants to discover her ‘roots’, and returns as a journalist to Cairo which is in the thick of riots and violent demonstrations. Maha is befriended by various local people and discovers things in her past that both disturb and gladden her.  Back home in England, her mother decides to write her version of past events to send to her daughter, which cleverly lets the reader learn of secrets as yet unknown to Maha.  The story finishes unexpectedly, but probably realistically.

This is not currently available from Bookshop.org but you can order it directly from Susan at Pengwern Books.

Birds in a Cage by Derek Neiman

This unusual book is definitely for anyone interested in bird watching.  A very remarkable story of four young men who were all POWs during the War and who coped with all the horrors of that existence by keeping detailed records of any birds they saw.  I felt the story gained momentum as it progressed and I was especially interested to read of the future lives of these men. They went on to hold important roles in nature conservation, including the setting up of the RSPB and Operation Osprey in the north of Scotland.  I even met one of them once – ringing gannets on the Bass Rock near Edinburgh!

Sheena Bacon

Lyth Hill Book Club

Here is a list from Pat, complete with genres. Her rating system is that she recommends the three star titles.

Political  (America)

A Promised Land  by Barrack Obama  (2020) *** Wonderfully written; politically detailed.

Hell and Other Destinations  by Madeleine Albright  2020 

Biography

I love the bones of you  by Christopher Eccleston  (2019) ***

The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen  (2014) * Interesting but …

Novels based on history/ real events

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri  (2019) *** Loved this.

Those who are loved by Victoria Hislop  (2019) Disappointing.

Crime and Thrillers

Still life by  Louise Penny  2011 *** A find!  I’ll read more.

Read them in order, Pat. 1 – 20 and counting!

The Boy who fell by Jo Spain   (2014) **

In the Woods by Tana French  (2007) **

A Conspiracy of Bones by Cathy Reichs  (2020) Disappointing – too predictably formulaic.

Others

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman  2019 ** 

Wind in the Willows  Kenneth Grahame (1908) Audiobook – a female version – bit of fun!

Pat Buchanan

Talking about Books, Craven Arms

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

This is a sad story about three children trying to help their mother overcome alcoholism when she has been abandoned by her husband in the early 1980s in the East End of Glasgow. The older children try initially to help but eventually abandon the family leaving the youngest boy, Shuggie, trying desperately to help his mother. Shuggie is very fastidious and does not fit in at school either so is very much alone in his struggle. The book describes the terrible poverty that Shuggie and his mother experience. This is a first novel by Douglas Stuart who now lives in New York and it won the Booker Prize. Normally I find I do not enjoy Booker Prize winning books but I very much enjoyed this one. The Glasgow dialect was well used which may cause difficulties for non-Scottish readers sometimes. However, there were a couple of uses of vocabulary that did not ring true (“gotten” instead of “got” for example – Mr Stuart must have lived too long in New York!). 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This is a short novel about a young man living rough in a fantasy world, a giant house made up of lots of halls with giant statues and passages linking all the halls together. Inside this house there are seas with tides, birds, clouds, normal weather (or perhaps abnormal weather might be more to the point). There is initially only one other living person that the young man meets who provides him with some necessities. I cannot say that I enjoyed this book at all and would not have bothered to finish it if it had not been a present from one of my sons. I did not enjoy Susanna Clarke’s earlier novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell either. If you did then probably you would like this one as well.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Folio edition with illustrations by Shabazz Larkin and introduction by Tayari Jones)

This is a lovely edition of Maya Angelou’s earliest autobiography covering from when she was three to seventeen years old. She was born in St Louis, Missouri but sent aged three with her four year old brother alone on a train to her grandmother back in Stamps, Arkansas in the Deep South. Life with her grandmother, who ran a general store, was much more settled than with her parents. For a short period around her 8th year she was returned to her mother in St Louis but eventually was sent back to her grandmother again. At the age of fourteen she was returned to her mother who was by this time living in Oakland, California. In all the places she lived she and her family experienced racial prejudice as did all black people. Somehow she seemed to remain positive and full of hope for the future. Tayari Jones suggests in her introduction that this book is “a time capsule from a different era” in its portrait of the various black communities who brought Maya Angelou up. It certainly gave me a very vivid picture of life for a young black girl in 1930s and 1940s America. I enjoyed reading this book very much even though I had read it before many years ago.

Fiona Berryman

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
Short stories felt like a good way into reading this year, as I sort of tailed off at the end of 2020! These stories are set in post-civil war Sri Lanka and are told through the eyes of a taxi driver taking guests (business people, tourists, returned Sri Lankans) to the north and to the south of the country. Often humorous and sometimes moving, the stories give an insight into life before and after the war and ask questions about memory and remembering.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdal
Another one from my son’s uni reading list and my first graphic novel! I realise I am a words person – had to make myself look at the graphics! But I surprised myself by enjoying the author’s use of the graphic novel as a way to talk about her family, her father’s untimely death (suicide?), her own ‘coming out’ story and the gradual revelations about her father’s sexuality. All set against literary texts her father was teaching and she was reading at the time.
Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
I love Elif Shafak’s writing although I didn’t enjoy the content of this novel as much as 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World. It felt a little predictable. It tells the story of Ella, a woman in her 40s who is asked to review a book describing the meeting of the poet Rumi and the dervish, Shams of Tabriz. The  book switches between present day America and the gradual realisation of the facade that has been Ella’s life, her falling in love with the author of the novel she is reviewing, and the story of the book itself – of the meeting between Rumi and Shams. The characters and narrative of the 13th century sections drew me in a good deal more than the parallel ‘awakening’ of Ella in present day America.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
An attempt to read another ‘classic’. It was hard, hard going and took a few months to get through. And I definitely needed a more thorough knowledge of the Jacobite rebellion. How this was ever pitched as a children’s book beats me.
Kindred by Octavia E Butler
Stunning – I thought this novel was amazing.  Octavia Butler was one of the first black, science fiction writers and this was one of the most incredible books I have read which tells of the horror and inhumanity of slavery. The novel is set in the 1970s, and uses time travel to send a young African-American woman, Dana, (and on one trip her white husband), back to a plantation in Maryland in the 1800s, to witness first hand the experiences of slaves and the lives of their overseers. When Dana’s husband also travels back and has to pretend he ‘owns’ Dana, this allows for tense discussion of black-white, female-male power relationships. Science fiction as a way to bring the reality of slavery into the present is not something I have ever considered or read about. A powerful novel.
Rad

Lusaka Book Club and Silverwood Book Group

My reading time has been severely curtailed since taking on home schooling support with my four grand-children. It’s great fun (they always make me laugh) but my 6am reading is now pretty well all the time I have! As Char mentions above, I’m revisiting old favourites as well as branching out to include some I missed when they came out.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I loved this when we read it closely in the Classics Reading Group that used to meet in the bookshop (and has now been replaced by the Slow Reading Group). Both of these groups are still going and I very much enjoyed a Zoom catch up with the original group that has been reading together since 2006. Reading it this time around, I enjoyed as much or even more. Isobel Archer is a fascinating central character and her complexities are carefully explored. I thought I would try John Banville’s sequel Mrs Osmond, but gave it up as a pale imitation.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Hilary and I both loved this funny, tender and heart-warming book. Full of characters that might be described as ordinary, nevertheless their passions and foibles render them totally loveable. Their fight against the inevitability of ‘progress’ is drawn with humour at the same time as the politics of redevelopment are laid bare.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I’ve enjoyed About a Boy; Fever Pitch and High Fidelity but this one had passed me by and I loved it. Revisiting the sexual politics of the 1960s in ‘swinging’ London, from the point of view of an ambitious young woman, led to mixed feelings of how far we have come, and how far there is still to go. There is a lovely slow-burn relationship and a gentle exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, along with Hornby’s trademark pop-cultural references.

 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I didn’t do well with War and Peace back in the Classics Reading Group days but am deeply bound up in the worlds of Anna, Vronsky, Lenin and Kitty.  I’m about half way through so this is currently my 6am read! Loving it.

Anna Dreda

Wenlock Books Events

4 Comments

  1. Sarah Akhtar

    What a great selection! Interesting to read varied views on Shuggie Bain and I was also very pleased to see thoughts on short stories from Nicky because I am also a shared reading practitioner so always on the look out for good short stories to share. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Anna Dreda

      Hi Sarah, Thank you! And yes, Nicky’s contribution has got me thinking about doing a special post on short stories – they do get overlooked and can be so wonderful. Anna x

      Reply
  2. Christine Leaman

    First of all – yes, Anna, I love Housekeeping too – I haven’t read it for a while but it haunts me and I have vivid memories of some passages – which is I think unusual and I will read it again soon .
    Second – some short story ideas – Jean Rhys wrote short stories all her career – her first book was ‘The Left Bank’ – you can find those in The Collected Short Stories and my favourite later story is ‘Let them call it Jazz’. Mansfield of course, James Joyce ‘Dubliners’, Tove Jansson (of Moomins fame!) the Summer and Winter books, William Trevor, Ali Smith eg The First Person. Or a real oddity, E.M. Forster Collected Short Stories which includes ‘The Machine Stops’ which is science fiction – who’d have thought! And more contemporary ‘Pond’ by Claire Louise Bennett is great and Jessie Greengrass ‘An account of the decline of the great auk, according to one who saw it’ is brilliant …

    Reply
    • Anna Dreda

      Ooh thank you Christine – I’m definitely feeling a short story special coming on … !

      Reply

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