4

‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson ****

Brad Watson’s novel, Miss Jane, has been on my to-read list for years, and at last, I spotted a beautifully designed hardback copy in my local library. I am always drawn to female-focused novels, particularly those which follow the protagonist throughout her life. Miss Jane, which is set in Mississippi during the twentieth century, and based on the true story of Watson’s own great aunt, does just this.

The Independent calls the novel ‘superb’, The Guardian ‘subtle and moving’, and author A.M. Homes compares Watson to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor – an interesting mix indeed. Safe to say, I was suitably intrigued, and looking forward to forming my own thoughts about the novel.

Miss Jane is Jane Chisholm, born in rural east-central Mississippi in 1915. The urological disorder which the doctor discovers when she is just moments old, is seen as a ‘birth defect’, and ‘will come to stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage.’ There are, of course, no medical treatments which Jane is able to benefit from, until very late in her life. The novel ‘brings to life a hard, unromantic past in a story tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty’.

The opening scene immediately gives one a feel for Watson’s precise writing, and his understanding of what it must be like to deal with such a condition without medical intervention: ‘You would not think someone so conflicted could or would be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries. Early on she acquired ways of dealing with her life, with life in general. And as she grew older it became evident that she feared almost nothing – perhaps only horses and something she couldn’t quite name, a strange presence of danger not quite – not really a part of the world.’

We then move back in time, to Jane’s birth. Watson writes rather matter-of-factly about the discovery of Jane’s condition: ‘[The doctor] snipped the cord, and took a good look at the child, who’d come around to crying a bit. He didn’t say anything. He looked at the midwife. She stared through narrowed eyes but kept her lips pressed thin.’ The doctor then tells Jane’s father: ‘”… she’s just a girl who did not fully develop. Something stopped that in the womb… It’s rare, but at this point I do not think it’s life-threatening.”‘

We see, from very early on, that Jane has a real strength of character, and that she does not let anything hold her back. Watson comments: ‘She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly.’ On the face of it, her surroundings seem idyllic, but Watson does not shy away from the fact that such a rural life is hard, and fraught with problems – with accidents, with violence, with alcoholism. Her family life can be difficult; her mother is very strict, her father rather dependent on alcohol, her elder sister Grace is difficult, and two siblings died before she was born. She is intelligent, but only attends school for a very short time.

As she begins to come to terms with the way in which she is different to other children, in her sixth year, she ‘had moments where she felt like a secret, silent creation, invisible, more the ghost of something unknowable than a person, a child, a little girl.’ She continually asks questions about what she can expect from life, and her natural curiosity shines throughout. Her main confidante is Ed, the doctor who delivered her; he becomes a sort of mentor to her, and corresponds with other colleagues about her condition, and how it can be managed.

Miss Jane is a rich and complex character portrait, of a woman who learns to live with her condition, and all of the challenges which it brings. I liked the emphasis of Jane’s many character quirks; for instance, Watson writes that ‘Between the ages of four and five, she began to make sure she was the last to sleep. It made her feel safer to be the last one awake, watching and listening to the world settle into the evening quiet and dark. The steady breathing, snoring, sleep-mumbling of the others made her feel more awake and alive, and that was a kind of safeness, too.’ As she grows older, Watson has crafted many scenes which deal with Jane discovering sex, and sensuality; she is an observer, first of the animals around the farm, and then becoming something of a voyeur.

The omniscient perspective in Miss Jane has been really well crafted, and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of this novel. One really gets a feel for the family dynamics, and for Jane’s independence, very early on. Whilst the focus is on Jane, we do learn about those around her too, not just those close to her, but also sharecroppers on the family’s land, for instance. The historical detail does not overwhelm, but does enough to situate the whole. I found it particularly fascinating to read about medical options changing across Jane’s lifetime, and the way in which others viewed her disability.

Miss Jane is a sensitive novel, but at no point does it become sentimental. Watson has the capacity to be unflinching, but a sense of real understanding suffuses the whole. Jane feels realistic, and is a character I will not be forgetting in a hurry.

4

‘The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin’ by Éric Faye (20 Books of Summer #1)

Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.

The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.

This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?

The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.

Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.

“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.

Location 905 (Kindle version)

Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.

Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.

This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

2

‘Call of the Curlew’ by Elizabeth Brooks ****

Elizabeth Brooks’ novel, Call of the Curlew (also published as The Orphan of Salt Winds), caught my eye whilst browsing in the library. I don’t think I had heard of it before, but after reading the blurb and the various reviews dotted over its cover – Eowyn Ivey calling it ‘bewitching’ was enough for me – I was suitably intrigued, and took it home with me.

On New Year’s Eve in 1939, Virginia is ten years old. She is an orphan, whose parents passed away when she was just an infant. At this point in time, she is being taken to the ‘mysterious’ grand house, Salt Winds, to begin a new life with her adoptive parents, Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. The house borders a salt flat named Tollbury Marsh in the East of England, a ‘beautiful but dangerous place’.

At first, the Second World War, which has just begun, feels far away from the Wrathmells’ secluded home. However, whispers in the nearby town regarding the local knife grinder, a Jewish German man, begin to spread, and something sinister simmers below the idyllic surroundings. The German plane crashing into the marsh is a real turning point for Virginia; her adoptive father goes to rescue the pilot and does not return. As she first waits hopefully for his return, and then begins to grieve Clem, she realises that she is as embroiled in war as anyone else.

When the plane comes down, Brooks writes, rather beautifully: ‘It was the grace of the thing that astonished her in retrospect. You’d expect a burning fighter plane to make a great hullabaloo: howling engines, roaring flames, a great boom as it hit the ground, nose first. But if this one made any noise at all, Virginia didn’t notice. All she recalled, later on, was the slow arc it traced through the sky on its way down, like a spark floating from a bonfire. Even the explosion was gentle from their vantage point: a little orange flower that budded, bloomed and withered, all in a moment, far away on the edge of the marsh.’

I found the narrative within Call of the Curlew wonderfully beguiling. The opening paragraph, which is set at the end of 2015, really sets the scene: ‘Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence and adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eighty-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.’ This sign turns out to be the skull of a curlew, which she finds on her doorstep. ‘All these years,’ Brooks writes, ‘she’s been wondering what the sign will turn out to be, and she’s come up with the strangest ideas. Words forming on a misted window. An anonymous note. A ghost. She’s never imagined anything as perfect as a curlew’s skull.’

Despite the air of mystery about it, there is a really comforting warmth to be found within Brooks’ prose. The descriptions, of which there are many, are wonderfully vivid: ‘Virginia glanced at the flatness to her left, where the silence lay. It was too dark to see the silhouette-bird now. The deep, arctic blue of the sky was reflected, here and there, in streaks of water, and there was a single star in the sky, but everything was black.’

Brooks has such control when she shifts Virginia’s story from the present day to the past, and then back again. Given this structure, we learn a lot about the two Virginias rather quickly; the sometimes crotchety, headstrong old lady, and the curious young girl. Although Virginia is the author’s focus, other characters become clear too, as do their relationships with one another. It is obvious from the outset, for instance, that Clem and Lorna’s marriage contains a great deal of upset, and is fraught with issues.

I found Call of the Curlew wholly absorbing; it is the best kind of historical novel, in that you sink into it. Its landscape is so clear, and its characters hold a great deal of interest. I enjoyed the omniscient perspective, which allowed Brooks to shift from one individual to another, whilst never losing sight of Virginia and her thoughts and feelings. I loved the air of mystery, and the many things left unspoken until far later in the novel. I was caught up in Virginia’s story from the outset. The threads of story which weave throughout have been beautifully layered, and it put me in mind of other authors which I have always enjoyed, namely Kate Morton and Helen Humphreys. I would highly recommend Call of the Curlew to anyone looking for a historical fiction fix.

5

Eight Great Audiobooks

I had sampled the odd audiobook in the past, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I began to listen to them regularly. I am fortunate that my local library offers a great deal of titles for free on the BorrowBox app, and although this is the sole resource which I personally use for audiobooks, I know that many people pay for subscriptions to the likes of Audible and Scribd.

I haven’t reviewed any of the books which I came to on audio, but the following eight were standouts to me last year. I loved the narration and delivery for the mostpart, and also the way in which I was able to immerse myself in so many titles which I otherwise would not have been able to find very easily. I would highly recommend that if you are interested in the following books, you should try and find the audio version. However, I’m sure they would be just as good on the page too!

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty.

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?

Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.” Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.’

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore
‘With an abandoned degree behind her and a thirtieth birthday approaching, amateur writer Bonnie Falls moves out of her parents’ home into a nearby flat. Her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest in Bonnie, encouraging her to finish one of her stories, in which a young woman moves to the seaside, where she comes under strange influences. As summer approaches, Sylvia suggests to Bonnie that, as neither of them has anyone else to go on holiday with, they should go away together – to the seaside, perhaps.

The new novel from the author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse is a tense and moreish confection of semiotics, suggestibility and creative writing with real psychological depth and, in Bonnie Falls and Sylvia Slythe, two unforgettable characters.’

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran-Foer
‘Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.

So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation–that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust–Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
‘Rachel Caine is a zoologist working in Nez Perce, Idaho, as part of a wolf recovery project. She spends her days, and often nights, tracking the every move of a wild wolf pack—their size, their behavior, their howl patterns. It is a fairly solitary existence, but Rachel is content.

When she receives a call from the wealthy and mysterious Earl of Annerdale, who is interested in reintroducing the grey wolf to Northern England, Rachel agrees to a meeting. She is certain she wants no part of this project, but the Earl’s estate is close to the village where Rachel grew up, and where her aging mother now lives in a care facility. It has been far too long since Rachel has gone home, and so she returns to face the ghosts of her past.

The Wolf Border is a breathtaking story about the frontier of the human spirit, from one of the most celebrated young writers working today.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase
‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found. The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece . . .

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
‘Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut H is for Hawk brought the astonishing story of her relationship with goshawk Mabel to global critical acclaim and announced Macdonald as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, launching poet and falconer Macdonald as our preeminent nature essayist, with a semi-regular column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.’

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
‘At twenty-five years old, Anna Wiener was beginning to tire of her assistant job in New York publishing. There was no room to grow, and the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. Within a year she had moved to San Francisco to take up a job at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley. Leaving her business casual skirts and shirts in the wardrobe, she began working in company-branded T-shirts and hoodies. She had a healthy income for the first time in her life. She felt like part of the future.

But a tide was beginning to turn. People were speaking of tech start-ups as surveillance companies. Out of sixty employees, only eight of her colleagues were women. Casual sexism was rife. Sexual harassment cases were proliferating. And soon, like everyone else, she was addicted to the internet, refreshing the news, refreshing social media, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Slowly, she began to realise that her blind faith in ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs wasn’t just her own personal pathology. It had become a global affliction.

Uncanny Valley is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our world is changing for ever.’

Have you read, or listened to, any of these books? Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which is your favourite?

2

‘Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other’ by James Aldred ****

The quite excellent naturalist Helen Macdonald, whose two books to date rank amongst my favourite nature books, calls James Aldred’s Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other ‘magical and transporting’. If I wasn’t already fascinated in Aldred’s subject – the goshawk – Macdonald’s quote alone would have drawn me to pick this up.

Aldred is the author of one previous book, entitled The Man Who Climbs Trees, and has worked as a wildlife cameraman and documentary filmmaker since 1997. He has worked with the likes of the legendary David Attenborough, and has won awards for his work. As one would expect, for a filmmaker skilled particularly in filming from heights using aerial equipment, Aldred has worked all over the world. In early 2020, he was located in East Africa following a family of cheetahs.

Then, Covid spread, and lockdown happened in Britain. Aldred was granted a special dispensation to film, and spent much of the first period of lockdown in the south of England’s New Forest, following a pair of goshawks as they hatched three chicks. Aldred was often the only one in the woods; this, he says, gave him ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to keep filming’. He stationed himself in a treetop hide between April and June, filming the goshawks: ‘From up here the wood became a three-dimensional landscape of dense foliage and distant glimpses. The understorey below was an open colonnade of vertical trunks, but level with the nest the branches closed in and I saw corridors of approach that remained invisible from the ground. A labyrinth of shifting parallax. For a predatory bird able to curl, tuck and swerve through the smallest of gaps, that discreet canopy would be paradise.’

Goshawks are unpredictable birds; it can be incredibly difficult to locate them, as they do not like to be seen. Aldred comments: ‘Some are skittish; others brazen. Some like low and stay put; others slope off the nest and melt away the moment anyone steps foot in their wood.’ They more often than not nest in the same place, returning year after year; they can use the same physical nest for up to a decade.

Alongside his documentary filming, Aldred decided to keep a written record – a field diary – about his experiences. He spent an extended stretch of time in a place so devoid of people, but filled to the brim with different species, some of them rare. He writes, early on, ‘Amidst the fragility and the fear, there was silver moonlight, tumbling fox cubs, calling curlew and, of course, the searing goshawks.’ This record became Goshawk Summer. Goshawks are, of course, the focus – both of the book and of his documentary – but he also writes about other species which he comes across: foxes, curlews, pipits, and pine martens, to name but four.

The New Forest is a place which Aldred knows intimately. He speaks, very early on, of his deep affection for the region: ‘To this day, part of my heart remains in the forest, dwelling in the quiet rides and woods of my childhood. Even the smell of the place stirs deep currents of longing within me.’ Later, he discusses that although he knows stretches of the woods as well as he can, and has such good memories of cooking stews with his friends, and sleeping outside as a teenager, there are other parts of the New Forest which he knows not at all.

I was struck throughout by the power and visceral beauty of Aldred’s prose. He writes almost like a poet, placing such emphasis on using precise and beautiful vocabulary. Goshawk Summer begins in the following, quite breathtaking way: ‘A loud call shatters the peace. Not the blunt mewing of a buzzard, but the piercing cry of something infinitely more predatory: a wild goshawk. It echoes through the woods around me. Strident, commanding, forceful. A regal sound for a regal bird.’ He continues: ‘The goshawk. Steel grey, the colour of chainmail. Sharp as a sword. A medieval bird for a medieval forest. A timeless scene.’ Throughout, Aldred is highly adapted to, and aware of, his surroundings – whatever they may be.

There is something so meditative about nature memoirs written during, or since, lockdown. Goshawk Summer is no different; in fact, I would go as far to say that it is the most thoughtful one which I have read to date. Along with showing joy at the way in which nature flourished in the New Forest during the first lockdown – ‘Nature’s been given the space to unfurl her wings and they are shimmering’ – Aldred laments about the behaviour of many people when the first restrictions were lifted, destroying fragile habitats, and leaving the national park strewn with litter. The pandemic is never far away from his commentary, but he finds solace in the natural world, and having a focus during what was an incredibly strange and difficult time.

I highly appreciated the opportunity which Goshawk Summer gave me; to read a book from a perspective which I haven’t been immersed within to this extent before. I love watching documentaries about wildlife cameramen, and I am in awe at the sheer amount of time and patience which it takes to film just one or two scenes. Often, though, these are relative snippets which have been tacked onto a longer documentary. Being able to read Aldred’s expansive work, and his musings about his own filming, is a privilege. I found it fascinating to learn about the many preparations which he has to make before he even begins to film, such as locating a suitable filming site, whilst having a constant awareness of others close by in case something goes wrong. It is a much more intricate process than one expects.

Goshawk Summer is such a valuable addition to the canon of nature writing. Aldred has an excellent attention to detail, and I can only hope that he brings out another book very soon. This expansive and honest memoir, from a markedly different perspective, is sure to be of interest to so many readers, and I cannot recommend it enough.

4

‘Blaming’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

Elizabeth Taylor has been one of my favourite authors for years, but I am trying to space out the few remaining books of her oeuvre which I’ve not yet got to. I selected one of her later novels, 1992’s Blaming, to purchase when placing a small secondhand book order, and it took only a matter of days before I picked it up and began to read.

The Virago edition which I read is introduced by the writer Jonathan Keates, and has a rather touching afterward written by Taylor’s daughter, Joanna Kingham. Keates quite rightly sings her praises throughout, noting that ‘… at her finest she has an unrivalled grasp of the complex workings of even the most banal emotion, highlighting the potential poignancy within the sometimes enormous space which lies between a feeling and an expression.’ He goes on to say that ‘Taylor was always more of a modernist than anyone gave her credit for, and the apparently boneless quality of many of her novels… seems designed to compel us to home in on those crises of apprehension and interpretation between characters which form the real focus of her creative interest.’

The protagonist of Blaming is ‘comfortable middle-aged, middle-class’ woman named Amy Henderson, who is left stranded in Istanbul when her husband unexpectedly dies during a cruise. A young American novelist named Martha Larkin tries to befriend her and takes charge, but upon their return to London, where both women live, ‘Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship’. She is aware that under normal circumstances, she and Martha would not be friends, and takes this as the main reason to be standoffish and aloof. However, warns the novel’s blurb, ‘guilt is a hard taskmaster and Martha has a way of getting under one’s skin…’.

At the outset of the novel, we met Amy and her husband Nick as they are visiting the Acropolis. They have visited several stops already on their cruise, which was booked to aid Nick in convalescing from surgery. We are given an immediate insight into their quite complex relationship. Taylor writes, as Nick fails to return to the tour bus on time: ‘Ordinarily, she would have nagged; now, she merely pointed out that their doctor would not have approved of his standing about so long and then having to make a mad dash… Always at the mention of his illness his expression was uneasy. He would look at her closely, as if she were behind a case in a museum; he examined her once carefully and then, as if he would come to no conclusion, would sigh and turn away.’

Nick passes away during the night. The next morning, Amy is found sitting by the purser’s office, ‘surrounded by luggage, waiting to be taken ashore, exposed to everyone who must file by her as they came aboard. The passengers hastened past her in a shocked silence. She sat very still and rigid, as if disapproving something, or offended. She wore a shady hat, sun-glasses, and – strangely – a pair of white cotton gloves. It was as if she were trying to cover as much of herself as possible.’

All of the characters within Blaming, but particularly the heroines of the piece, are complicated, and have been thoroughly explored. Taylor is impressively shrewd about relationships, many of which prove rather difficult ones.

As ever in Taylor’s work, Blaming is filled with so many well-observed details. When Amy arrives home, for instance, she shies away from human connection. Taylor writes: ‘So many tears, so many dabbings with soaking handkerchiefs, had made her face red and shiny. All the same she had a rather unsuitable glow about her from foreign sun.’ Taylor almost personifies Amy’s loneliness following her shift into widowhood, and recognises so many things which will forever be different now that her circumstances have changed.

There is a brooding atmosphere throughout Blaming, and it feels quintessentially Taylor. I must admit that although I am generally very taken with her protagonists, and root for them throughout, I did not warm to Amy, and do not feel as though I formed much of a connection with her. This is not at all to the detriment of the novel, though. Everything about it feels wholly realistic, and Taylor’s characters are wonderfully drawn.

Reading a Taylor novel for the first time is a real treat, and Blaming is no exception. This characteristically perceptive book does have an extra sadness to it; Taylor was aware that she had terminal cancer whilst she was writing what was to be her last novel, and passed away before it was published.

There is a great deal in the novel about reckoning with one’s own mortality, as well as the bereavement process; this is perhaps reflective of where Taylor was in her own life at this point. There are, though, some moments of amusement in Blaming, which do not balance the sadness of the whole, but provide a little light relief.

6

The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

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‘The Travelers’ by Regina Porter ****

Regina Porter’s sweeping debut novel, The Travelers, was recommended to me by the wonderful Storygraph website. For those readers who have yet to check it out, I would highly recommend it. You can important existing reading lists, and the recommendations are tailored specifically to you; basically, it weeds out a lot of the generic fiction which Goodreads seems to proffer, and allows you to come across titles which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. The Travelers was such a title for me.

Porter has blended together a history of the United States, which ranges from the middle of the twentieth century, to President Obama’s first year in office. It illuminates more than six decades of tumult and change on a grand scale, moving from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and beyond. Porter incorporates several US states – New York, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee – as well as the likes of France and Germany. Her focus is two families, who seem rather different on the face of it, and who come together in ‘unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways’.

The first character we meet is Jimmy Vincent; Porter moves rather hurriedly through the momentous occasions in his life. As the novel progresses, we meet one character after another in this way, and learn more about them when their paths cross. The links between them come to light slowly at times, and quickly at others; some are self-explanatory, and others are rather surprising. The connections forged are many, and clever.

Each of the characters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the novel’s title, undergoes travel in some way; sometimes across continents, and at others just to a house in the same town they grew up in, or from one relationship to another. They move towards, and away from things. Porter effortlessly captures how each individual, as well as the places which they inhabit, change over time, and understands so well how different neighbourhoods and communities can so easily become gentrified.

Much is revealed about each of the protagonists; for instance, in 1966, we meet nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller. Porter writes: ‘Agnes’s legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter if Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.’ The first tense moment in the novel – and there are many which follow it – occurs when Agnes and her fiancé, Claude, are stopped by police whilst driving.

Porter’s prose is rather more matter-of-fact than I was expecting, but her style works wonderfully given the scope of the novel. She has managed to fit in an astonishing amount in just over 300 pages. Two elements of her writing which I very much enjoyed are the use of vignettes, and the differing perspectives which she creates. Whilst we hear from a few characters in the first person, an omniscient narrative has been chosen for others. This helps to break up the writing, and stops any of the characters from feeling too similar, as can so often happen in books featuring multiple perspectives. The structure is not a linear one either, and moves back and forth in time, which allows Porter to build up the more mysterious elements of the stories with a great deal of tension and wonder.

That The Travelers is infused with melancholy seems obvious, given that Porter covers a lot of difficult and grave topics here – the aftermath of war, grieving, racial issues, and the breakdown of relationships, for instance – but there are also some amusing and lighthearted moments to be found. There is also a great deal of emotion within the pages of The Travelers, and some passages which will stay with me for a long time yet: ‘Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from hr childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.’

First published in 2019, The Travelers is a remarkable debut. The different threads of story, set in different locations and time periods, which run through the whole, have been wonderfully wrapped up at the end, without rushing, or making unrealistic claims. There is such variety here, and so much for the reader to enjoy. The characters are distinctive, and everything within the novel has been executed admirably. Each time period is well anchored, with a lot of specific social and societal detail. I found The Travelers to be wonderfully absorbing, and transporting.