3

Eight Author Discoveries of 2020

Throughout this strange year, I have tried, on and off, to read books by authors I hadn’t picked up before.  Sometimes these authors were on my radar but I had been unable to find their books through my usual channels; at other times, I chose to pick up one of their books on a whim, whilst browsing in the library or on Netgalley.  I have undoubtedly read work by more than eight new-to-me authors throughout this year, but this post is comprised of those who have really stood out to me for one reason or another.

 

1. Elly Griffiths 2541526
I had seen quite a few people reading Griffiths’ books on Netgalley, but I tend to be put off by enormous series, which stretch to over ten or so books.  I have started different series in the past, but have rarely continued to the end; normally I lose patience with the characters, become disinterested in their stories, or just notice how many similarities there are from one book to another.  Of course, this is almost inevitable in a character-based series, and with a couple of notable exceptions – Miss Marple and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series – I tend to stop reading series after the first two or three books.

I have got through three of Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels to date, all of which I listened to on audio through my library’s app.  I was initially drawn to the premise – that of a Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist aiding the police whenever they discover a new body – and found the first two books rather engaging.  However, I made a mistake by listening to the third book directly after the second.  I would ordinarily have left myself a few weeks between books, but my library reserve came in, and I only had a limited amount of time to finish it.  Whilst the Ruth Galloway series may not be one which I finish – there are a lot of similarities between the second and third books, and the characters do not become any better developed, I felt – I really do enjoy Griffiths’ writing.  I am going to be hunting out her standalone novels next.

 

elizabeth_berridge_1547558f2. Elizabeth Berridge
I could hardly create such a list without including Elizabeth Berridge.  She has been on my radar for a number of years now, but I have never been able to find copies of her books when I have searched for them.  Thankfully, a couple of publishers are beginning to reprint her work, and I was able to find three further copies of her novels on the wonderful AbeBooks after reading, and loving, Across the Common, which I received for my birthday.

Berridge has been a wonderful discovery this year, and I am pleased to see that she is gaining a lot of recognition on other blogs too.  She writes wonderfully, and has such an understanding of her protagonists, many of whom are women verging on middle age, who have something to overcome before they can move forward.  Her books are always a treat, and I am going to try my best to pick up the rest of her oeuvre next year if I can manage it.

 

3. Jean Sprackland sprackland
Sprackland is a non-fiction author and poet, whose topics of choice really interest me.  I have only read These Silent Mansions to date, a musing on the English graveyards which have, in a way, shaped Sprackland’s life.  I will have a review of this up next year.  Her other non-fiction book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is high on my wishlist, obsessed as I am with the seaside.

I am also really interested in trying Sprackland’s poetry books in the near future.  Her prose in These Silent Mansions is gorgeous, and you can tell from the outset that she takes such care about her vocabulary, and the imagery which it shapes.

 

77793744. Robbie Arnott
Australian author Robbie Arnott is a real gem.  I had wanted to read his work for a year or so before I found a gorgeous hardback copy of Flames in my local library; it was every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  He uses magical realism to great effect, and his writing and characters feel so original.  I am so looking forward to picking up more of Arnott’s work in the near future, and hope that his other novel – The Rain Heron – and his short story collection will be published in the UK very soon.

 

5. Shirley Barrett 1024
Barrett is another Australian author, whose work I found out about on Savidge Reads’ YouTube channel.  Her work is strange and fantastical, but I was hooked throughout both The Bus on Thursday and Rush-Oh!, which I reviewed back in October.  The novels could not be more different on the face of it – the former is a contemporary novel which charts the journey of a schoolteacher to a remote part of Australia, and the latter is historical fiction which focuses on whale hunting – but both are so exciting.  I could not put either novel down, and can only hope that more of her work will be made easily available to me soon.

 

duncan20barrett20author20photo6. Duncan Barrett
Barrett is a non-fiction author, whose book, When the Germans Came, I found masterful.  I have always been so interested in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, and this is by far the best book which I have ever read on the topic.  Barrett follows many different residents of the island throughout, revealing their hopes and dreams and, quite often, their bravery.  His prose is engaging, and never does the book feel too crowded with different people; rather, it is accessible, and really does the subject justice.

Thankfully, Barrett is rather a prolific author.  Whilst I probably won’t be picking up his ‘GI Brides’ series of novels any time soon (or ever…), he has written a few more non-fiction books which look fascinating, ranging from the post office workers throughout the Second World War, to true stories of the women who really made a difference during this period.

 

7. Jo Baker 3796
Baker is a writer of historical fiction and, being one of my favourite genres, I have always meant to pick up her books.  I requested her newest book, The Body Lies, from Netgalley, and settled down to read it in January.  Whilst it does not fit the genre of historical fiction, and is more of a contemporary literary thriller, I was invested in the main character from beginning to end.

Baker writes beautifully, particularly with regard to the landscape and physical settings, and she handled every element of the story in The Body Lies with grace and deftness.  I have my eye on her historical fiction next; of particular interest to me are A Country Road, A Tree which is set during the Second World War, and family saga The Undertow.

 

pamela_hansford_johnson_as_a_young_woman8. Pamela Hansford Johnson
Last but not least, Hansford Johnson has been a wonderful discovery this year.  I have settled down with a couple of her novels – An Impossible Marriage (1954) and The Holiday Friend (1972) – and posted full reviews for them both.  Hansford Johnson wrote wonderful literary thrillers, which are enthralling from beginning to end.  She has such insight, and her characters feel so realistic.  Both of these novels could be termed domestic noir, and I cannot wait to dive into the remainder of her oeuvre, which is thankfully quite extensive.

 

Which are your favourite new author discoveries of 2020?

7

Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?

1

Ten Really Underrated Books

I love perusing Goodreads lists, and although I have made one or two about highly underrated books before, I thought I would pick out another ten titles from this list, entitled ‘Really, Really Underrated Books’.  Each of the books on this list, which is compiled of fiction and non-fiction, has less than 100 ratings.  I have chosen titles which have piqued my interest, and which I’d like to read soon.

 

27963181. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
‘”Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.’

 

2. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young 3875872
‘She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.’

 

1067212._sx318_3. East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia by Benson Bobrick
‘In sweep, color & grandeur, the conquest & settlement of Siberia compares with the winning of the American West. It’s the greatest pioneering story in history, uniquely combining the heroic colonization of an intractable virgin land, the ghastly dangers & high adventure of Arctic exploration, & the grimmest saga of penal servitude. 400 years of continual human striving chart its course, a drama of unremitting extremes & elemental confrontations, pitting man against nature, & man against man. East of the Sun, a work of panoramic scope, is the 1st complete account of this strange & terrible story. To most Westerners, Siberia is a vast & mysterious place. The richest resource area on the face of the earth, its land mass covers 5 million square miles-7.5% of the total land surface of the globe. From the 1st foray in 1581 across the Ural Mountains by a band of Cossack outlaws to the fall of Gorbachev, East of the Sun is history on a grand scale. With vivid immediacy, Bobrick describes the often brutal subjugation of Siberia’s aboriginal tribes & the cultures that were destroyed; the great 18th-century explorations that defined Siberia’s borders & Russia’s attempt to “extend” Siberia further with settlements in Alaska, California & Hawaii; & the transformation of Siberia into a penal colony for criminal & political exiles, an experiment more terrible than Australia’s Botany Bay. There’s the building of the stupendous Trans-Siberian Railway across 7 time zones; Siberia’s key role in the bloody aftermath of the October Revolution in 1917; & Stalin’s dreaded Gulag, which corrupted its very soil. Today, Siberia is the hope of Russia’s future, now that all her appended republic have broken away. Its story has never been more timely.’

 

4. Death in Leamington by David Smith 23499091
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.  Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Letter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.’

 

10418555. Out of the Woodshed: A Portrait of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

6. The Family Mashber by Der Nister 2376113
The Family Mashber is a protean work: a tale of a divided family and divided souls, a panoramic picture of an Eastern European town, a social satire, a kabbalistic allegory, an innovative fusion of modernist art and traditional storytelling, a tale of weird humor and mounting tragic power, embellished with a host of uncanny and fantastical figures drawn from daily life and the depths of the unconscious. Above all, the book is an account of a world in crisis (in Hebrew, mashber means crisis), torn between the competing claims of family, community, business, politics, the individual conscience, and an elusive God.  At the center of the book are three brothers: the businessman Moshe, at the height of his fortunes as the story begins, but whose luck takes a permanent turn for the worse; the religious seeker Luzi, who, for all his otherworldliness, finds himself ever more caught up in worldly affairs; and the idiot-savant Alter, whose reclusive existence is tortured by fear and sexual desire. The novel is also haunted by the enigmatic figure of Sruli Gol, a drunk, a profaner of sacred things, an outcast, who nonetheless finds his way through every door and may well hold the key to the brothers’ destinies.’

 

932597. Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau
‘In Carson McCullers: A Life, Josyane Savigneau gives us at last a truly popular biography of one of America’s greatest women novelists. Carson McCullers’s life story rivals the plot of any of her novels. A brilliant, sensitive artist who had a painful small-town childhood in the South and early international success, she was crippled by a mysterious disease in early adulthood. A woman who composed the most romantic of letters, she struggled to find lasting happiness with her husband, Reeves, whom she married twice. Carson wrote often of the loneliness of the human condiiton, and yet she surrounded herself with a constellation of witty, always entertaining celebrities: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, John Huston, and Edward Albee, among others.  The first biographer to have the full cooperation of the McCullers esate, Josyane Savigneau has uncovered the private Carson McCullers, a woman who never really grew up yet was always seductive, a woman whose candor and immense emotional needs sometimes overshadowed her great charm, generosity, loyalty, humor, and deep intelligence. Above all, Carson was a life force, a person who needed to write and who did so despite great physical pain, up until the very end. Published to rave reviews in France’

 

9780140050301-us8. A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy
‘At the height of The Troubles, Dervla Murphy cycled to Northern Ireland to try to understand the situation by speaking to people on either side of the divide. She also sought to interrogate her own opinions and emotions. As an Irishwoman and traveller who had only ever spent thirty-six hours of her forty-four years over the border to the north, why had she been so reluctant to engage with the issues? Despite her own family connections to the IRA, she travelled north largely unfettered by sectarian loyalties. Armed instead with an indefatigable curiosity, a fine ear for anecdote, an ability to stand her own at the bar and a penetrating intelligence, she navigated her way through horrifying situations, and sometimes found herself among people stiff with hate and grief. But equally, she discovered an unquenchable thirst for life and peace, a spirit that refused to die.’

 

25473286._sy475_9. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn
‘What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.   Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.   In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.’

 

10. Queen’s Folly by Elswyth Thane 8783728
‘When Queen Elizabeth I rewards an ardent courtier with an old priory in the Cotswolds for his services, it has a profound effect on him and his male descendants as they transfer their devotion to their home in this unusual and romantic novel. Follows this family from the 16th to the 20th century.’

Which of these books have you read?  Which are your favourite underrated books?

0

The Book Trail: Christmas Edition

First published in 2018.

Here is a lovely festive edition of The Book Trail.  Whilst this is not a traditional edition of the series, in that I have not used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list, it showcases eight fantastic Christmas books which I would highly recommend.  Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite Christmas book?

295026051. Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
‘For years Jeanette Winterson has loved writing a new story at Christmas time and here she brings together twelve of her brilliantly imaginative, funny and bold tales. For the Twelve Days of Christmas—a time of celebration, sharing, and giving—she offers these twelve plus one: a personal story of her own Christmas memories. These tales give the reader a portal into the spirit of the season, where time slows down and magic starts to happen. From trees with mysterious powers to a tinsel baby that talks, philosophical fairies to flying dogs, a haunted house and a disappearing train, Winterson’s innovative stories encompass the childlike and spooky wonder of Christmas. Perfect for reading by the fire with loved ones, or while traveling home for the holidays. Enjoy the season of peace and goodwill, mystery, and a little bit of magic courtesy of one of our most fearless and accomplished writers.’

 

2. The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder
‘To Georg Røed, his father is no more than a shadow, a distant memory. But then one day his grandmother discovers some pages stuffed into the lining of an old red pushchair. The pages are a letter to Georg, written just before his father died, and a story, ‘The Orange Girl’.  But ‘The Orange Girl’ is no ordinary story – it is a riddle from the past and centres around an incident in his father’s youth. One day he boarded a tram and was captivated by a beautiful girl standing in the aisle, clutching a huge paper bag of luscious-looking oranges. Suddenly the tram gave a jolt and he stumbled forward, sending the oranges flying in all directions. The girl simply hopped off the tram leaving Georg’s father with arms full of oranges. Now, from beyond the grave, he is asking his son to help him finally solve the puzzle of her identity.’

 

3. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien 7331
‘Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches.  The letters were from Father Christmas.  They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.  Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

 

4. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
‘Originally emerging from a piece written for radio, the poem was recorded by Thomas in 1952. The story is an anecdotal retelling of a Christmas from the view of a young child and is a romanticised version of Christmases past, portraying a nostalgic and simpler time. It is one of Thomas’ most popular works.’

 

99195. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
‘First published in 1956, this much sought-after autobiographical recollection of Truman Capote’s rural Alabama boyhood has become a modern-day classic. We are proud to be reprinting this warm and delicately illustrated edition of A Christmas Memory–“a tiny gem of a holiday story” (School Library Journal, starred review). Seven-year-old Buddy inaugurates the Christmas season by crying out to his cousin, Miss Sook Falk: “It’s fruitcake weather!” Thus begins an unforgettable portrait of an odd but enduring friendship between two innocent souls–one young and one old–and the memories they share of beloved holiday rituals.’

 

6. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
‘One of Andersen’s best-beloved tales, The Snow Queen is a story about the strength and endurance of childhood friendship. Gerda’s search for her playmate Kay–who was abducted by the Snow Queen and taken to her frozen palace–is brought to life in delicate and evocative illustrations.’

 

7. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 5659
‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. This Penguin Classics edition features an appendix of the letters in which Grahame first related the exploits of Toad.’

 

8. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
‘Moomins always sleep through the winter – or they did until the year Moomintroll woke up and went exploring in the silent, snow-covered valley where the river used to scuttle along and all his friends were so busy in summer.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

Historical Fiction: France

Aside from Great Britain, where I live, I have spent most time in France.  I adore the country, and have visited every year – often multiple times – since I was a child.  I am very drawn to fiction set in France, and find its historical fiction particularly rich, due to the country’s fascinating and tumultuous past.  With this in mind, I thought I would create a list of eight historical fiction books set in France which I can’t wait to read.

 

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas 7126
‘In 1815 Edmond Dantès, a young and successful merchant sailor who has just recently been granted the succession of his erstwhile captain Leclère, returns to Marseille to marry his Catalan fiancée Mercédès. Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration.’

 

181439772. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.  Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.  In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

3. The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg 22716467
‘A passionate and powerful novel based on the scandalous life of the French novelist George Sand, her famous lovers, untraditional Parisian lifestyle, and bestselling novels in Paris during the 1830s and 40s. This major departure for bestseller Berg is for readers of Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Gilbert.  George Sand was a 19th century French novelist known not only for her novels but even more for her scandalous behavior. After leaving her estranged husband, Sand moved to Paris where she wrote, wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and had love affairs with famous men and an actress named Marie. In an era of incredible artistic talent, Sand was the most famous female writer of her time. Her lovers and friends included Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and more. In a major departure, Elizabeth Berg has created a gorgeous novel about the life of George Sand, written in luminous prose, with exquisite insight into the heart and mind of a woman who was considered the most passionate and gifted genius of her time.’

 

146624. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
‘Handsome, ambitious Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble provincial origins. Soon realizing that success can only be achieved by adopting the subtle code of hypocrisy by which society operates, he begins to achieve advancement through deceit and self-interest. His triumphant career takes him into the heart of glamorous Parisian society, along the way conquering the gentle, married Madame de Rênal, and the haughty Mathilde. But then Julien commits an unexpected, devastating crime – and brings about his own downfall. The Red and the Black is a lively, satirical portrayal of French society after Waterloo, riddled with corruption, greed, and ennui, and Julien – the cold exploiter whose Machiavellian campaign is undercut by his own emotions – is one of the most intriguing characters in European literature.’

 

5. In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Hella S. Haasse 123091
‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times. ‘This novel exemplifies historical fiction at its best; the author’s meticulous research and polished style bring the medieval world into vibrant focus. Set during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the narrative creates believable human beings from the great roll of historical figures. Here are the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d’Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d’Orleans, whose loyalty to France brought him decades of captivity in England. A natural poet and scholar, his birth and rank thrust him into the center of intrigue and strife, and through his observant eyes readers enter fully into his colorful, dangerous times. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, this book has never been out of print there and has been reprinted 15 times.’

 

980496. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
‘Bestselling author Susan Vreeland returns with a vivid exploration of one of the most beloved Renoir paintings in the world.  Instantly recognizable, Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece depicts a gathering of his real friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine near Paris. A wealthy painter, an art collector, an Italian journalist, a war hero, a celebrated actress, and Renoir’s future wife, among others, share this moment of la vie moderne, a time when social constraints were loosening and Paris was healing after the Franco-Prussian War. Parisians were bursting with a desire for pleasure and a yearning to create something extraordinary out of life. Renoir shared these urges and took on this most challenging project at a time of personal crises in art and love, all the while facing issues of loyalty and the diverging styles that were tearing apart the Impressionist group. Narrated by Renoir and seven of the models and using settings in Paris and on the Seine, Vreeland illuminates the gusto, hedonism, and art of the era. With a gorgeous palette of vibrant, captivating characters, she paints their lives, loves, losses, and triumphs in a brilliant portrait of her own.’

 

7. Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd 18730321
‘From Edward Rutherfurd, the grand master of the historical novel, comes a dazzling epic about the magnificent city of Paris. Moving back and forth in time, the story unfolds through intimate and thrilling tales of self-discovery, divided loyalty, and long-kept secrets. As various characters come of age, seek their fortunes, and fall in and out of love, the novel follows nobles who claim descent from the hero of the celebrated poem The Song of Roland; a humble family that embodies the ideals of the French Revolution; a pair of brothers from the slums behind Montmartre, one of whom works on the Eiffel Tower as the other joins the underworld near the Moulin Rouge; and merchants who lose everything during the reign of Louis XV, rise again in the age of Napoleon, and help establish Paris as the great center of art and culture that it is today. With Rutherfurd’s unrivaled blend of impeccable research and narrative verve, this bold novel brings the sights, scents, and tastes of the City of Light to brilliant life.’

 

305978. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
‘This extraordinary historical novel, set in Medieval Paris under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, is the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work that gives full play to Victor Hugo’s brilliant historical imagination and his remarkable powers of description.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in France, historical or otherwise?

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A List: ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’

Am I the only one who likes to find book lists on Goodreads with quite obscure titles?  I have found some great books in the past thanks to them, and although I’m trying not to grow my enormous to-read list too much at the moment, I just couldn’t resist clicking on this list, enticingly titled ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’.  I have pulled out eight books from the list which pique my interest, and which I would like to get to soon.

 

1. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray 20660874
Easter 1955. As Lilia Sugar scrapes the ice from the inside of the windows and the rust from the locks in Sugar Hall, she knows there are pasts she cannot erase. On the very edge of the English/Welsh border, the red gardens of Sugar Hall hold a secret, and as Britain prepares for its last hanging, Lilia and her children must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten. Based on the stories of the Black Boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.’

 

242022752. Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall
Sugar Legowski-Gracia wasn’t always fat, but fat is what she is now at age seventeen. Not as fat as her mama, who is so big she hasn’t gotten out of bed in months. Not as heavy as her brother, Skunk, who has more meanness in him than fat, which is saying something. But she’s large enough to be the object of ridicule wherever she is: at the grocery store, walking down the street, at school. Sugar’s life is dictated by taking care of Mama in their run-down home—cooking, shopping, and, well, eating. A lot of eating, which Sugar hates as much as she loves.  When Sugar meets Even (not Evan—his nearly illiterate father misspelled his name on the birth certificate), she has the new experience of someone seeing her and not her body. As their unlikely friendship builds, Sugar allows herself to think about the future for the first time, a future not weighed down by her body or her mother.  Soon Sugar will have to decide whether to become the girl that Even helps her see within herself or to sink into the darkness of the skin-deep role her family and her life have created for her.’

 

3. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan 46182
‘iDEATH is a place where the sun shines a different colour every day and where people travel to the length of their dreams. Rejecting the violence and hate of the old gang at the Forgotten Works, they lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. In this book, Richard Brautigan discovers and expresses the mood of the counterculture generation.’

 

116482614. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
‘Twenty-seven-year-old Josey is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season; she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle; and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night …Until she finds her closet harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tender-hearted woman who is one part nemesis – and two parts fairy godmother …’

 

5. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper 2643182
‘Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.  Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.”  For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.  A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.  In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor’s gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.’

 

387461666. Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
‘In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. She’s released eighteen years later and finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian mountains, she goes searching for someone she left behind, but on the way, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother. Together, they try to make a fresh start, but is that even possible in a town that refuses to change?   Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a run for another life.’

 

7. A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford 15798336
‘From Britain’s beloved oldest living nanny comes a charming and uplifting memoir of a real-life Mary Poppins.  In her extraordinary memoir, Brenda Ashford shares her endearing and amusing experiences as a British nanny caring for generations of children over the past sixty-two years.  Brenda’s lifelong love for children began the minute she laid eyes on her baby brother, David. As a teenager, she applied to London’s Norland College, famous for producing top-class nannies, and, after a grueling interview, she was accepted on scholarship. It was a radical change from her idyllic country life in the village of Surrey. The training was rigorous and discipline strictly enforced, as Brenda and her classmates scrambled to pass inspections on everything from morality and neatness to needlework and pram pushing. Meanwhile, World War II began, and Brenda’s heart was broken twice. She vowed never to fall for a man again and devoted her life to caring for other people’s children, never having any of her own.  Brenda’s memoir offers readers an enticing glimpse into the joys, frustrations, adventures, and mishaps of children of all ages and situations. She peppers her story with delightful bits of cultural history and timeless life lessons. A Spoonful of Sugar is an irresistible Mary Poppins story that will touch your heart and remind you of what is truly important in life.’

 

1655378. Sugar Cage by Connie May Fowler
‘The story of the Looneys and the Jewels, two families fiercely bound to each other–as well as to the soil and sensibility of the modern South. An unforgettable tale about everyday people searching for a history and a heritage that can explain who they are.’

 

Which is your favourite book with sugar in the title?  Are you intrigued by any of the books on my list?  Have you read any of them?

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The Book Trail: From Roundabouts to Mountains

For the start of this edition of The Book Trail, I have chosen a quirky novel which I reviewed back in April, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

9780340994306

1. The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
‘Who is the Roundabout Man?  He doesn’t look like a tramp, yet he lives on a roundabout in a caravan and survives on the leftovers from a nearby motorway service station. He calls himself Quinn, the name of a boy in a world-famous series of children’s books, but he’s nearer retirement than childhood.  What he hopes no one will discover is that he’s the real Quinn, immortalised as a child by his mother in her entrancing tales about a little boy’s adventures with his triplet sisters. It is this inheritance he has successfully run away from – until now. When Quinn’s reclusive existence is invaded, he has to turn and face his past, and all the uncomfortable truths it contains about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’

 

2. The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth
‘It’s Friday in the Leeke household, but this is no ordinary Friday: the Leekes are Lancastrian Mormons and tonight they will be welcoming back their son Gary from his two-year mission in Utah. His mother, Pauline, wants his homecoming to be perfect. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be following the script.  In turn, the members of the family let us into their private thoughts and plans. There’s teenage Jeannie, wrestling with a disastrous secret; her peculiar elder brother, Julian, who’s plotting an exit according to his own warped logic; their father, Martin, dreaming of escape; and ‘golden boy’ Gary, who dreads his return. Then there’s Pauline, who needs a doctor’s help but won’t ask for it.  As the day progresses, a meltdown looms. Except that nothing goes according to anyone’s plan, and the outcome is as unexpected as it is shocking. Laced with black humour and giving an unusual insight into the Mormon way of life, this is a superbly orchestrated and arresting tale of human folly and foibles and what counts in times of crisis.’

 

3. Idiopathy by Sam Byers 16066898
Idiopathy: a novel as unexpected as its title, in which Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan—three characters you won’t forget in a hurry—unsuccessfully try to figure out how they feel about one another and how they might best live their lives in a world gone mad. Featuring a mysterious cattle epidemic, a humiliating stint in rehab, an unwanted pregnancy, a mom–turned–media personality (“Mother Courage”), and a workplace with a bio-dome housing a perfectly engineered cornfield, it is at once a scathing satire and a moving meditation on love and loneliness. With unusual verbal finesse and great humor, Sam Byers neatly skewers the tangled relationships and unhinged narcissism of a self-obsessed generation in a remarkable, uproarious first novel.’

 

4. The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen
‘A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered.  Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a masterpiece that centres on a poem given to her when she was eighteen by the elusive Professor Hunt…  But as the days pass in the city she loves and her friendship with Professor Hunt is rekindled, her memories return her to a time shadowed by loneliness, longing and quiet despair, and to an undeclared but overwhelming love. Paralysed by the fear of writing something worthless, haunted by a sense of waste, Elizabeth Stone comes to realise she is facing the biggest test of her life.  As in her acclaimed debut The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen gives an intense evocation of place, an unflinching portrayal of a character by turns comic, absurd, and disturbing, and a powerful sense of the transcendent within the ordinary. Profound and hypnotic, The Professor of Poetry devastates even as it exhilarates and echoes long after it has been closed.’

 

158144045. The Retrospective by A.B. Yehoshua
‘An aging Israeli film director has been invited to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela for a retrospective of his work. When Yair Moses and Ruth, his leading actress and longtime muse, settle into their hotel room, a painting over their bed triggers a distant memory in Moses from one of his early films: a scene that caused a rift with his brilliant but difficult screenwriter—who, as it happens, was once Ruth’s lover. Upon their return to Israel, Moses decides to travel to the south to look for his elusive former partner and propose a new collaboration. But the screenwriter demands a price for it that will have strange and lasting consequences.  A searching and original novel by one of the world’s most esteemed writers, The Retrospective is a meditation on mortality and intimacy, on the limits of memory and the struggle of artistic creation.’

 

6. Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
‘A fable of the comic-horror of modern urban existence seen through the eyes of Doctor Dolly, a woman alone in an alienating city. Dolly mounts a solitary, crazy and comic protest against warmongers and bureaucrats, adopting a son along the way.’

 

7. Homesick by Eshkol Nevo 2210309
‘This heartwarming, charming and clever first novel dips into the lives of each of the inhabitants of a village in Israel.  It is 1995 and Noa and Amir, a student couple, have decided to move in together. Noa is studying photography in Jerusalem and Amir is a psychology student in Tel Aviv. They choose a small apartment in a village in the hills, midway between the two cities.  Originally called El-Kastel, the village was emptied of its Arab inhabitants in 1948 and is now the home of Jewish immigrants from Kurdistan. Not far from the apartment lives a family grieving for their eldest son who was killed in Lebanon. The younger brother left behind, Yotam, forgotten by his parents, turns to Amir for support.  Further down the street, Saddiq watches the house while he works at a building site. He knows that this house is the one from which his family was driven by the Jews when he was a boy, and to which his mother still has a rusty key. Despite friendships that develop and lives that become entwined, tensions among this melting pot of characters seem to be rising to the surface.  This enchanting and irresistible novel offers us windows into the characters’ lives. Each comes from somewhere different but we gradually see that there’s much about them that’s the same. Homesick is a beautiful and moving story about history, love, family and the true meaning of home.’

 

8. The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev
‘Set in a small rural village prior to the creation of the State of Israel, this funny and hugely imaginative book paints an extraordinary picture of a small community of Ukrainian immigrants as they pioneer a new life in a new land over three generations. Narrated by Baruch, a grandson of one of the founding fathers of the village, this lyrical novel transcends time and place by touching on issues of universal relevance, showcasing the skill of a master storyteller who never fails to entertain.’

 

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which is the most quirky book which you have read of late?

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2

Powell’s Picks of the Month 2019

Definitely the bookshop which I am most looking forward to visiting at some point, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has a wealth of wondrous website content.  They include frequent lists of books recommended by their booksellers, and have also collated their Picks of the Month for 2019 onto one handy page (see here).  I have scrolled through this list on many occasions, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to pick ten books from it which I am very much looking forward to reading.

 

1. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz 9781984818232
When Alexandra Witt joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, she’s hoping to put a painful past behind her. Then one of her creative writing assignments generates some disturbing responses from students. Before long, Alex is immersed in an investigation of the students atop the school’s social hierarchy — and their connection to something called the Darkroom. She soon inspires the girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance. But just as the movement is gaining momentum, Alex attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her — and what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.  Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt. As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal — and potentially fatal — consequences for everyone involved.  Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale of revenge and disruption shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long — and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.’

 

97805255413322. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…  A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?’

 

3. Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson Spires 9781501168000
‘Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous — from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide — while others are devastatingly poignant — a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.   Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.’

 

97800628628534. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century — nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person — Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her. But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark — with Bertha its most notable resident.  When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys. Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.  In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide.’

 

5. McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh 9780525522768
‘Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation — he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.’

 

97815011346166. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster — and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.  Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.   Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.  Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will — lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.’

 

7. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy 9780062342461
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.  Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.  What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world — they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.’

 

97803853526808. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
‘An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel from the best-selling author, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood — bonds that show their power in surprising ways.  Helen Clapp’s breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms. Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it’s perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.   That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen’s roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything — in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen’s struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie’s as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents. But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she’s permanently, tragically gone.  As Helen is drawn back into Charlie’s orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal — a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prize–winning discovery — she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.’

 

9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews 9781635572582
Eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and over a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.  While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women–all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in–have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?  Told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of a community wrestling with its own foundational myths. For readers of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking examines the consequences of religious fundamentalism and communal isolation, and it celebrates the strength of women claiming their own power to decide.’

 

978152476313810. Becoming by Michelle Obama
‘In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America — the first African American to serve in that role — she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.  In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books on the list have piqued your interest?  Are you one of those lucky people that has been to Powell’s already?

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Most-Read Authors

I may be a little behind the times with this, but I have just noticed a tool on Goodreads which generates a list of your ‘Most-Read Authors’.  I was intrigued to see who would be at the top of mine, and so decided to click on it.

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Jacqueline Wilson

I was quite surprised, in a way, at the numbers of books which I have read by the same authors; my ‘Most-Read’ of these is Jacqueline Wilson, with 56 books on my shelf.  I adored her work when I was younger, and made sure that I saved my pocket money up to buy each of her hardbacks as soon as they were released.

 

 

Whilst my Goodreads shelves are not as comprehensive as other people’s, and certainly miss out a lot of the tomes which I read as a child and teenager, it still seems that children’s authors dominate my list.  Second on my list was Enid Blyton, with 42 books (and I am certain that I have read much more than this of her oeuvre), and third Roald Dahl, with 41 books.

Only my fourth author is one who wrote solely for adults; it is, perhaps unsurprisingly,

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Agatha Christie

Virginia Woolf, who has 38 read books on my shelves.  Fifth is Agatha Christie with 35, sixth Daphne du Maurier with 31, and seventh William Shakespeare with 26 (again, I have read many more of his plays than this).  Tove Jansson comes in eighth place with 25 books on my shelf, Carol Ann Duffy has 24, and F. Scott Fitzgerald 22.

 

I have copied part of the list out below, and will be interested to see if it changes much in the next few years.

11. Ali Smith (19)
12. Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Taylor, Lemony Snicket, Muriel Spark (16)

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Elizabeth Taylor

13. May Sinclair, Katherine Mansfield, Nina Bawden, Dick King-Smith, Janet Ahlberg (15)
14. Rudyard Kipling, Alice Hoffman, Alice Munro, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth von Arnim (14)
15. Arthur Conan Doyle, Astrid Lindgren, Oscar Wilde (13)
16. Nick Hornby, Tennessee Williams, Rumer Godden, Helen Dunmore, Sylvia Plath (12)
17. Vita Sackville-West, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, Hilary Mantel, Stephen Fry, Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, Terry Deary (11)
18. Kate Atkinson, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Louise Rennison, Colette, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Atwood (10)
19. Irene Nemirovsky, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Susan Hill, A. A. Milne,

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Catherynne M. Valente, Anita Brookner, E.M. Delafield, Shirley Jackson, Judith Kerr, Marjane Satrapi, Winifred Holtby (9)

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A. A. Milne

20. Willa Cather, Alan Bradley, Carol Shields, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Carson McCullers, Lewis Carroll (8)

 

 

Who are your most read authors?  Do we have any in common?

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The Book Trail: From ‘Oystercatchers’ to ‘Fred & Edie’

This Book Trail begins with Susan Fletcher’s fantastic Oystercatchers, and, as ever with this series, uses the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to show seven other interesting books.

1. Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher 1925785
This is the second novel from highly acclaimed young writer Susan Fletcher, author of the award-winning “Eve Green”. Amy lies in a coma. Her older sister, Moira, comes to her in the evenings, sits beside her in a green-walled hospital room. Here, Moira confesses. She admits to her childhood selfishness which deeply hurt her family and to the self-imposed exile from the dramatic Welsh coast that had dominated and captivated her childhood; to her savagery at boarding school; to the wild, bitter and destructive heart that she carried into her adult life. Moira knows this: that she’s been a poor daughter, and a deceptive wife. But it is as Amy lies half-dying that she sees the real truth: she’s been a cruel sister, and it is this cruelty that has led them both here, to this hospital bed. A novel about trust, loss and loneliness, “Oystercatchers” is a love story with a profound darkness at its core.

 

2. The Glass House by Sophie Cooke
Following her expulsion from a private boarding school Vanessa, the middle child in a family of three daughters, returns home to the Southern Highlands to attend the local comprehensive. With both of her sisters away at school and her father working abroad this should be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her glamorous, autocratic mother. But instead of the idyllic life Vanessa craves she is dragged into a nightmarish world of secrets and abuse, violence and betrayal, and watches in horror as her mother self destructs in front of her. Only Alan, a childhood friend, offers Vanessa an escape from her unhappy life but will Vanessa find the strength to confide the secrets she has buried deep within her?

 

7694463. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
Returning to Manchester, her broken home, Esther moves back to the flat she used to share with her best friend Donna. Surrounded by empty gin bottles, with her past life safely taped up in stacked cardboard boxes, she proceeds to turn her back on a ‘real world’ that seems meaningless and absurd. Instead she lives in her own head. Then she meets Newton, a care-worn American wanderer with a drinker’s face and an angel’s smile. Newton changes everything. But for how long?

 

4. All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street clinic, where he had met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early.  Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life …  Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, All the Beggars Riding is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past just as she realises that the time to get any sort of answers is running out.

 

5. The China Factory by Mary Costello 13636433
An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.  Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.  What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.

 

6. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.

 

16225427. The White Family by Maggie Gee
When Alfred White, patriarch of the White family, collapses at work, his wife, May, and their three disparate children find themselves confronting issues they would rather ignore. Maggie Gee skillfully weaves a narrative that reminds us that racism not only devastates the lives of its victims, but also those of its perpetrators.

 

8. Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson
In the winter of 1922 Edith Thompson and her younger lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s boorish husband. The two lovers were executed in a whirl of publicity in 1923. The case caused a sensation, a crime of passion that gripped the nation’s imagination and became the raw material for Jill Dawson’s sensual and captivating novel Fred and Edie, a fictional account of the lovers’ romance and their subsequent trial, predominantly told through Edie’s imaginary letters addressed to her lover, “Darlint Freddie”. This is a remarkable novel, that brilliantly evokes the suburban world of 1920s London (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the same year as the trial, runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel). Edie, viewed from the public gallery as “silly, vain” is a superb literary creation–sensual, intelligent, articulate and liberated, bitterly denouncing in her letters to Freddy a world that denies “that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences that matter“.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?