1. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec
During her 30s, Klinec decided to abandon her corporate job in order to pursue a career in the culinary arts, launching a cooking school from her London kitchen. This led her to travel to Iran, to learn how to cook traditional food in a Persian home. Vahid, the son of the woman she has been invited to stay with, seems prickly and standoffish at first, but they soon fall in love with one another. What ensues is much fascinating commentary on the melding of two very different cultures and customs, and I found it highly insightful.
2. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden This is rather an old-fashioned books in some respects, telling the story of a young ‘diddakoi’, or half gypsy girl. I have read quite a few of Godden’s books in the past, and plan to revisit them all at some point. It was lovely to be able to pick up something ‘new’, even though my library reservation came with rather a garish 1970s front cover. The Diddakoi is well plotted, and incredibly heartwarming.
3. The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee I had not heard of Magda Hellinger’s story before spotting a copy in the library. Written by her daughter, Maya Lee, The Nazis Knew My Name tells the true story of an incredibly brave woman, who put herself in danger to help others around her when she was forcibly taken to various concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is a privilege to read Holocaust memoirs, and I found Hellinger’s memories incredibly moving.
4. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui I am seemingly obsessed with swimming; I love to watch it at championships and Olympics when I get the chance, I love to swim myself, and I have already reviewed a couple of swimming-focused books in the past. I really admired the structure which Tsui adopts here, in a book which melds together history and memoir. Why We Swim is fascinating, readable, and I felt as though I learnt a great deal.
5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander The Light of the World is a memoir centered around the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. She is left with two young boys, not knowing how to go on without him, or whether to abandon any of the plans the pair made. Here, Alexander captures the essence of their loving relationship, from their early days, to their marriage of fifteen years, and the enormous task of trying to pick herself back up after his death. As The Light of the World has been penned by a poet, one should not be surprised that the prose is beautiful, and incredibly moving.
Assembly by Natasha Brown At just over 100 pages long, one might be forgiven for thinking that Natasha Brown’s debut novella, Assembly, does not tackle much. Focusing on a young, Black, female protagonist working a high-level London job in the finance industry after graduating from a top University, Assembly explores so many issues around identity, the inner self, race, societal expectations, and trying to cope with living in our frantic world. I loved the structure, which is made up of many vignettes, and enjoyed Brown’s sharp descriptions. There is a real depth and intensity to Assembly. It is exciting modern fiction, and I very much look forward to what Brown writes in future.
Today, I have gathered together ten books which I read quite some time ago, but which I rarely see written or spoken about. The books here are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different periods. I wanted to bring a little more attention to these quite excellent tomes, and really hope that you find something which takes your fancy.
1. Basil and Josephine by F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘Basil and Josephine charts the coming of age of two privileged youths from quiet Midwestern towns, Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry – based on Fitzgerald himself and a combination of his first love Ginevra King and his wife Zelda. As one struggles to gain the acceptance of his peers and becomes consumed by ambition, the other finds herself obsessed by teenage crushes and has to confront the pitfalls of popularity.
Written for the Saturday Evening Post while the author was working on Tender Is the Night, these stories form a realistic and entertaining portrait of two young adults in the 1910s, fascinating both for the autobiographical insights they provide and the timeless satire that Fitzgerald’s fiction has become synonymous with.’
2. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi
‘Mad, bad and sad. From the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. From Freud and Jung and the radical breakthroughs of psychoanalysis to Lacan’s construction of a modern movement and the new women-centred therapies. This is the story of how we have understood mental disorders and extreme states of mind in women over the last two hundred years and how we conceive of them today, when more and more of our inner life and emotions have become a matter for medics and therapists.’
3. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin
‘A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with.’
4. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison
I chose Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather to read during my final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. It is truly lovely; within its pages, Harrison takes four countryside walks around various parts of England, and in different seasons. Her writing is lovely, and she makes the most of discussing the ways in which rain affects particular landscapes, and how the animals which live within them have adapted – or not, as the case may be. Rain is geographically, geologically, historically, and biologically interesting, and provides several nods to works of literature throughout. Charming, thought-provoking, and lovely, particularly when one considers it in tandem with its glossary, which provides one hundred words for different kinds of rain around the United Kingdom.
5. The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane
‘What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on at six.
So begins “Mycenae,” a story in The High Places, Fiona McFarlane’s first story collection. Her stories skip across continents, eras, and genres to chart the borderlands of emotional life. In “Mycenae,” she describes a middle-aged couple’s disastrous vacation with old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist lives on a small island with only a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. Each story explores what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery and manners.” The collection dissects the feelings–longing, contempt, love, fear–that animate our existence and hints at a reality beyond the smallness of our lives.
Salon‘s Laura Miller called McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent, a debut collection that reads like the selected works of a literary great.’
6. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden
‘It is 1953 and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen and their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor. Then the past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat, a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assulting her, and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat’s indiscretions but from the girls themselves.’
7. Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton
‘Happily married for thirty years with three children that have long since grown up, Christopher Mainwaring finds himself at a total loss following the death of his beloved wife, Susan. Yet the joyful marriage he remembers may not have been all it seemed, for no one in the family knows of the troubling words his wife uttered to him from her death bed . . .
Alluding to a possible affair that took place many years ago with a close family friend, the grieving widower is haunted by visions of Susan’s infidelity and seeks to find out the truth. In his quest to unearth his wife’s potential duplicity, Christopher finds himself looking to his children’s complex lives for answers: Joy who is now married with children and concerns of her own, the professionally inept but kind-hearted Frank and his neurotic wife Rachel, and Derek, whose delusions of grandeur with his struggling business causes much distress for his long-suffering wife, Olivia.
Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton provides universal reflections and intimate insights into the dynamics of family life with a startling clarity that will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.’
8. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
‘The 52 micro-memoirs in the genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life. They build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer, and deeply original observer of life’s challenges and joys. Some pieces are wistful, some poignant, and many of them reveal the humor buried below the surface of everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments, and awakens us to these moments as they appear in the margins of our lives.’
I had not heard of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling before, but stumbled across it on my online library catalogue and borrowed it immediately. I love fragmented memoirs, and this is a particularly interesting one. Through each of these ‘micro-memoirs’, Fennelly reveals herself little by little. The entries are amusing, and sometimes quite touching; Fennelly’s approach is fresh and enjoyable. There is such depth and consideration to the writing, and I will definitely be looking out for Fennelly’s books in future.
9. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber
‘In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic, candid and true, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time, is mention, to whoever cares to listen, that a woman once existed, who was kind and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget how the world was altered, beyond recognition, when we met.‘
10. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
‘On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.
Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster*!
Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?
The first book from a new leading light of UK comics, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an off-beat fable worthy of Roald Dahl. It is about life, death and the meaning of beards.
To my disappointment, I completely forgot to prepare a TBR for Women in Translation Month during 2021. I think this was due largely to the Olympics and Paralympics occurring, and the strange – and often uncomfortable – shifts which I felt I had to make toward a more normal life once all of the restrictions were lifted in England.
This year, I definitely want to actively take part in Women in Translation Month, which runs for the entire month of August. This post marks the beginning of a whole month of applicable reviews, which I have been having so much fun preparing for. I love reading books in translation, and those by women often appeal to me so much.
To kick off the month then, I wanted to gather together several books in translation which I read in the last couple of years, and all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re taking part in the challenge, I hope you find something here which you can include in your list for the month. If not, then please enjoy anyway. Stay tuned for the rest of the month’s content, too!
1. The Communist’s Daughterby Aroa Moreno Durán; translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore
‘Katia has spent her childhood in the eastern shadow of the Berlin Wall. For her father, refugee of the civil war in Spain, the communist side of Germany represents everything he fought and suffered for. Katia knows no other way of life, until a chance encounter with a young man from the West leaves her to wonder what the other side might offer. It’s only after she’s made the perilous journey that Katia understands all she has left behind, and years until she will finally know the devastating consequences it had on her family.
Translated for the first time in English, this exquisite and powerful novel punches right to the heart of how one choice can change a whole future.’
2. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
‘One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, Drive Your Plow… is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.’
3. I’m Writing You from Tehran by Delphine Minoui; translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
‘Suffering the recent loss of her beloved grandfather and newly committed to a career in journalism, Delphine Minoui decided to visit Iran for the first time since the revolution – since she was four years old. It was 1998. She would stay for ten years.
In the course of that decade, great change comes to both writer and country, often at the same time. Minoui settles into daily life – getting to know her devout grandmother for the first time, making friends with local women who help her escape secret dance parties when the morality police arrive, figuring out how to be a journalist in a country that is suspicious of the press and Westerners. Once she finally starts to learn Persian, she begins to see Iran through her grandfather’s eyes. And so it is all the more crushing when the political situation falters. She is caught up in protests and interrogated by secret police; some friends disappear and others may be tracking her movements. She finds love, loses her press credentials, marries, and is separated from her husband by erupting global conflict. Through it all, her love for this place and its people deepens and she discovers in her family’s past a mission that will shape her entire future.
Framed as a letter to her grandfather and filled with disarming characters in momentous times, I’m Writing You from Tehran is an unforgettable, moving view into an often obscured part of our world.’
4. Inlands by Elin Willows; translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis
If you wish to read a full review of Willows’ book, you can find one which I have written on the blog.
‘A young woman from Stockholm relocates to her boyfriend’s home town, a small village in the far north of Sweden. The relationship has ended by the time she arrives.
Inlands is a story about loss and change and examines the tangible mechanics of everyday life, the mentality of a small community and the relationship between freedom and loneliness.’
5. Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson; edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson; translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
If you wish to read a more comprehensive review of Letters from Tove, you can find one which I have written on the blog.
‘Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.
Penned with grace and humour, Letters from Tove offers an almost seamless commentary on Tove Jansson’s life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning fifty years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, we share with her the bleakness of war; the hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.
Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.’
6. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter; translated from the German by Jane Degras
‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.
At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.’
7. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto; translated from the Japanese by Ann Sherif
‘In these six stories, the author of Goodbye Tsugumi and N.P. explores themes of time, healing and fate, and how her urban, sophisticated, independent young men and women come to terms with them. The stories are a blend of traditional Japanese and contemporary popular culture.’
8. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun; translated from the German by Anthea Bell
‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’
9. Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan; translated from the French by George Miller
‘Overwhelmed by the huge success of her latest novel, exhausted and suffering from a crippling inability to write, Delphine meets L.
L. embodies everything Delphine has always secretly admired; she is a glittering image of feminine sophistication and spontaneity and she has an uncanny knack of always saying the right thing. Unusually intuitive, L. senses Delphine’s vulnerability and slowly but deliberately carves herself a niche in the writer’s life. However, as L. makes herself indispensable to Delphine, the intensity of this unexpected friendship manifests itself in increasingly sinister ways. As their lives become more and more entwined, L. threatens Delphine’s identity, both as a writer and as an individual.
This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too—even as it holds us in its thrall.
Win a copy of the international sensation that sold half a million copies in France: a chilling work of true-crime literature about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the very nature of reality.’
10. The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun; translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler
‘An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist engages with the global dialog around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.
For ten years, Yona has been stuck behind a desk as a coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specializing in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Her work life is uneventful until trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague.
To forestall any disruption of business-as-usual, Jungle makes Yona a proposition: a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui. But Yona must pose as a tourist and assess whether Jungle should continue their partnership with the unprofitable destination.
Yona travels to the remote island, whose major attraction is an underwhelming sinkhole, a huge disappointment to the customers who’ve paid a premium. Soon Yona discovers the resort’s plan to fabricate a catastrophe in the interest of regaining their good standing with Jungle–and the manager enlists Yona’s help. Yona must choose between the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or the possibility of a fresh start in a powerful new position. As she begins to understand the cost of the manufactured disaster, Yona realizes that the lives of Mui’s citizens are in danger–and so is she.
In The Disaster Tourist, Korean author Yun Ko-eun grapples with the consequences of our fascination with disaster, and questions an individual’s culpability in the harm done by their industry.’
Please let me know if you are taking part in Women in Translation Month this August, and what your TBR is looking like.
Like all readers, I am sure, I love discovering new authors. What better way to do that than to pick up something relatively short which they have previously written? I find sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover extremely satisfying, and it often gives an excellent idea into what you can expect from other, perhaps longer, works from the same author. With this in mind, I wanted to gather together eight books, all of which are under 250 pages, and which can be read in one go – provided you’re happy to forego other activities, of course!
1. Princes in the Landby Joanna Cannan (208 pages)
‘Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan is about a woman bringing up a family who is left at the end, when the children are on the verge of adulthood, asking herself not only what it was all for but what was her own life for? Yet the questions are asked subtly and readably.
Having shown us how everything is made bearable for Patricia if her children can be at the centre of her life and, more important (because she is not a selfish woman) if they grow up to fulfil her ideals, Joanna Cannan proceeds to show us her happiness being slowly destroyed. In Princes in the Land the tragedy of the book is that not only do none of the three children live up to their mother’s expectations, she has to watch as each of them takes a path that is anathema to her. Yet of course, she can do nothing about it; nor, sensibly, does she try.
Joanna Cannan began writing early, and her first novel was published when she was 26. From 1922 onwards she published a book a year for nearly forty years – novels; detective novels, including the very successful Death at The Dog; and the first ‘pony’ book (first in the sense that the focus was on a pony-mad girl rather than a horse or pony), a genre that her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson were to make very much their own. Princes in the Land is about an interesting and rarely-discussed theme; it is also evocative about Oxford.’
2. The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (130 pages)
‘It’s Copenhagen, 1968. Lise, a children’s book writer and married mother of three, is becoming increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and taunting voices. Convinced that her housekeeper and husband are plotting against her, she descends into a terrifying world of sickness, pills and institutionalisation. But is sanity in fact a kind of sickness? And might mental illness itself lead to enlightenment?
Brief, intense and haunting, Ditlevsen’s novel recreates the experience of madness from the inside, with all the vividness of lived experience.’
3. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (201 pages)
‘One of Zola’s most famous realist novels, Therese Raquin is a clinically observed, sinister tale of adultery and murder among the lower classes in nineteenth-century Parisian society.
Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dingy haberdasher’s shop in the passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, this powerful novel tells how the heroine and her lover, Laurent, kill her husband, Camille, but are subsequently haunted by visions of the dead man, and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their crime.
Zola’s shocking tale dispassionately dissects the motivations of his characters–mere “human beasts”, who kill in order to satisfy their lust–and stands as a key manifesto of the French Naturalist movement, of which the author was the founding father. Published in 1867, this is Zola’s most important work before the Rougon-Macquart series and introduces many of the themes that can be traced through the later novel cycle.’
4. The Violent Bear It Awayby Flannery O’Connor (256 pages, but I still wanted to include it)
‘First published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away is now a landmark in American literature. It is a dark and absorbing example of the Gothic sensibility and bracing satirical voice that are united in Flannery O’Conner’s work. In it, the orphaned Francis Marion Tarwater and his cousins, the schoolteacher Rayber, defy the prophecy of their dead uncle–that Tarwater will become a prophet and will baptize Rayber’s young son, Bishop. A series of struggles ensues: Tarwater fights an internal battle against his innate faith and the voices calling him to be a prophet while Rayber tries to draw Tarwater into a more “reasonable” modern world. Both wrestle with the legacy of their dead relatives and lay claim to Bishop’s soul.
O’Connor observes all this with an astonishing combination of irony and compassion, humor and pathos. The result is a novel whose range and depth reveal a brilliant and innovative writers acutely alert to where the sacred lives and to where it does not.’
5. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (96 pages)
‘Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola and her philandering rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly and unloved. Yet telling her story is the narrator Rodrigo S.M., who tries to direct Macabéa’s fate but comes to realize that, for all her outward misery, she is inwardly free. Slyly subverting ideas of poverty, identity, love, and the art of writing itself, Clarice Lispector’s audacious last novel, arguably her best, is a haunting portrayal of innocence in a bad world.’
6. The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (84 pages)
‘Sharply observed and expertly crafted, D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox is a captivating work exploring the dual themes of power and supremacy in the aftermath of the First World War. Banford and March live and work together on their meager farm, surviving hardship only by sheer determination and dedicated labor. The farm is their world, a place of safety—that is, until a young soldier walks in and upsets the women’s delicate status quo. None could have predicted the effect his presence would have on their lives.’
7. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell (115 pages)
‘A collection of essays that looks at, among others, the joys of spring (even in London), the picture of humanity painted by Gulliver and his travels, and the strange benefit of the doubt that the public permit Salvador Dali. It also includes an essay on the delights of English Cooking and an account of killing an elephant in Burma.’
8. David Golder by Irène Némirovsky (176 pages)
‘Golder is a superb creation. Born into poverty on the Black Sea, he has clawed his way to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil. When the novel opens, he is at work in his magnificent Parisian apartment while his wife and beloved daughter, Joy, spend his money at their villa in Biarritz. But Golder’s security is fragile. For years he has defended his business interests from cut-throat competitors. Now his health is beginning to show the strain. As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?
Available for the first time since 1930, David Golder is a page-turningly chilling and brilliant portrait of the frenzied capitalism of the 1920s and a universal parable about the mirage of wealth.’
Have you read any of these books? Which is your favourite short book?
I have always been a fan of the short story; they are sharp, thoughtful reflections on very precise portions of life, and often stick in my mind for an awfully long time. I find that I review short story collections far less often than I do novels, or works of non-fiction, so I thought I would gather together several which I have very much enjoyed, and would highly recommend.
1. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The incomparable Alice Munro’s bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises, from the title story about a young woman who, though she thinks she wants to, is incapable of leaving her husband, to three stories about a woman named Juliet and the emotions that complicate the luster of her intimate relationships. In Munro’s hands, the people she writes about–women of all ages and circumstances, and their friends, lovers, parents, and children–become as vivid as our own neighbors. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.’
2. On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important. These thirteen stories, which have been translated from the original Russian, focus on outsiders, those who do not quite belong.
3. Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
‘Sittenfeld’s wryly hilarious and insightful new collection, Help Yourself, illuminates human experience and gracefully upends our assumptions about class and race, envy and disappointment, gender dynamics and celebrity.
Suburban friends fall out after a racist encounter at a birthday party is caught on video and posted on Facebook; an illustrious Manhattan film crew are victims of their own snobbery when they underestimate a pre-school teacher from the Mid-West; and a group of young writers fight about love and narrative style as they compete for a prestigious bursary.
Connecting each of these three stories is Sittenfeld’s truthful yet merciless eye, as her characters stagger from awkwardness, to humiliation and, if they’re lucky, to reconciliation. Full of tenderness and compassion, this dazzling collection celebrates our humanity in all its pettiness and glory.’
4. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘This is a daring, witty and provocative collection of twelve thematically-linked stories.
Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, if you prefer, by Prada, Mary Poppins, Moschino and Barbie, these are stories of abandoned children and lonely adults, the seductiveness of our consumer society and fatalism in a post-Apocalyptic world.
From Charlene and Trudi, shopping madly while bombs explode outside, to gormless Eddie, a cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who has discovered the secret to eternal life, each story brings to life a startling cast of characters. Linking the stories is an exploration of the infinite variety of ways in which people attempt to change the world around them, and themselves.’
5. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay by Deirdre Sullivan
‘In this dark, glittering collection of short stories, Deirdre Sullivan explores the trauma and power that reside in women’s bodies.
A teenage girl tries to fit in at a party held in a haunted house, with unexpected and disastrous consequences. A mother and daughter run a thriving online business selling antique dolls, while their customers get more than they bargained for. And after a stillbirth, a young woman discovers that there is something bizarre and wondrous growing inside of her.
With empathy and invention, Sullivan effortlessly blends genres in stories that are by turns strange and exquisite. Already established as an award-winning writer for children and young adults, I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay marks her arrival as a captivating new voice in literary fiction.’
6. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
‘Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.’
Have you read any of these books? Which short story collections are your favourites? Please feel free to send me some recommendations, which will be much appreciated.
One thing which I have loved consistently for many years now are Golden Age murder mysteries. I read these as often as I can, and enjoy nothing more than discovering new-to-me authors who wrote in this genre, primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. I have decided to collect together ten of my favourites (and also not to include too much Agatha Christie, even though I easily could have!). I would highly recommend these books whether you are already a superfan of this genre, like me, or whether you are looking to dip your toe in. I hope you find something here which keeps you guessing!
A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer (1938)
‘Who would kill the perfect gentleman?
When Ernest Fletcher is found bludgeoned to death in his study, everyone is shocked and mystified: Ernest was well liked and respected, so who would have a motive for killing him? Inspectors of Scotland Yard felt it was an unlikely crime for the London suburbs: a perfectly respectable chap at home with his head bashed in. It seems the real Fletcher was far from the gentleman he pretended to be. There is, in fact, no shortage of people who wanted him dead.
Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway, with consummate skill, uncover one dirty little secret after another, and with them, a host of people who all have reasons for wanting Fletcher dead. Who tiptoed into the study to do the deed? The rather nefarious nephew Neville? A neighbor’s wandering wife? A fat man in a bowler hat?
The mystery’s key was a blunt instrument–a weapon that the police could not find… and that the murderer can to use once more. Then, a second murder is committed, with striking similarities to the first, giving a grotesque twist to a very unusual case, and the inspectors realize they are up against a killer on a mission…’
2. The Secret Adversaryby Agatha Christie (1922)
‘Tommy Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Cowley are young, in love… and flat broke. Just after Great War, there are few jobs available and the couple are desperately short of money. Restless for excitement, they decide to embark on a daring business scheme: Young Adventurers Ltd.—”willing to do anything, go anywhere.” Hiring themselves out proves to be a smart move for the couple. In their first assignment for the mysterious Mr. Whittingtont, all Tuppence has to do in their first job is take an all-expense paid trip to Paris and pose as an American named Jane Finn. But with the assignment comes a bribe to keep quiet, a threat to her life, and the disappearance of her new employer. Now their newest job are playing detective.
Where is the real Jane Finn? The mere mention of her name produces a very strange reaction all over London. So strange, in fact, that they decided to find this mysterious missing lady. She has been missing for five years. And neither her body nor the secret documents she was carrying have ever been found. Now post-war England’s economic recovery depends on finding her and getting the papers back. But he two young working undercover for the British ministry know only that her name and the only photo of her is in the hands of her rich American cousin. It isn’t long before they find themselves plunged into more danger than they ever could have imagined—a danger that could put an abrupt end to their business… and their lives.’
3. The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929)
‘A house party is under way at the remote mansion of Black Dudley, and among the guests are some very shady characters. As they playfully recreate the ritual of the Black Dudley Dagger, someone dies. Pathologist George Abbershaw suspects foul play, and when a vital item is mislaid, a gang of crooks hold the guests hostage. Will they escape the house – what did happen to the Colonel – and just who is the mysterious Mr Campion? Neither the story nor Albert Campion is quite as vapid and slow as you might expect…’
4. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey (1949)
‘In this tale of mystery and suspense, a stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizable fortune. The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerism’s, appearance, and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself. It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that jeopardize the imposter’s plan and his life.’
5. While She Sleeps by Ethel Lina White (1940)
‘This novel is a classic mystery written by Ethel Lina White, one of the best known crime writers in Britain and the USA during the 1930s and ’40s. Her novels today keep delighting the lovers of the gendre with interesting plots which conquered the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, whose film The Lady Vanishes (1938), was based on her novel The Wheel Spins.
In this novel, Miss Loveapple has always prided herself on her extraordinary good luck. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when she is marked out as a killer’s victim…’
6. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
The Murder at the Vicarage is the first of Christie’s Miss Marple books, and was first published in 1930. Oddly, there isn’t much of the lady herself here; rather, she is a character who exists largely on the periphery, and the whole is narrated by a vicar. Regardless, this is a fantastic murder mystery, and parts of it are really quite amusing and witty. My favourite line in the whole is as follows: ‘His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity’. All of the twists and turns are so very clever, and renders The Murder at the Vicarage rather a fantastic reading experience.
7. A Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929) – my full review can be found here
‘Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty. When the other guests search the house, a body is discovered in a bath, drowned. The body is that of a woman, but could the corpse in fact be Mountjoy? A peculiar and sinister sequence of events has only just begun…
This is Gladys Mitchell’s first book and it marks the entrance of the inimitable Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, psychoanalyst and unorthodox amateur sleuth, into the world of detective fiction. But instead of leading the police to the murderer, she begins as their chief suspect.’
8. The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (1944) – my full review can be found here
‘Yseut Haskell, a pretty but spiteful young actress with a talent for destroying men’s lives, is found dead in a college room just metres from the office of unconventional Oxford don and amateur detective, Gervase Fen. The victim is found wearing an unusual ring, a reproduction of a piece in the British Museum featuring a gold gilded fly but does this shed any light on her murder? As they delve deeper into Yseut’s unhappy life the police soon realise that anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?
Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
9. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)
‘The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.’
10. Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)
‘On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.
Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.
This classic Christmas mystery is republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Martin Edwards.’
Which are your favourite Golden Age mysteries? Have you read any of these? If you have any recommendations within the genre, I would love to hear them!
Here are eight novels which I’ve read over the last year or so, and which I would highly recommend. I’ve not written full reviews on any of these titles, but have awarded each of them at least four stars, and hope that they appeal to you, dear reader, as much as they did to me.
Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
‘Young Albert Honig spends much of his time in solitude, his daily routine shaped by the almost mystical attention he quietly lavishes on his bees. Into his tightly repressed existence bursts a brash young neighbour, whose vivacity and boldness begin to transform his life. Yet years pass by, feelings are repressed, opportunities missed. Until one day – led by a trail of bees – Albert discovers her body and is plunged back into his memories, where he must finally confront the lies and secrets that led to their estrangement. In doing so he unearths the truth of Claire’s murder – a question not so much of who but why.’
2. Expectation by Anna Hope
‘Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come. They are electric. They are the best of friends.
Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have. And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?
Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives.’
3. Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar
‘A young woman sits in her apartment in an unnamed English city, absorbed in watching the small dramas of her assorted neighbors through their windows across the way. Traumatized into muteness after a long, devastating trip from war-torn Syria to the UK, she believes that she wants to sink deeper into isolation, moving between memories of her absent boyfriend and family and her homeland, dreams, and reality. At the same time, she begins writing for a magazine under the pseudonym “the Voiceless,” trying to explain the refugee experience without sensationalizing it—or revealing anything about herself.
Gradually, as the boundaries of her world expand—as she ventures to the neighborhood corner store, to a gathering at a nearby mosque, and to the bookstore and laundromat, and as an anti-Muslim hate crime shatters the members of a nearby mosque—she has to make a choice: Will she remain a voiceless observer, or become an active participant in her own life and in a community that, despite her best efforts, is quickly becoming her own?
With brilliant, poetic prose that captures all the fragments of this character’s life, and making use of fragments of text from Tweets and emails to the narrator’s own articles, journals, and fiction, Silence Is a Sense explores what it means to be a refugee and to need asylum, and how fundamental human connection is to survival.’
4. We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
‘Teenage Eulabee and her magnetic best friend, Maria Fabiola, own the streets of Sea Cliff, their foggy oceanside San Francisco neighborhood. They know Sea Cliff’s homes and beaches, its hidden corners and eccentric characters—as well as the upscale all-girls’ school they attend. One day, walking to school with friends, they witness a horrible act—or do they? Eulabee and Maria Fabiola vehemently disagree on what happened, and their rupture is followed by Maria Fabiola’s sudden disappearance—a potential kidnapping that shakes the quiet community and threatens to expose unspoken truths.
Suspenseful and poignant, We Run the Tides is Vendela Vida’s masterful portrait of an inimitable place on the brink of radical transformation. Pre–tech boom San Francisco finds its mirror in the changing lives of the teenage girls at the center of this story of innocence lost, the pain of too much freedom, and the struggle to find one’s authentic self. Told with a gimlet eye and great warmth, We Run the Tides is both a gripping mystery and a tribute to the wonders of youth, in all its beauty and confusion. ‘
5. Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
‘From Emma Hooper, critically acclaimed author of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, a People magazine “Pick of the Week,” comes a lyrical, charming, and mystical story of a family on the edge of extinction, and the different way each of them fights to keep hope, memory, and love alive.
The Connor family is one of the few that is still left in their idyllic fishing village, Big Running; after the fish mysteriously disappeared, most families had no choice but to relocate and find work elsewhere. Aidan and Martha Connor now spend alternate months of the year working at an energy site up north to support their children, Cora and Finn. But soon the family fears they’ll have to leave Big Running for good. And as the months go on, plagued by romantic temptations new and old, the emotional distance between the once blissful Aidan and Martha only widens.
Between his accordion lessons and reading up on Big Running’s local flora and fauna, eleven-year-old Finn Connor develops an obsession with solving the mystery of the missing fish. Aided by his reclusive music instructor Mrs. Callaghan, Finn thinks he may have discovered a way to find the fish, and in turn, save the only home he’s ever known. While Finn schemes, his sister Cora spends her days decorating the abandoned houses in Big Running with global flair—the baker’s home becomes Italy; the mailman’s, Britain. But it’s clear she’s desperate for a bigger life beyond the shores of her small town. As the streets of Big Running continue to empty Cora takes matters—and her family’s shared destinies—into her own hands.
In Our Homesick Songs, Emma Hooper paints a gorgeous portrait of the Connor family, brilliantly weaving together four different stories and two generations of Connors, full of wonder and hope. Told in Hooper’s signature ethereal style, each page of this incandescent novel glows with mythical, musical wonder.’
6. Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy
‘It is the day of her brother’s wedding and our narrator is still struggling with her toast. Despite a recent fracture between them, her brother, Danny, has asked her to give a speech and she doesn’t know where to begin, how to put words to their kind of love. She was nine years old when she traveled with her parents to Thailand to meet her brother, six years her junior. They grew up together like any other siblings, and shared bucolic childhood in Northern California. Yet when she holds their story up to the light, it refracts in ways she doesn’t expect.
What follows is a heartfelt letter addressed to Danny and an attempt at a full accounting of their years growing up, invoking everything from the classic Victorian adoption plot to childless women in literature to documents from Danny’s case file. It’s also a confession of sorts to the parts of her life that she has kept from him, including her own struggle with infertility. And as the hours until the wedding wane, she uncovers the words that can’t and won’t be said aloud.
In Immediate Family, a tender and fierce debut novel, Ashley Nelson Levy explores the enduring bond between two siblings and the complexities of motherhood, infertility, race, and the many definitions of family.’
7. Everyone is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink
‘It is summer on Magnolia Road when Juliet moves into her late mother’s house with her husband Liam and their young son, Charlie. Preoccupied by guilt, grief and the juggle of working motherhood, she can’t imagine finding time to get to know the neighbouring families, let alone fitting in with them. But for Liam, a writer, the morning coffees and after-school gatherings soon reveal the secret struggles, fears and rivalries playing out behind closed doors – all of which are going straight into his new novel . . .
Juliet tries to bury her unease and leave Liam to forge these new friendships. But when the rupture of a marriage sends ripples through the group, painful home truths are brought to light. And then, one sun-drenched afternoon at a party, a single moment changes everything.
The fiction debut from Sunday Times bestselling author Cathy Rentzenbrink, Everyone Is Still Alive is funny and moving, intimate and wise; a novel that explores the deeper realities of marriage and parenthood and the way life thwarts our expectations at every turn.’
8. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, Drive Your Plow… is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.’
Have you read any of these novels, and do any pique your interest?
I always feel mildly surprised when I read a book which I love, but which barely anyone else seems to have picked up. Of course, there are so many books in the world, and thousands of new ones being published every year, that we can sadly never get around to picking up everything which interests us. There is a real shame though, in enjoying an author’s voice so much, and realising that others, who would surely love it too, haven’t discovered it yet.
I find examples of this often; there are so many authors who make my favourites list that draw a blank with the readers in my life. This spurred me on to create a list of ten authors, all of whom I think are underrated, and all of whom I would urge you to read. I have chosen what I feel would be a great starting point for each author, and really hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, to pick up something new.
Harriet Scott Chessman
Start with: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001)
I picked up Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in a secondhand bookshop. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but was captivated by its blurb. I took it home and, intrigued, began to read it the same day. I found myself pulled into the visually beautiful world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. Her sister, Lydia, posed for five of her most famous paintings, and the novella follows her primarily. Scott Chessman writes with such sensitivity about Lydia’s Bright’s Disease, which attacks her kidneys, and how she deals with the knowledge of her inevitable early death. Despite this, there is so much beauty in the book, and I still think about it often.
Start with: The Matchmaker of Périgord (2007)
I can’t remember when I first discovered Julia Stuart, but I have read each of her four novels to date with a great deal of delight. Although I would recommend all of them – and they are all rather different in what they set out to achieve – my absolute favourite has been The Matchmaker of Périgord. I am always drawn to novels about France, as any readers of this blog will surely know, and this novel, set in a southwestern corner of France, is just lovely. A barber, named Guillaume Ladoucette, is losing business, and decides instead to branch out into matchmaking. Along the way, he helps a great deal of unusual and quirky characters, and instills a great joy into his small village. I loved this amusing novel, and cannot wait to reread it.
Start with: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (2015)
I spotted this in my local library whilst I still lived in my hometown, and was drawn in by the book’s title. After reading the blurb, I added it to the staggering pile of tomes already in my arms, and took it home with me. What I found in the book’s pages was a great deal of sadness balanced with hope, all revealed in the most beautiful prose. The main events of this self-published memoir revolve around the stillbirth of Jolly’s second baby, and her consequent difficulties in conceiving, as well as a surrogacy journey. It will be relatable to a lot of people, and although it is quite often difficult to read, I savoured every word, and greatly admired Jolly’s bravery in telling her own story.
Dorothy Evelyn Smith
Start with: Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)
I must admit that Miss Plum and Miss Penny is the only book of Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s which I have read to date, but I feel that she will be an author whose work I adore. This novel, which tells of Miss Alison Penny, is amusing, a little silly, and rather charming. On the morning of her fortieth birthday, ‘spinster’ Miss Penny, who lives in a picturesque village, saves another woman – Miss Ada Plum – from drowning in the local duckpond. What follows took me by surprise at points, and kept my attention throughout. I must thank Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow for reprinting this one, as it may have passed me by otherwise!
Start with: The Body Lies(2019)
I must admit that my absolute favourite of Jo Baker’s books is the beautiful historical novel The Picture Book, but The Body Lies is the first which I read, and one which I would highly recommend beginning with. I received a copy of the novel on Netgalley, and did not quite know what to expect, but what I found was a compelling and clever literary thriller. A writer moves to the countryside of the north of England, along with her young child, to work at a university; this is supposed to be a fresh start for her. Baker writes with such intelligence about sexual politics, and has created a deeply unsettling, and highly satisfying novel.
Start with: Princes in the Land (1938)
The Persephone fans among you have probably heard of Joanna Cannan, a rather prolific writer who published over many different genres, from crime fiction to pony stories, and sister of the quite wonderful poet May Wedderburn Cannan. I was pulled into her novella, Princes in the Land, from the very first. We follow Patricia, who is lamenting about her children growing up and leaving home, and wondering where it leaves her in the world. Other reviewers have called this depressing, and I suppose it is to an extent, given its focus, but I thought it was beautifully written, and a very thoughtful piece.
Start with: Census (2018)
I try, as best I can, to keep up with contemporary American literature; I love it so much. It is often difficult to pick out authors whom I want to read immediately, but something about Jesse Ball caused me to scour my local library catalogues, and even to contemplate whether it would be worth ordering some of his books from the States, as they are often quite difficult to procure in the UK. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of his novels to date, and admire them for their unusualness. I would highly recommend starting, as I did, with the incredibly beautiful Census, which charts a relationship between a father and his son in a strange, changing world. You can read my full review here if you would like to.
Start with: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)
I have been lucky enough to read all of Vendela Vida’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. She writes about highly believable characters in such beautiful language. One of the real strengths of her books is the way in which she sets the scene; she is like a painter, unfolding what she sees in front of the reader. This particular novel follows Clarissa, a twenty eight-year-old woman, who finds out after her father’s death that he was not really her father at all. This leads her on a journey to Lapland, to discover her origins. There is so much to love in this story, and love it I did.
Start with: Sight (2018)
Jessie Greengrass has released two novels and a short story collection to date, and all of them have really appealed to me. She focuses on different things, and each of her books is really very different, but Greengrass’ writing is something which has kept me coming back. Her first novel, Sight, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, revolves around three females from the same family, and their relationships with one another. There are moments of such beauty and clarity here, and it is definitely a novel which I will reread in future. You can find my full review of Sighthere.
Start with: Findings (2005)
Kathleen Jamie is both a poet and nature writer, but it is through the latter that I first discovered her work. Published by the excellent Sort Of Books, one of my favourite houses, Jamie spends her time in Findings ‘simply stepping out to look’ at what is around her. There is much about the beautiful countryside of Scotland, a country which I lived in for three years, and the nature which she is lucky enough to see here. Findings is filled with exquisite prose, and it really gives one a feel for the main themes in her work, and her way with words.
Please let me know if you’re going to pick up any books by these authors, and also which your favourite underrated authors are!
I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to audiobooks whilst pottering about over the last couple of years, and wanted to put together a list of those which I have particularly enjoyed, and which I would recommend. I am lucky that my local library has such an excellent and varied collection, which I am slowly working my way through.
1. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir by Amy Tan
‘In Where the Past Begins, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement Amy Tan is at her most intimate in revealing the truths and inspirations that underlie her extraordinary fiction. By delving into vivid memories of her traumatic childhood, confessions of self-doubt in her journals, and heartbreaking letters to and from her mother, she gives evidence to all that made it both unlikely and inevitable that she would become a writer. Through spontaneous storytelling, she shows how a fluid fictional state of mind unleashed near-forgotten memories that became the emotional nucleus of her novels.
Tan explores shocking truths uncovered by family memorabilia—the real reason behind an IQ test she took at age six, why her parents lied about their education, mysteries surrounding her maternal grandmother—and, for the first time publicly, writes about her complex relationship with her father, who died when she was fifteen. Supplied with candor and characteristic humor, Where the Past Begins takes readers into the idiosyncratic workings of her writer’s mind, a journey that explores memory, imagination, and truth, with fiction serving as both her divining rod and link to meaning.’
2. A Year in Paris: Season by Season in the City of Light by John Baxter
‘From the incomparable John Baxter, award-winning author of the bestselling The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, a sumptuous and definitive portrait of Paris through the seasons, highlighting the unique tastes, sights, and changing personality of the city in spring, summer, fall, and winter.
When the common people of France revolted in 1789, one of the first ways they chose to correct the excesses of the monarchy and the church was to rename the months of the year. Selected by poet and playwright Philippe-Francois-Nazaire Fabre, these new names reflected what took place at that season in the natural world; Fructidor was the month of fruit, Floréal that of flowers, while the winter wind (vent) dominated Ventôse.
Though the names didn’t stick, these seasonal rhythms of the year continue to define Parisians, as well as travelers to the city. As acclaimed author and long-time Paris resident John Baxter himself recollects, “My own arrival in France took place in Nivôse, the month of snow, and continued in Pluviôse, the season of rain. To someone coming from Los Angeles, where seasons barely existed, the shock was visceral. Struggling to adjust, I found reassurance in the literature, music, even the cuisine of my adoptive country, all of which marched to the inaudible drummer of the seasons.”
Devoting a section of the book to each of Fabre’s months, Baxter draws upon Paris’s literary, cultural and artistic past to paint an affecting, unforgettable portrait of the city. Touching upon the various ghosts of Paris past, from Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, to Claude Debussy to MFK Fisher to Francois Mitterrand, Baxter evokes the rhythms of the seasons in the City of Light, and the sense of wonder they can arouse for all who visit and live there.
A melange of history, travel reportage, and myth, of high culture and low, A Year in Paris is vintage John Baxter: a vicarious thrill ride for anyone who loves Paris.’
3. When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott
‘November 1918. On the cusp of the end of the First World War, a uniformed soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. It quickly becomes clear that he has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there.
The soldier is given the name Adam and transferred to a rehabilitation home where his doctor James tries everything he can to help Adam remember who he once was. There’s just one problem. Adam doesn’t want to remember.
Unwilling to relive the trauma of war, Adam has locked his mind away, seemingly for good. But when a newspaper publishes Adam’s photograph, three women come forward, each just as certain that Adam is their relative and that he should go home with them.
But does Adam really belong with any of these women? Or is there another family waiting for him to come home?
Based on true events, When I Come Home Again is a deeply moving and powerful story of a nation’s outpouring of grief, and the search for hope in the aftermath of the First World War.’
4. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
‘A novel of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home.
While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to area, having moved her from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home.
A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, ‘Death in Her Hands’ asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both guide us closer to the truth and keep us at bay from it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, only this time the stakes have never been higher.’
5. Hungry by Grace Dent
‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.
Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’
6. The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg
‘Set during the height of World War II, a powerful and unsettling tale about a woodcutter and his wife, who finds a mysterious parcel thrown from a passing train.
Once upon a time in an enormous forest lived a woodcutter and his wife. The woodcutter is very poor and a war rages around them, making it difficult for them to put food on the table. Yet every night, his wife prays for a child.
A Jewish father rides on a train holding twin babies. His wife no longer has enough milk to feed both children. In hopes of saving them both, he wraps his daughter in a shawl and throws her into the forest.
While foraging for food, the wife finds a bundle, a baby girl wrapped in a shawl. Although she knows harboring this baby could lead to her death, she takes the child home.
Set against the horrors of the Holocaust and told with a fairytale-like lyricism, The Most Precious of Cargoes is a fable about family and redemption which reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.’
7. Wildwood by Roger Deakin
‘Here, published for the first time in the United States, is the last book by Roger Deakin, famed British nature writer and icon of the environmentalist movement. In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.
Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.
As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’
8. The High House by Jessie Greengrass
‘Francesca is Caro’s stepmother, and Pauly’s mother. A scientist, she can see what is going to happen.
The high house was once her holiday home; now looked after by locals Grandy and Sally, she has turned it into an ark, for when the time comes. The mill powers the generator; the orchard is carefully pruned; the greenhouse has all its glass intact. Almost a family, but not quite, they plant, store seed, and watch the weather carefully.
A stunning novel of the extraordinary and the everyday, The High House explores how we get used to change that once seemed unthinkable, how we place the needs of our families against the needs of others – and it asks us who, if we had to, we would save.’
Are you a fan of audiobooks? Which of these catches your interest? Have you read, or listened to, any of them?
I have been lucky enough to visit Northern Ireland, and the Republic, extensively in my life, and I have found such peace in the rolling green landscapes, and the sheer amount of history which the beautiful buildings all around me hold. I have always been drawn to fiction set there, and have also recently read – or listened to – a couple of non-fiction tomes by Irish authors. I know that there is a great deal of interest in Ireland on the blogosphere, so I thought it would be a nice idea to collect together my recommendations for fiction and non-fiction set within both Northern Ireland, and the Republic.
1. The Fire Startersby Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter might not be as harmless as she seems.
Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too.
The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect?
Dark, propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’
2. The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
‘Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her; and at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.
As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she realizes she must decide what is the truth, whether she can continue to live with a lie, and what the consequences might be were she to fully unravel the mysteries in both the life of Robert Locke and her own. In this gripping and wonderfully written debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that define us.’
3. Wildwoods: The Magic of Ireland’s Native Woodlands by Richard Nairn
‘Richard Nairn has spent a lifetime studying – and learning from – nature. When an opportunity arose for him to buy a small woodland filled with mature native trees beside a fast-flowing river, he set about understanding all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly.
Wildwoods is a fascinating account of his journey over a typical year. Along the way, he uncovers the ancient roles of trees in Irish life, he examines lost skills such as coppicing and he explores new uses of woodlands for forest schools, foraging and rewilding. Ultimately, Wildwoods inspires all of us to pay attention to what nature can teach us.’
4. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
‘In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.
In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.
In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.’
5. Asking for It by Louise O’Neill
‘It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma.
The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does.
Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…’
6. A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen
‘In A World of Love, an uneasy group of relations are living under one roof at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. When twenty-year-old Jane finds in the attic a packet of love letters written years ago by Guy, her mother’s one-time fiance who died in World War I, the discovery has explosive repercussions. It is not clear to whom the letters are addressed, and their appearance begins to lay bare the strange and unspoken connections between the adults now living in the house. Soon, a girl on the brink of womanhood, a mother haunted by love lost, and a ruined matchmaker with her own claim on the dead wage a battle that makes the ghostly Guy as real a presence in Montefort as any of the living.’
7. Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane
‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they? Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich, silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.
Watching from the sidelines, their friend Sylvester regrets that Jane should be ‘loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by that frightful Jessica’, but decides it’s none of his business. When the Irish gentleman George Playfair meets Jane, however, he thinks otherwise and entices her to Ireland where the battle for her devotion begins.’
8. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
‘The stunning new novel from highly acclaimed author William Trevor is a brilliant, subtle, and moving story of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of violence leads the parents of nine-year-old Lucy to decide to leave for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay. Instead, she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of Lahardane’s inhabitants for the rest of their lives.’
Please let me know if any of these catch your interest, and also which books set in Ireland are your favourites to date.