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The Book Trail: From North to East

I am beginning this particular edition of The Book Trail with a travel book I read at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to collate this list.

 

97818469734201. Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
‘The sixtieth parallel marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds. Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half. The parallel also passes through Shetland, where Malachy Tallack has spent most of his life.  In Sixty Degrees North, Tallack travels westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel and the ways that people have interacted with those landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.  Sixty Degrees North is an intimate book, one that begins with the author’s loss of his father and his own troubled relationship with Shetland, and concludes with an acceptance of loss and an embrace — ultimately a love — of the place he calls home.’

 

2. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson
‘In 1937, Adam Nicolson’s father answered a newspaper ad—“Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . ”.  In this radiant and powerful book, Adam describes, and relives, his love affair with this enchantingly beautiful property, which he inherited when he was twenty-one. As the islands grew to become the most important thing in his life, they began to offer him more than escape, giving him “sea room”—a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.”  The Shiants—the name means holy or enchanted islands—lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the “stream of blue men,” after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. Crowned with five-hundred-foot cliffs of black basalt and surrounded by tidal rips, teeming in the summer with thousands of sea birds, they are wild, dangerous, and dramatic—with a long, haunting past. For millennia the Shiants were a haven for those seeking solitude—an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Compton Mackenzie—but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. Since the Stone Age, families have dwelled on the islands and sailors have perished on their shores. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and ancient treasure, cradling the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen.  In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful.  Sea Room does more than celebrate and praise this extraordinary place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island can bestow: a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.’

 

3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 61044
‘Through an exploration of her country home in Wales, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris discovers the heart of her fascinating country and what it means to be Welsh. Trefan Morys, Morris’s home between the sea and mountains of the remote northwest corner of Wales, is the 18th-century stable block of her former family house nearby. Surrounding it are the fields and outbuildings, the mud, sheep, and cattle of a working Welsh farm.  She regards this modest building not only as a reflection of herself and her life, but also as epitomizing the small and complex country of Wales, which has defied the world for centuries to preserve its own identity. Morris brilliantly meditates on the beams and stone walls of the house, its jumbled contents, its sounds and smells, its memories and inhabitants, and finally discovers the profoundest meanings of Welshes.’

 

4. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (review here)
‘Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.  Sarah was drawn to the strangeness of Icelandic landscape, and explored hillsides of boiling mud, volcanic craters and fissures, and the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She walked the coast path every night after her children were in bed, watching the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. As the weeks and months went by, the children settled in local schools and Sarah got to know her students and colleagues, she and her family learned new ways to live.’

 

1121185. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Erlich
‘For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.  Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.”  This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.’

 

6. Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Hearing Birds Fly is Louisa Waugh’s passionately written account of her time in a remote Mongolian village. Frustrated by the increasingly bland character of the capital city of Ulan Bator, she yearned for the real Mongolia and got the chance when she was summoned by the village head to go to Tsengel far away in the west, near the Kazakh border. Her story completely transports the reader to feel the glacial cold and to see the wonders of the Seven Kings as they steadily emerge from the horizon.  Through her we sense their trials as well as their joys, rivalries and even hostilities, many of which the author shared or knew about. Her time in the village was marked by coming to terms with the harshness of climate and also by how she faced up to new feelings towards the treatment of animals, death, solitude and real loneliness, and the constant struggle to censor her reactions as an outsider. Above all, Louisa Waugh involves us with the locals’ lives in such a way that we come to know them and care for their fates.’

 

7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 79793
‘Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she’s come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as “Orwellian.” The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma’s connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell’s mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell’s work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country – his first novel, Burmese Days – but in fact he wrote three, the “trilogy” that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, “Ah, you mean the prophet!”  In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma’s far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell’s moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author’s compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book – the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.’

 

8. The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
‘Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.  From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are you planning to add to your TBR list?

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‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

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Two Novels: ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ and ‘The Tidal Zone’

In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill ** 9780099570486
‘After just a year of close, loving marriage, Ruth has been widowed. Her beloved husband, Ben, has been killed in a tragic accident and Ruth is left, suddenly and totally bereft. Unable to share her sorrow and grief with Ben’s family, who are dealing with their pain in their own way, Ruth becomes increasingly isolated, burying herself in her cottage in the countryside as the seasons change around her. Only Ben’s young brother Jo, is able to reach out beyond his own grief, to offer Ruth the compassion which might reclaim her from her own devastating unhappiness. The result is a moving, lyrical exploration of love and loss, of grief and mourning, from a masterful writer.’

I find Hill’s novels a little hit and miss; this particular tome falls somewhere close to the latter.  It wasn’t awful, but I did find it a touch lacklustre.  Whilst it is written well, there are rather a lot of repetitions with regard to the protagonist Ruth’s thoughts and feelings, and I felt little sympathy for her with regard to her sudden thrust into widowhood because she just didn’t feel realistic.  It didn’t quite live up to its interesting premise, and a lot of the secondary characters were incredibly shadowy.  I think I might just stick to Hill’s non-fiction in future.

 

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss *****
9781783783076‘Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful.

The Tidal Zone was a highly anticipated read for me, as it was the last outstanding Moss I had to read.  I love her writing, and have been engrossed in every single one of her books to date.  I am so pleased to say that The Tidal Zone was the cherry on rather a delicious cake.  I love the way in which the novel’s plot circles around a singular moment, drifting back and forth in time.  From the first, Moss’ writing is beautifully poetic, and the entirety of the novel is profound and compelling.  Moss masterfully ties so much together here – history, biology, geography, relationships, the NHS, and the Second World War – whilst making it an unfailing human novel.  Wonderfully paced, with an authentic narrative voice and an achingly realistic cast of characters at its heart, The Tidal Zone is a sheer masterpiece.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Here I Am’ to ‘My October’

I am beginning today’s Book Trail with Jonathan Safran Foer’s newest (and wonderful) third novel, Here I Am.  We move through a host of (relatively) new and exciting releases as we make our way through the Goodreads ‘Readers also enjoyed…’ pages.

 

1. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer 9780241146170
‘A monumental new novel about modern family lives from the bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and Abraham replied obediently, ‘Here I am’. This is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. Over the course of three weeks in present-day Washington DC, three sons watch their parents’ marriage falter and their family home fall apart. Meanwhile, a larger catastrophe is engulfing another part of the world: a massive earthquake devastates the Middle East, sparking a pan-Arab invasion of Israel. With global upheaval in the background and domestic collapse in the foreground, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us – what is the true meaning of home? Can one man ever reconcile the conflicting duties of his many roles – husband, father, son? And how much of life can a person bear?’

 

2. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

 

97805713278503. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
‘From the writer of one of the most memorable debuts of recent years. An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. This older man has a disturbing past that the young girl is unprepared for. The young girl has a troubling past of her own. This is her story and their story. The Lesser Bohemians is about sexual passion. It is about innocence and the loss of it. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, it is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.’

 

4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
‘dam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.’

 

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 9781783782666
‘In Canada in 1990, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming. As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie. Written with exquisite intimacy, wit and moral complexity, Do Not Say We Have Nothing magnificently brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation. It is a gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.’

 

6. We’re All in This Together by Amy Jones
‘A woman goes over a waterfall, a video goes viral, a family goes into meltdown — life is about to get a lot more complicated for the Parker family.  Like all families, the Parkers of Thunder Bay have had their share of complications. But when matriarch Kate Parker miraculously survives plummeting over a waterfall in a barrel — a feat captured on a video that goes viral — it’s Kate’s family who tumbles into chaos under the spotlight. Her prodigal daughter returns to town. Her 16-year-old granddaughter gets caught up in an online relationship with a man she has never met. Her husband sifts through their marriage to search for what sent his wife over the falls. Her adopted son fears losing the only family he’s ever known. Then there is Kate, who once made a life-changing choice and now fears her advancing dementia will rob her of memories from when she was most herself.   Set over the course of four calamitous days, Amy Jones’s big-hearted first novel follows the Parkers’ misadventures as catastrophe forces them to do something they never thought possible – act like a family.’

 

231650917. Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott
‘Close to Hugh is a glorious, exuberant, poignant comic novel about youth and age, art and life, love and death–and about losing your mind and finding your heart’s desire over the course of seven days one September. As the week opens, fifty-something Hugh Argylle, owner of the Argylle Art Gallery, has a jarring fall from a ladder–a fall that leaves him with a fractured off-kilter vision of his own life and the lives of his friends, who are going through crises (dying parents; disheveled marriages; wilting businesses) that leave them despairing, afraid, one half-step from going under emotionally or financially. Someone’s going to have to fix all that, thinks Hugh- and it will probably be him.  Meanwhile, beneath the adult orbit, bright young lives are taking form: these are the sons and daughters of Hugh’s friends, about to graduate from high school and already separating from the gravitational pull of their parents. As bonds knit and unravel on cellphones and iPads and Tumblr and Twitter, the desires and terrors and sudden revelations of adolescence are mirrored in the second adolescence of the soon-to-be childless adults.   With exquisite insight and surefooted mastery, Endicott manages something surprising: to show us, with an unerring ear for the different cadences and concerns of both generations, two sets of friends on the cusp of simultaneous reinvention. And, as always in Endicott’s wonderful fictional worlds, underpinning the sharp comedy and keenly observed drama is something more profound: a rare and rich perspective on what it means to rise and fall and rise again, and what in the end we owe those we love.’

 

8. My October by Claire Holden Rothman
‘Luc Lévesque is a celebrated Quebec novelist and the anointed Voice of a Generation. In his hometown of Montreal, he is revered as much for his novels about the working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri as for his separatist views. But this is 2001. The dreams of a new nation are dying, and Luc himself is increasingly dissatisfied with his life.  Hannah is Luc’s wife. She is also the daughter of a man who served as a special prosecutor during the October Crisis. For years, Hannah has worked faithfully as Luc’s English translator. She has also spent her adult life distancing herself from her English- speaking family. But at what cost?  Hugo is their troubled fourteen-year-old son. Living in the shadow of a larger-than-life father, Hugo is struggling with his own identity. In confusion and anger, he commits a reckless act that puts everyone around him on a collision course with the past.  Weaving together three unique voices, My October is a masterful tale of a modern family torn apart by the power of language and the weight of history. Spare and insightful, Claire Holden Rothman’s new novel explores the fascinating and sometimes shocking consequences of words left unsaid.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Which are you inspired to pick up?

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Exciting New Releases

I feel that I am rather behind on new releases, since I am no longer actively receiving review books and the like.  I have also had very little time with which to browse book websites; gone are the University lull days that I could browse Powell’s catalogue for hours without thinking I had anything better to do!  That said, I am nonetheless very excited about five new releases which have come out since January, or are due to be released at some point in the near future.  These books have one common theme; I have very much enjoyed the author’s other work to date, and am therefore suitably excited to get my hands upon them.

1. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (02/08/2016) 9781472208606
‘Set in the Alaskan landscape that she brought to stunningly vivid life in The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure set at the end of the nineteenth century. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy. Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.’

97800919490442. Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (10/03/2016)
”I’ve lived through ten iOS upgrades on my Mac – and that’s just something I use to muck about on Twitter. Surely capitalism is due an upgrade or two?’ When Caitlin Moran sat down to choose her favourite pieces for her new book she realised that they all seemed to join up. Turns out, it’s the same old problems and the same old ass-hats. Then she thought of the word ‘Moranifesto’, and she knew what she had to do…This is Caitlin’s engaging and amusing rallying call for our times. Combining the best of her recent columns with lots of new writing unique to this book, Caitlin deals with topics as pressing and diverse as 1980s swearing, benefits, boarding schools, and why the internet is like a drunken toddler. And whilst never afraid to address the big issues of the day – such as Benedict Cumberbatch and duffel coats – Caitlin also makes a passionate effort to understand our 21st century society and presents us with her ‘Moranifesto’ for making the world a better place. The polite revolution starts here! Please.’

 

3. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonsson (24/03/2016) 9781408837641
‘East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent sabre rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master. When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more free thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.’

4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (07/07/2016)
‘Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.’

97819054905615. The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka (05/05/2016)
‘North London in the twenty-first century: a place where a son will swiftly adopt an old lady and take her home from hospital to impersonate his dear departed mother, rather than lose the council flat. A time of golden job opportunities, though you might have to dress up as a coffee bean or work as an intern at an undertaker or put up with champagne and posh French dinners while your boss hits on you. A place rich in language – whether it’s Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Swahili or buxom housing officers talking managementese. A place where husbands go absent without leave and councillors sacrifice cherry orchards at the altar of new builds. Marina Lewycka is back in this hilarious, farcical, tender novel of modern issues and manners.’

 

Which of these have you read?  Which would you like to read?  Which are the new releases which you are most intrigued by?

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One From the Archive: ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’ by Sarah Moss ****

First published in October 2014.

Sarah Moss, currently lecturing at Exeter University, has previously written two novels, Cold Earth and Night Waking. In 2009, she applied for a position as ‘an expert in nineteenth-century British literature’ at the University of Iceland on something of a ‘whim’, and consequently moved there with her young family.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland collects together Moss’ memories of living in Iceland during a turbulent period in the country’s history, which brought with it economic collapse and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano, which caused problems on a global scale.

The prologue of the volume sets the vastly different vista of Iceland immediately: ‘the typography of the city’s night… There are perhaps half a dozen independent food shops left in Reykjavik and only chain bookshops, but every pool is distinctive’. She goes on to describe the way in which she views her new, albeit relatively temporary, home: ‘Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology’.

From the outset, the author’s fascination with the north is outlined. The first chapter describes her first trip to the country whilst still in her teens with one of her university friends, ‘camping rough because we couldn’t afford campsites and living on an increasingly sparse and eccentric diet because we couldn’t, really, afford food either’. The book is by turns heartwarming, sensual in terms of its perception of place, and rather amusing: ‘I am going to Iceland,’ Moss says, ‘but not because I have a secret desire to wear a horned helmet or drink mead out of a skull’.

Even before Moss, her husband and her two young sons move to Iceland, the problems of uprooting an entire family are made apparent. There is the problem of schooling for her oldest son Max who has become used to the English system of education, and how to decide which belongings to take: ‘my book-buying becomes more extravagant as I try to anticipate a year’s purchases, for myself and also for Max, who has a two-a-day fiction habit’. She describes in an incredibly honest manner what it is like to move away from everything you have ever known and to settle in a relatively alien place.

Throughout, Moss’ descriptions are wonderfully vivid and really bring her varied perceptions of the country to life. They are all enticing and rich in detail, and bring the landscape in which she lived to life. We are able to see the scenes for ourselves without moving from our comfortable reading nooks. During the Aurora borealis, she writes that ‘the northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint… The green and white reach towards each other and then lunge away like opposing magnets forced together. I tread water, and watch’. When describing why she made the decision to uproot her family from comfortable Kent, she states: ‘We’d come for the landscape, for the pale nights and dark shores, rain sweeping over birch scrub, the whole circle of a flat world empty but for ourselves’.

Whilst Moss and her family are settling in, Iceland is hit hard by its failing economy. Other lecturers at the University of Iceland are resigned to the fact that the importation of books from overseas will ‘halt’, and the author’s own salary drops by a third in just a week. Rather than view this with a glum sadness, she takes it in her stride: ‘I don’t know why the collapse of the Icelandic economy… doesn’t put us off… I think it seems likely to be interesting’.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is filled with a wealth of details about the country, from the wonderful to the unsettling. Almost everything about the day-to-day life of its citizens has been included, from the difficulty of renting a property when over ninety percent of the market is ‘owner occupied’, to the kindnesses of virtual strangers as they invite Moss and her family to learn about the culture and customs of their land. The battle between tradition and modernisation is ever-present and an interesting slice of social history has been thoughtfully provided throughout.

‘I am fascinated by this place,’ Moss tells us, ‘but I do not understand it, and all I think I have learnt so far is that understanding it won’t be easy’. As readers, we are her confidantes, those she does not mind sharing her secrets with. As a result, the book comes across as an incredibly friendly and honest piece of writing, which cannot fail but to entice the most resigned armchair reader to wish to explore the country. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is an incredibly engaging, insightful and rather marvellous piece of travel literature.

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