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Novella November: ‘Waiting for Bojangles’ by Olivier Bourdeaut ***

Quirky, quintessentially French fiction has always been something which I’ve been drawn to as a reader. I love picking up unusual books with memorable scenes and characters, and it must be said that I’m quite a fan of the more madcap elements which can often be found in books written between Pas-de-Calais and Provence. Olivier Bourdeaut’s novella, Waiting for Bojangles, is just such a story.

I hadn’t heard of this book, or of its author, but I spotted the slim volume on a trip to the library, and was intrigued. The novella is Bourdeaut’s first published work, and is the recipient of three prizes in France. When I started to read the blurb, I knew that it was a story I wanted to read. The reviews which pepper its covers attracted me further; Elle France calls the novella ‘a joyful and witty mess’, and Spanish El Correo says it is ‘delightful and overwhelming’.

Waiting for Bojangles is partly narrated by an unnamed, and quite sweetly endearing young boy, who lives with his ‘eccentric family who grapple with the realities of mental illness in unique and whimsical ways.’ He lives in a beautiful old Paris apartment, with his rich parents, and a crane named Mademoiselle Superfluous, who likes to make her presence known. He tells us: ‘The elegant and surprising bird lived in our apartment, parading her undulating long black neck, white plumes jutting from her violently red eyes.’ Mademoiselle Superfluous ‘ate canned tuna fish, enjoyed classical music, wore custom-made jewelry, attended cocktail parties and had lost the knack for birdier things.’

His father continually calls his mother by different names: ‘… she’d turn to the mirror and greet the new Renee with a pout, the new Josephine with a regal gaze, the new Marylou with puffed-out cheeks.’ Only on one single day during the year does her name stay the same: ‘on February 15, her name was Georgette. It still wasn’t her real name, but Saint Georgette’s day was the day after Saint Valentine’s Day.’ The ‘Mr Bojangles’ of the novella’s title relates to a Nina Simone song which both parents love, and often dance to. His parents often speak in rhyme – which, I admit, did get a little tedious after a while – and are quite irresponsible, leaving all of their mail unopened, often serving dinner at midnight, and throwing endless parties for swathes of strange friends.

Chapters are told from the perspectives of both the young boy and his father; these shift from one to another, and back again. Of course, we learn more of the concrete details from the father, as he is evidently more aware of what the mother is going through. He is also not as distracted by everything else around him, as the boy can be. In the first chapter narrated by the father, he describes their first meeting: ‘I could see perfectly well that she wasn’t all there, that her delirious green eyes hid secret fault lines, and I ought to beware. That her plump, childish cheeks concealed a painful past, and that this beautiful young woman, who at first glance was droll and dazzling, had been through the mill and had emerged bruised and unraveling. I was thinking that that had to be why she danced so madly – both gladly and sadly – to forget her troubles, that’s all.’

There is a darkness lying behind the more whimsical details of the story. The boy’s mother, suffering from an unnamed mental illness, gets more and more ill as time passes. His father takes it upon himself to keep her safe and, longing to save her from hospitalisation, he moves the family from bustling Paris to an idyllic country house in Spain – crane and all. The boy comments: ‘… Dad had purchased a beautiful castle in the air. It was in Spain, far south of Paris. You had to drive a little, fly a little, drive a little more, and be very patient. Perched on a mountainside, floating above an all-white village where the streets were empty in the afternoon and full of people at night, all you could see from the castle was pine forests.’ At the point of moving, his parents offer him ‘early retirement’ by taking him out of school.

Throughout, I far preferred the perspective of the young boy. He observes things with more care; for instance, ‘The real problem was that she [his mother] was losing her mind and didn’t know where to find it.’ He also reveals, very early on, ‘I often didn’t understand my father. I did a little more as the years went by, but never completely. Which was fine with me.’ There is a real feeling of loneliness to this real character at times. I quite liked the way in which we were never quite certain of his age, particularly when his father plies him with such things as cigarettes and gin and tonics.

There is a lot left unsaid in Waiting for Bojangles. We never learn the names of the characters, or the condition which his mother suffers from; indeed, we do not know if she is ever diagnosed. These ambiguities fit very well with the story; they show just how the perceptions which one projects can be markedly different from their realities. His mother gets incredibly upset from time to time, but otherwise, he says, ‘she was rapturous about everything, found the world’s progress thrilling, and skipped along with it joyfully.’ She treats her son not like a child, but ‘more like a character from a book that she loved very dearly, and that could absorb all her attention in an instant.’

Regan Kramer’s 2019 translation was excellent; so much of the detail is captured with a great deal of fluency. Kramer has managed to capture a rhythm here, and to maintain elements such as rhyme schemes from the original. The translation itself is definitely one of the real strengths of the English version.

Overall, there is something quite beguiling about Waiting for Bojangles, and it is certainly a memorable story. However, in many ways, there is too little realism to it, despite the mother’s mental health difficulties. The family have almost too many eccentricities to make the more serious elements of the plot believable. There are shifts in the lives of the family as the mother becomes more unwell, but there is perhaps too much of a light touch here. Bourdeaut undoubtedly displays a great deal of imagination here. However, whilst in some ways I enjoyed the novella, in others, it did not quite work for me.

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Novella November: Three Novellas in Translation

Whilst reading as many novellas as I could get my hands on for this Novella November celebration, I came across a few titles which were fine, but which I didn’t want to write a full review of. Rather than leave my thoughts solely in my notebook, I wanted to group together three books in translation. These might end up being just what you’re looking for in your reading life, and I do hope that you find something of interest here.

The Tiger and the Acrobat by Susanna Tamaro; translated from the Italian by Nicoleugenia Prezzavento and Vicki Satlow

The Tiger and the Acrobat is one of those animal-focused fables, which have enjoyed popularity in recent years, and have been translated into many languages. In the vein of the Korean The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, and the Japanese The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, I liked this well enough, but found parts of it rather repetitive and overdone.

The focus of this story is named Little Tiger. As a cub, in the region between the taiga and the Arctic tundra, she lives with her protective mother and playful brother. From the first, Little Tiger is highly philosophical, and wants nothing more than to ‘discover her own place’ within the world. This comes when her mother decides the cubs are old enough to fend for themselves, and sets off alone. Little Tiger tries to follow her, but cannot find her trail; instead, she starts to head east. She befriends a couple of humans along the way, who allow her to live with them, or help her to escape.

The Tiger and the Acrobat was rather mawkish in places, and I must say that I really disliked the way in which Little Tiger could communicate with humans. I didn’t think this was necessary, and it really added an element to the story which I was unable to suspend my disbelief for. The story is undoubtedly easy to read, with its very short chapters and rather simplistic prose, but I’m not sure that I got much from it overall. The plot is sometimes contradictory, and a little inconsistent, and it does feel a little too obvious most of the time.

The Little French Recipe Book by Jacky Durand; translated from the French by Sarah Robertson

I love France, and have really missed being able to travel there regularly over the last couple of years. Whenever I visit my local library, or – more rarely – find myself in a bookshop, I always find myself drawn to titles either set in France, or originally written in French. This led to me picking up Liberation journalist Jacky Durand’s debut, The Little French Recipe Book. And, for me, something which is just as good as French books? French food.

Our protagonist here is Julien. For thirty years, he was wondered why his mother abruptly walked out on him, leaving him with his standoffish chef father. In the present day, in the east of France, his father is dying from advanced cancer, and has been in hospital for six months. He passes away early in the narrative, which then shifts to Julien’s childhood and teenage years.

I liked the way in which so much of Durand’s writing was focused upon food, and I found his descriptions quite evocative, and hunger-inducing. The characters, though, were rather flat on the whole, and I found Julien wholly unlikeable. The book was not overly compelling in my opinion, and the mystery element – the notebook which his father filled with recipes, and which Julien so coveted – was rather disappointing in its denouement. This isn’t a bad novella by any means, and I would recommend it if you too are interested in culinary delights, but I’m not sure I’d seek out any of Durand’s books in future.

The Doll by Ismail Kadare; translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson

Ismail Kadare’s The Doll feels, in part, like a work of autobiography rather than fiction. The main character in the book has the same name as the author, and the story itself is rooted in Kadare’s Albanian homeland, in the Gjirokastër region, and later in the capital, Tirana. Subtitled ‘A Portrait of My Mother’, The Doll focuses mainly upon the narrator’s rather fascinating, and tiny, mother.

I enjoyed some of the writing here, particularly those sentences which tried to describe the enigma of the mother. Kadare writes, for instance, ‘Lightness. The wooden stairs of the house, usually so sensitive, never creaked under her feet. Like her steps, everything about her was light – her clothes, her speech, her sighs.’ He later describes her ‘fragility’ as something akin to ‘paper or plaster of Paris’. Another area of interest for me here was the inclusion of so many Albanian customs, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading about.

The Kadare of the story is open about his relationship with his mother, and the effects which they have upon one another. Whilst I found The Doll relatively interesting on the whole, I did feel as though the storyline began to wane somewhat at around the halfway mark. I did not know in which direction the story would go, but it did not really keep me guessing, and I can’t say that I was blown away by it. I would like to read more of Kadare’s books in future, but I must say that I didn’t like this anywhere near as much as Broken April, which I read back in 2018. I would, however, recommend this short volume if you’re looking for something a little different to read, which is steeped in another culture.

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Novella November: ‘Mrs Caliban’ by Rachel Ingalls ***

Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban is a novella which I had been intrigued by for quite some time. The New Yorker calls it ‘a miracle’, and Carmen Maria Machado declares it a ‘feminist masterpiece’. Mrs Caliban was also named by the British Book Marketing Guild as ‘one of the greatest American novels since World War II – to [Ingall’s] surprise.’

Mrs Caliban focuses on Dorothy, a grieving housewife living in the suburbs in California. She has recently lost her young son to an illness, and suffered a miscarriage. She and her unfaithful – and very unlikeable, it must be said – husband Fred are ‘too unhappy to get a divorce’. One day, early on in the story, Dorothy is listening to the radio when she hears a story about a dangerous ‘green-skinned sea monster’ escaping from a local research institute. He then, of course, turns up in her kitchen.

Larry the Frogman is ‘muscular, vegetarian, sexually magnetic and excellent at housework’. When she meets this ‘gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature’, Dorothy falls for him immediately. Ingalls describes their meeting thus: ‘She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realising that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor.’ She immediately offers him a bed in the guest room, and a large vegetable salad which she had conveniently been preparing. The very next day, ‘They made love on the living-room floor and on the dining-room sofa and sitting in the kitchen chairs, and upstairs in the bathtub.’

The Faber Editions version of the novella includes a new foreword written by Irenosen Okojie, which I read with interest. She writes: ‘Through her remarkable, uniquely strange tales, Rachel Ingalls subverts the expectations of storytelling within modern consciousness.’ She goes on to say that the author ‘moves beyond the limits of form with a lightness of touch. It is a hallucinatory vision anchored by the tricks and tribulations of everyday people, mining the disintegration of a marriage within the suffering constraints of American suburbia with nuance and originality.’ Okojie also laments that Ingalls – a writer whom she says has a ‘singular aesthetic’ which encompasses ‘Gothic symphony, suburban horror, warped fable, [and] avant-garde cinematic ode’ – ‘remains in obscurity’. This is despite Ingalls publishing more than ten books.

I was most excited about the element of magical realism here, something which I love when it is done well. I had quite high hopes for the way in which Ingalls would handle this. At first, the magical realism here feels quite natural, but it becomes more and more absurd as the narrative gathers speed. I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief after the first forty pages or so, and had to do so consciously – an action which felt forced. I like magical realism to sweep me up entirely, but Mrs Caliban sadly failed to do this. It also seems to veer toward science fiction somewhere around the middle, which I was not expecting, and did not entirely like.

One aspect of Mrs Caliban which I would have liked to see explored further is that of madness. There are hints at the outset that Dorothy is being plagued by stories she hears on the radio ‘that couldn’t possibly be real… She hadn’t thought she was going crazy, not straight away. She believed it was just her own thoughts forcing themselves into the low-pitched sounds and their insistent rhythm.’ This seemed promising, but what could have been an incredibly interesting part of the story is largely left alone. In her introduction, Okigie does elude to the way in which Larry might be a mere figment of Dorothy’s imagination, something to help her cope with the pain of her loss. However, this is not clear within the story itself, and I think this is a shame.

Something which is done well here is the way in which Ingalls touches upon Dorothy’s grief. This is a motif which is repeated throughout at intervals. We are told, for instance: ‘At first, after Scotty and the baby when she had begun the compulsive restless walks, [her husband Fred] had been worried about her… She was unprotected, he said. Anything could happen, even in the suburbs, even in a nice one like theirs.’ I did feel a lot of empathy where Dorothy was concerned. After she meets Larry, Ingalls writes: ‘For so many years there had been nothing… She had no interests, no marriage to speak of, no children. Now, at last, she had something.’

Mrs Caliban is strange, but highly beguiling, and I was swept into the story very early on. However, my interest in the story did began to wane, and I think the main reason for this was the extensive sections of dialogue between all of the main characters. There were some tender moments – for instance, in the emotional relationship which grew between Dorothy and Larry – but this was overshadowed by the often quite dull sections of conversation which permeate the whole, and add very little overall to the story. I understand that these parts were used in order to try and help Dorothy and Larry understand one another’s worlds, but on the whole, they felt overdone, and quite strained. Had Mrs Caliban featured more omniscient narrative – something which worked very well here – and less of these conversations, I may well have enjoyed it a lot more.

First published in 1982, Mrs Caliban is bound up in the feminist movement, and is very interesting to read with this perspective in mind. At just 117 pages, it is rather quick to get through, but it certainly raises a lot of questions, and elements to mull over further. Mrs Caliban is certainly an unusual book, and it is one which I would recommend if you are looking to pick up something a little different. I did want to keep turning the pages to see what would happen, but without giving anything away, I do not feel as though it was entirely satisfying as it reached its end. As the story went on, I did find myself using curiosity about Dorothy in particular, and I’m not sure that I’d pick up another of Ingalls’ books on the strength of this one.

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One From the Archive – The Book Trail: From Circus to Island

First published in 2016.

I am finding the choices on The Book Depository website a little arbitrary when it comes to creating these Book Trail posts, so I have switched allegiance to Goodreads.  The choices it affords are generally far more unusual, and it’s quite refreshing not to have to wade through the most popular general fiction to find something a little different.  Without explaining my choices too much, let me present our newest Book Trail, which begins with one of my favourite books.

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1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

 
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.  Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air. Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.’

This leads us to another of my absolute favourites…

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2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen


‘On a small snow-covered island—so tiny that it can’t be found on any map—lives twelve-year-old Minou, her philosopher Papa (a descendent of Descartes), Boxman the magician, and a clever dog called No-Name. A year earlier Minou’s mother left the house wearing her best shoes and carrying a large black umbrella. She never returned.  One morning Minou finds a dead boy washed up on the beach. Her father decides to lay him in the room that once belonged to her mother. Can her mother’s disappearance be explained by the boy? Will Boxman be able to help find her? Minou, unwilling to accept her mother’s death, attempts to find the truth through Descartes’ philosophy. Over the course of her investigation Minou will discover the truth about loss and love, a truth that The Vanishing Act conveys in a voice that is uniquely enchanting.’

We then move from one intriguing title to another…

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3. Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe 


‘In 1987, Sue Bowl’s world changes for ever. Her mother dies, leaving her feeling like she’s lost a vital part of herself. And then her father shacks up with an awful golddigger called Ivana.  But Sue’s mother always told her to make the most of what she’s got – and what she’s got is a love of writing and some interesting relatives. So Sue moves to her Aunt Coral’s crumbling ancestral home, Green Place, along with a growing bunch of oddballs and eccentrics. Not to mention the odd badger or two . . .  There she fully intends to write a book, fall in love, and learn to live decadently.  Campari for Breakfastis a heart-warming, eccentric novel that joins the ranks of great British coming-of-age novels such as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.’

Book four takes us from Campari to Cornwall…

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4. A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale


‘When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous. Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good?’

Book five pulls together peril in both the past and present…

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5. The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale 


‘On its way to the Galapagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice – should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves?  In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions.  Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain – something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness.  The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption – and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.’

Book six is one which I’ve had my eye on for quite a while…

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6. The Wilding by Maria McCann


‘Jonathan Dymond, a 26-year old cider-maker in post-Civil War England, has enjoyed a quiet, harmonious existence until a letter arrives from his uncle with a request to speak with his father. When his father returns from the visit the next day, all he can say is that Jonathan’s uncle has died. Then Jonathan finds a fragment of the letter, with talk of inheritance and vengeance…’

The penultimate choice on this Book Trail is one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read…

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7. The Still Point by Amy Sackville 


‘At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer’s day, Edward’s great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily’s romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances – geographical and emotional – that can exist between two people.’

Our finishing point is another set in an isolated community…

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8. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg


‘A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

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One From the Archive – The Book Trail: From North to East

First published in 2019.

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.

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1. 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.’

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3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 
‘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.’

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5. 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.’

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7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 
‘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?

1

The Book Trail: From the Last Life to the Louding Voice

I’ve used Claire Messud’s The Last Life, which I reviewed in my last post, to kick off this edition of the Book Trail. As usual, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to collate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or if any of the titles take your fancy!

1. The Last Life by Claire Messud

‘The Last Life is the story of the teenage Sagesse LaBasse and her family, French Algerian emigrants. It is set in colonial Algeria, the south of France, and New England. The LaBasse family had always believed in the permanence of their world, in which stories created from the past had the weight of truth, in which cynicism was the defense against disaster. But when shots from the grand-father’s rifle shatter an evening’s quiet, their world begins to crumble, the reality to emerge: the bastard son abandoned by the family before he was even born; Sagesse’s handicapped brother for whom the family cared with Catholic dignity; her American mother who pretended to be French; the trigger-happy grandfather; and Sagesse’s father, whose act of defiance brought down the Hotel Bellevue, her grandfather’s house built on rock, to its knees. Observed with a fifteen-year-old’s ruthless regard for truth, The Last Life is a beautifully told novel of secrets and ghosts, love and honor, the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling.’

2. Home by Manju Kapur

‘Tender and funny, Manju Kapur’s third novel is an engrossing story of family life, across three generations of Delhi shopkeepers. When their traditional business – selling saris – is increasingly sidelined by the new fashion for jeans and stitched salwar kameez, the Banwari Lal family must adapt. But, instead of branching out, the sons remain apprenticed to the struggling shop, and the daughters are confined to the family home. As envy and suspicion grip parents and children alike, the need for escape – whether through illicit love or in the making of pickles or the search for education – becomes ever stronger. Very human and hugely engaging, “Home” is a masterful novel of the acts of kindness, compromise, and secrecy, that lie at the heart of every family.’

3. No Name by Wilkie Collins

‘Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah learn the true meaning of social stigma in Victorian England only after the traumatic discovery that their dearly loved parents, whose sudden deaths have left them orphans, were not married at the time of their birth. Disinherited by law and brutally ousted from Combe-Raven, the idyllic country estate which has been their peaceful home since childhood, the two young women are left to fend for themselves. While the submissive Norah follows a path of duty and hardship as a governess, her high-spirited and rebellious younger sister has made other decisions. Determined to regain her rightful inheritance at any cost, Magdalen uses her unconventional beauty and dramatic talent in recklessly pursuing her revenge. Aided by the audacious swindler Captain Wragge, she braves a series of trials leading up to the climactic test: can she trade herself in marriage to the man she loathes?

Written in the early 1860s, between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, No Name was rejected as immoral by critics of its time, but is today regarded as a novel of outstanding social insight, showing Collins at the height of his powers.’

4. The River Home by Hannah Richell

‘In their ramshackle Somerset home, with its lush gardens running down to the river, the Sorrells have gathered for a last-minute wedding—an occasion that is met with trepidation by each member of the family.

Lucy, the bride, has begged her loved ones to attend—not telling them that she has some important news to share once they’ve gathered. Her prodigal baby sister, Margot, who left home after a devastating argument with their mother, reluctantly agrees, though their family home is the site of so much pain for her. Meanwhile, their eldest sister, Eve, has thrown herself into a tailspin planning the details of the wedding—anything to distract herself from how her own life is unraveling—and their long-separated artist parents are forced to play the roles of cheerful hosts through gritted teeth.

As the Sorrells come together for a week of celebration and confrontation, their painful memories are revisited and their relationships stretched to the breaking point.

Moving, poignant, and unforgettable, The River Home showcases once again Hannah Richell’s talent for creating characters readers can relate to—and telling stories that linger in the mind long after the final page.’

5. The Corset by Laura Purcell

‘The new Victorian chiller from the author of Radio 2 Book Club pick, The Silent Companions.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?’

6. Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

‘WHEN Esther Thorel, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

Inside the Thorels’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

It is silk that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.’

7. Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

‘1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.’

8. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

‘The unforgettable, inspiring story of a teenage girl growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can find her “louding voice” and speak up for herself, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant tale about the power of fighting for your dreams.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself – and help other girls like her do the same.

Her spirited determination to find joy and hope in even the most difficult circumstances imaginable will “break your heart and then put it back together again” (Jenna Bush Hager on The Today Show) even as Adunni shows us how one courageous young girl can inspire us all to reach for our dreams…and maybe even change the world.’

0

The Book Trail: From ‘The Quickening’ to ‘The Lamplighters’

I have chosen to begin this particular addition to The Book Trail with an historical fiction tome which I have had my eye on for quite some time. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know which of these books you have read, and whether any of them also take your fancy.

1. The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

‘England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married to a war-traumatised husband and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction.

She learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, and that the lady of the house has asked those who gathered back then to come together once more to recreate the evening. When a mysterious child appears on the grounds, Louisa finds herself compelled to investigate and becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house. Gradually, she unravels the long-held secrets of the inhabitants and what really happened thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with that of Clewer Hall’s.’

2. The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

‘As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another… Why is the killer seemingly targeting her business?

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them.

But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…’

3. A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this gripping dark novel based on the true scandal of two women determined to create their own fates in the Jacobean court.

When Frances Howard, beautiful but unhappy wife of the Earl of Essex, meets the talented Anne Turner, the two strike up an unlikely, yet powerful, friendship. Frances makes Anne her confidante, sweeping her into a glamorous and extravagant world, riven with bitter rivalry.

As the women grow closer, each hopes to change her circumstances. Frances is trapped in a miserable marriage while loving another, and newly-widowed Anne struggles to keep herself and her six children alive as she waits for a promised proposal. A desperate plan to change their fortunes is hatched. But navigating the Jacobean court is a dangerous game and one misstep could cost them everything.’

4. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

‘From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, a mesmerizing and boldly inventive novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the life arcs of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory and expectation, and the preciousness of life.’

5. Lightseekers by Femi Kadoye

‘When Dr. Philip Taiwo is called on by a powerful Nigerian politician to investigate the public torture and murder of three university students in remote Port Harcourt, he has no idea that he’s about to be enveloped by a perilous case that is far from cold.
 
Philip is not a detective. He’s an investigative psychologist, an academic more interested in figuring out the why of a crime than actually solving it. But when he steps off the plane and into the dizzying frenzy of the provincial airport, he soon realizes that the murder of the Okriki Three isn’t as straightforward as he thought. With the help of his loyal and streetwise personal driver, Chika, Philip must work against those actively conspiring against him to parse together the truth of what happened to these students.
 
A thrilling and atmospheric mystery, and an unforgettable portrait of the contemporary Nigerian sociopolitical landscape, Lightseekers is a wrenching novel tackling the porousness between the first and third worlds, the enduring strength of tribalism and homeland identity, and the human need for connection in the face of isolation.’

6. Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

‘A twisty, whip-smart debut thriller, as electrifying as the #1 New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train, about impending motherhood, unreliable friendship, and the high price of keeping secrets.

Helen’s idyllic life—handsome architect husband, gorgeous Victorian house, and cherished baby on the way (after years of trying)—begins to change the day she attends her first prenatal class and meets Rachel, an unpredictable single mother-to-be. Rachel doesn’t seem very maternal: she smokes, drinks, and professes little interest in parenthood. Still, Helen is drawn to her. Maybe Rachel just needs a friend. And to be honest, Helen’s a bit lonely herself. At least Rachel is fun to be with. She makes Helen laugh, invites her confidences, and distracts her from her fears.

But her increasingly erratic behavior is unsettling. And Helen’s not the only one who’s noticed. Her friends and family begin to suspect that her strange new friend may be linked to their shared history in unexpected ways. When Rachel threatens to expose a past crime that could destroy all of their lives, it becomes clear that there are more than a few secrets laying beneath the broad-leaved trees and warm lamplight of Greenwich Park.’

7. Another Life by Jodie Chapman

‘Nick and Anna work the same summer job at their local cinema. Anna is mysterious, beautiful, and from a very different world to Nick.

She’s grown up preparing for the end of days, in a tightly-controlled existence where Christmas, getting drunk and sex before marriage are all off-limits.

So when Nick comes into her life, Anna falls passionately in love. Their shared world burns with poetry and music, cigarettes and conversation – hints of the people they hope to become.

But Anna, on the cusp of adulthood, is afraid to give up everything she’s ever believed in, and everyone she’s ever loved. She walks away, and Nick doesn’t stop her.

Years later, a tragedy draws Anna back into Nick’s life.’

8. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

‘Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .

The Lamplighters is a heart-stopping mystery rich with the salty air of the Cornish coast, and an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.’

0

Quarterly Picks (Q1, 2022)

Late last year, I started a new full-time job, and I’ve now had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have as much time to write reviews as I would like. I’m conscious that I want all of the books which I’ve particularly enjoyed to receive attention on the blog, but I haven’t had the chance to write down all of my thoughts about them.

I therefore thought that for the timebeing, I would adopt a new strategy, named Quarterly Picks. At the end of each quarter, I intend to collect together around ten books which I have relished during the last three months, which I want to draw attention to. For each, I will be sharing the official blurbs, and adding a little extra information here and there.

  1. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (non-fiction; exercise; the great outdoors)

‘An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself.
 
We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world.

Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.’

2. Teeth in the Back of My Neck by Monika Radojevic (poetry; powerful; hard-hitting; social commentary)

‘Written with profound depth and insight, the poems in Teeth in the Back of My Neck explore the joys, the confusions and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe ­- and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not.

Bristling with tension and beautifully realised, Monika Radojevic’s impressive debut collection is an introduction to one of the most exciting and impressive poets of her generation.’

3. My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel Deloache Williams (non-fiction, memoir; true crime; scandal)

‘Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams’s new friend Anna Delvey, a self-proclaimed German heiress, was worldly and ambitious. She was also generous. When Anna proposed an all-expenses-paid trip to Marrakech, Rachel jumped at the chance. But when Anna’s credit cards mysteriously stopped working, the dream vacation quickly took a dark turn. Anna asked Rachel to begin fronting costs—first for flights, then meals and shopping, and, finally, for their $7,500-per-night private villa. Before Rachel knew it, more than $62,000 had been charged to her credit cards. Anna swore she would reimburse Rachel the moment they returned to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the repayment never materialized, and a shocking pattern of deception emerged. Rachel learned that Anna had left a trail of deceit—and unpaid bills—wherever she’d been. Mortified, Rachel contacted the district attorney, and in a stunning turn of events, found herself helping to bring down one of the city’s most notorious con artists.’

4. Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack (non-fiction, criticism; art; feminism; )

‘Women’s identity has long been stifled by a limited set of archetypes, found everywhere in pictures from art history’s classics to advertising, while women artists have been overlooked and held back from shaping more empowering roles.

In this impassioned book, art historian Catherine McCormack asks us to look again at what these images have told us to value, opening up our most loved images – from those of Titian and Botticelli to Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites. She also shows us how women artists – from Berthe Morisot to Beyoncé, Judy Chicago to Kara Walker – have offered us new ways of thinking about women’s identity, sexuality, race and power. 

Women in the Picture gives us new ways of seeing the art of the past and the familiar images of today so that we might free women from these restrictive roles and embrace the breadth of women’s vision.’

5. A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction; embroidery; strong women)

‘1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.’

6. Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence (non-fiction; investigative; eye-opening)

‘In 2004 Felicity Lawrence published her ground-breaking book, Not on the Label, where, in a series of undercover investigations she provided a shocking account of what really goes into the food we eat. She discovered why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a single lettuce might be sprayed six times with chemicals before it ends up in our salad, why bread is full of water. And she showed how obesity, the appalling conditions of migrant workers, ravaged fields in Europe and the supermarket on our high street are all intimately connected. Her discoveries would change the way we thought about the UK food industry for ever. And, when the horsemeat scandal hit the headlines in 2013, her book seemed extraordinarily prescient once again. Now, in this new edition of her seminal work, Felicity Lawrence delves deeply into that scandal and uncovers how the great British public ended up eating horses.’

7. Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel (non-fiction, memoir; race; womanhood; creativity)

‘In this sensational agenda-setting début, Michaela Coel, BAFTA-winning actor and writer of breakout series I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum, makes a compelling case for radical honesty.

Drawing on her unflinching Edinburgh Festival MacTaggart lecture, Misfits recounts deeply personal anecdotes from Coel’s life and work to argue for greater transparency. With insight and wit, it lays bare her journey to reclaiming her creativity and power, inviting readers to reflect on theirs.

Advocating for ‘misfits’ everywhere, this timely, necessary book is a rousing and bold case against fitting in.’

8. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (graphic novel, memoir; Russian culture in the United States; relationships)

‘A gripping and hilarious middle-grade summer camp memoir from the author of Anya’s Ghost.

All Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, and Victoria Jamieson, Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared is a funny and relatable middle-grade graphic novel about navigating your own culture, struggling to belong, and cherishing true friendship.’

9. The Gaps by Leanne Hall (fiction, mystery; race; class)

‘When sixteen-year-old Yin Mitchell is abducted, the news reverberates through the whole Year Ten class at Balmoral Ladies College. As the hours tick by, the girls know the chance of Yin being found alive is becoming smaller and smaller.

Police suspect the abduction is the work of a serial offender, with none in the community safe from suspicion. Everyone is affected by Yin’s disappearance—even scholarship student Chloe, who usually stays out of Balmoral drama, is drawn into the maelstrom. And when she begins to form an uneasy alliance with the queen of Year Ten, Natalia, things get even more complicated.

Looking over their shoulders at every turn, Chloe and Natalia must come together to cope with their fear and grief as best they can. A tribute to friendship in all its guises, The Gaps is a moving examination of vulnerability and strength, safety and danger, and the particular uncertainty of being a young woman in the world.’

10. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield (fiction; magical realism; relationships)

‘Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of salt slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.’

Have you read any of these books? Which are your top picks from the last quarter?

5

Eight Great Series

As a child, I read a lot of book series – The Chronicles of Narnia, everything by Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, and even, embarrassingly, the Babysitter Club books as a tween – but I definitely gravitate more towards standalone novels as an adult. However, recently I began Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, about a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk, who assists the local police in all manner of grisly cases. I realised that I very much enjoy the gradual character arcs which such a series brings, and am eagerly awaiting the newest instalment=.

This led me to think about the fictional series which I have actually read the majority of as an adult, and I wanted to piece together a post which showcases my favourites. I have tried to be as varied as possible, but the majority of series which I have read are crime-related; this is great, I suppose, if you are partial to a detective story, but I have tried to focus on the slightly more unusual, or lesser known, series here. Of course, I love the Miss Marple stories – and have read every single one – but I decided not to include them, as they are so well known.

1. The Ruth Galloway Series by Elly Griffiths

As I have mentioned above, Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, who works as a lecturer at the fictional University of North Norfolk (UNN). In the first book, she begins to assist the police with forensics in a case, and soon becomes one of the people they call on to help. Along with the rather awful cases which come up in each book – the murder of a young girl in The Crossing Places (book number one), and six bodies found at the foot of a remote cliff in The House at Sea’s End (book three) – there is also a running storyline of Ruth’s brief affair with married policeman, Harry Nelson. The character development here is impressive, and every single novel has kept my interest. I would highly recommend starting the series if you’d like something with elements of the detective novel, but which is rather different in its approach.

Start with: The Crossing Places, as these books do need to be read in order
My favourite from the series: The Crossing Places, The Outcast Dead (book number six), and The Dark Angel (book number 10)

2. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I have only read the first three books of this series so far, but I absolutely adore them. I am writing this post ahead of time (thank goodness for WordPress’ scheduling abilities!), so hopefully by the time this is published, I will have read the five book cycle. The novels display a family, the Cazalets, in all of their trauma and their glory. There are many characters, but each is distinctive. The first novel, The Light Years, begins in 1937, when the Second World War ‘is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon’, and the final book, All Change, is set during the 1950s. I am so looking forward to seeing where this series takes me, and what happens to my favourite characters as they change and grow.

Start with: The Light Years; this cycle is chronological, and also needs to be read in order
My favourite from the series: Marking Time (book number two)

3. The Pilgrimage Cycle by Dorothy Richardson

I started reading Dorothy Richardson’s excellent Pilgrimage cycle in January 2016, with the first book, Pointed Roofs. The novels, written in the stream-of-consciousness style, follow a young woman named Miriam Henderson. They are beautifully written, and enlightening. I had planned to write my research Master’s thesis about the novels, but my supervisor was already working on such a project with another student. Regardless, these are wonderful books to study, as there is so much to look at. I have not finished the thirteen novels which make up Pilgrimage yet, as I have had trouble getting my hands on the later volumes. I am pretty sure that I will love them, though.

Start with: Pointed Roofs, as this series also needs to be read in order
My favourite from the series: Pointed Roofs (book number one), and Backwater (book number two)

4. The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola

Emile Zola is a wonderful author, and one whom – perhaps controversially – I do not feel is read enough. I am not very far through the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, but I have loved each tome from it which I have read to date. A great thing about the series is that it does not need to be read in any order, given that the characters differ from book to book. I started reading this whilst studying at King’s College London, when The Ladies’ Paradise (book number eleven) was one of the books on my reading list. I absolutely adored it, and have been (very slowly) working my way through since.

Start with: whichever you like, although I would highly recommend The Ladies’ Paradise! Nana (book number nine) would be a good starting point too
My favourite from the series: The Ladies’ Paradise

5. The Gervase Fen Mysteries by Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin is an excellent writer of vintage mysteries, and I have thoroughly enjoyed this series so far. They are entertaining, filled with fascinating characters, and clever mysteries. I really like the character of Gervase Fen, an ‘unconventional’ Oxford University don whom we first meet in The Case of the Gilded Fly. Fen is also an amateur detective, and likes nothing more than taking a strange case to its conclusions. Again, I do not feel as though this series needs to be read in order, so choose whichever tome you want to begin with.

Start with: the mystery which appeals to you most.
My favourite from the series: The Moving Toyshop (book number three)

6. The Fairyland Cycle by Catherynne M. Valente

These books are a little more unusual, and nothing which I would ordinarily choose to read, as I steer clear of fantasy novels as a general rule. Catherynne M. Valente’s novels, though, are beautiful, with excellent word choices, and unusual prose. The stories in this series are imaginative, and I love the way in which she weaves together the everyday and the strange, to make something quite compelling. The long chapter titles, too, are very appealing.

Start with: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the first book in the series. There is a continuous thread of story here, so the books do need to be read in order.
My favourite from the series: I like them all equally.

7. Tommy and Tuppence by Agatha Christie

I feel that Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories are far less well known than the likes of her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. The stories were televised a few years ago, but I have not watched them, as I cannot imagine David Walliams in the title role. Regardless, the stories are clever – in true Christie fashion, of course – and they keep one guessing throughout. Tommy and Tuppence also feel rather different to her more famous characters.

Start with: your choice; again, I do not feel that these books need to be read in any particular order.
My favourite from the series: The Secret Adversary (book number one)

8. Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy

The frontman of one of my favourite bands, The Decemberists, Colin Meloy started releasing books in the Wildwood trilogy back in 2011. This imaginative series is set in Portland, Oregon, in ‘a dense, tangled forest’ at the edge of the city. Here, a young girl named Prue McKeel ventures after her baby brother is snatched by a murder of crows. It sounds strange, and it is, but as with his songs, Meloy’s choices of vocabulary are gorgeous and rich, and his stories come together so well.

Start with: Wildwood, the first book in the series. These stories do need to be read in chronological order.
My favourite from the series: Wildwood

Have you read any of these series? Do you have anything to recommend to me along this vein?

1

The Book Trail: From Hunger to Nives

I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!

1. 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.’

2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo

‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.

Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’

3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’

4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.

Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.

Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’

5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.

Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’

6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman

‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’

7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’

8. Nives by Sacha Naspini

‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine

Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?

Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.

Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’