The Animals in that Country

The Animals in that Country, by Laura Jean McKay

Brilliant and intriguing book. And me someone who has avoided fantasy for decades. Don’t read the blurb about ‘talking animals’—this is not Dr Dolittle— read the excited hype from right across the review spectrum and watch the awards list grow.

Jean is an unlikely heroine. She’s rough bit of work: a hard drinking, chain smoking, promiscuous, internet-troll of a grandmother who makes bad choices. Her colleague Andy is one, she calls him when she wants booze or sex. He’s ‘hairy and stringy, skin stretched over his big belly’ with a jealous boyfriend on the side. Jean’s love for her six-year-old granddaughter is her one redeeming feature, though I wouldn’t trust her to look after any child of mine.

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Beautiful world, where are you — book review

Beautiful world, where are you, by Sally Rooney

Funny how Sally Rooney’s books have such misleading titles. Normal People a case in point. Conversations with Friends. Welcome to Rooney’s beautiful world of normal friends. In this case it comes with a twist at the end — enough to redeem her? I’m not sure.

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Overstory — book review

Overstory, by Richard Powers

This is another commitment book. I might have got on better with a rest before the attempt, having come straight out of some heavies. A chick lit or comedy, perhaps, to give a bit of a breather. It did overwhelm me, as I think a forest probably should, but not in a good way.

I persevered with it, through the numerous characters and their overlapping stories, because the theme is so important. The theme is that trees — or more particularly, forests — are the life blood and lungs of the world. We humans are destroying them at a horrifyingly alarming rate and something should be done.

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Master & Commander — book review

Master & Commander, by Patrick O’Brian

I felt a huge sense of relief to get through this ordeal of a book without being scuppered or broadsided and blasted by a thirty-six pounder or court marshalled and shot by my own side. I kept a furtive lookout for the massing enemy French fleet showing the tips of their masts over the horizon. The thought of comforting myself with several bottles of wine with dinner occurred to me, and a tot of rum a day wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Much of the detail of the action went right over my head and I know that’s the truth for most readers, though there are men who swear they understand every manoeuvre (who you really should not engage in conversation if you have somewhere else to be in the next, say five hours).

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Rangitira—book review

Rangitira, by Paula Morris

What a great book to follow my previous read, This Thing of Darkness. Both Thompson and Paula Morris’s book relate to the 19th Century notion of taking indigenous people from distant lands back to England to “civilise” them and show them off as curiosities. In Thompson’s book, Captain FitzRoy uplifts three Fuegians to ship home, and in Morris’s book the Rangitira travel voluntarily to England. Whichever way you look at it, this is manifest colonial exploitation.

Paula Morris is a descendent of Rangitira’s narrator, the wonderful Paratene Te Manu, Ngāti Wai, and she writes her tupuna with a sure voice. He comes across as a thoughtful and gracious man who, in 1886 while having his portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer, relates the story of his voyage to England some twenty years before.

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This Thing of Darkness

This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson

Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go.
I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.

For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.

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Light Perpetual – book review

Light Perpetual, by Thomas Spufford

Francis Spufford has surprised and delighted me once again. How do you follow a remarkable book like Golden Hill? By writing something completely different, it seems – different genre, different voice and style, different format. You’d imagine that would point to a different audience but I realise it is the integrity of Spufford’s writing that I love every bit as much as the rollicking story that made Golden Hill such a hit for me. I’m sure Light Perpetual will reach all Spufford’s previous fans and garner a legion of new ones.

This is not a rollicking story. It is dysfunctional as a story, if you expect (as I do) a story to follow the adventures and psychological development of one or two main characters. Spufford kills off all his characters in the first chapter.

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Milkman – book review

Milkman, by Anna Burns

Milkman was destined for my Books that don’t make the cut list, but I’ve had second thoughts and decided I really do love it. A year after nearly expiring from the sheer weight of reading it the first time I’m ready to go again. Eagerly ready, in fact, which is the sign of a good book. I don’t know many people who loved it straight off. It takes a bit of distance, perhaps.

To be sure (to be sure) this is one for a book club ready for a bit of a shot in the arm. It’s not a beach read. It’s one girl yabbering non-stop into your ear endlessly. She gives you it all, Northern Ireland in the 1970s through the eyes of a teenager who is trying to go about her life: work, family, boyfriend and avoid the big picture unavoidable stuff – like car bombs and the paramilitary, tribalism and her disturbing stalker, the Milkman. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.” No, he’s a gang-boss thug and one of the creepiest characters I’ve met in recent literature.

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Ribbons of Grace – Book review

Ribbons of Grace by Maxine Alterio

Early this morning the sun rose round as an orange and hot as the fires of love, warming the already dust-dry ground outside Con-Lan’s schist cottage, while inside the whitewashed walls gleamed like skin on a pail of milk.’

Maxine Alterio’s writing is transporting. I copied phrases of this evocative elegance onto scraps of paper and peppered my desk with them. How’s this to set your mind soaring?

In the gorge the ice-heavy river resembles a mass of broken glass. On either side poppy seeds, dropped from the soles of boots worn by miners from California, germinate in pockets of dirt and shingle. Soon they will flower again and hang like coloured lanterns from the cliffs.’

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The Rose Code – book review

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Bletchley Park is all about the Enigma machine and Alan Turing who broke the German codes and won the war, pretty much single-handedly, right?

It’s quite alarming how a good story comes to dominate the historical narrative. On the periphery of Turin’s story is a cast of thousands, and The Rose Code, with barely a mention of Turin, brings these outsiders to the core and shines a light on their extraordinary achievements.

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