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, 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, 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, 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, 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 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 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 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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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This is a story about twin teenage girls who escape small town life and head for the city. It is about identity and judgement and racism is on every page, much of it ostensibly black on black though the lynching of the girls’ father shows this colour preoccupation is far more than cosmetic in the context of 1950s Louisiana. There’s a lot in this small book.
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The Secrets of Strangers, by Charity Norman
Next time you are in a café, pretend to be Charity Norman and imagine a backstory for everyone in the room. I heard her talk last week and she explained that this was how she came to write the The Secrets of Strangers, just looking around patrons in a café and imagining their stories. One customer knows she has just failed IVF again and is waiting for the confirmation, she’s on a timeline for court and has four minutes to pick up a coffee. Another is an ex-teacher with a gambling addiction, sleeping rough. A boy comes in for breakfast with his grandmother and he will need saving first. There’s a woman who has escaped such atrocities in her homeland it is hard to believe she still functions but she is rock solid and kind to strangers. The girl behind the counter plays too easily with others’ emotions; one man gaslights and manipulates and is about to get shot and one is so traumatised he will pull the trigger.
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