Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.
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Happiness, by Aminatta Forna
This is the story of two people who meet on a bridge crossing the Thames in London. He is from Ghana, a speaker at a psychology conference. She’s an American biologist making a study of urban foxes.
Different disciplines, different backgrounds and different food preferences, but in everything that matters to the heart and soul, these two hum the same tune. Rather beautifully, as the reader can see, but it takes them a while to be aware of this, which of course is the achingly poignant crux of any great love story.
And this is a love story, though a slow burning one that branches out and back to previous loves, and encompasses a lot else besides.
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This Farming life, by Tim Saunders
Wake up and smell the sheep shit. Seriously. This book is so full of the smells of childhood I’m twelve years old again and on a farm holiday, awake before dawn in a drafty room excited about bottle feeding the lambs.
It’s different, of course, because this isn’t a holiday for Saunders and his family but their full-time lived experience; five generations on this land that they tend with deep affection and with a longevity that gives perspective to the everyday problems of farmers. There’s time. The budget can wait until after lambing. The planting will wait till the rain clears. The price for wool wont pay for the shearing this year and the crop prices are falling — these are long term problems they’ve faced before and they’re still here. They’ll sort it.
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Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
Yes, you should probably read this because it is lyrical and lovely and is the story of Shakespeare’s dying son Hamnet, who he (apparently) honours as Hamlet, in a round about way which may be stretching the truth somewhat.
O’Farrell writes passages of such amazingly close detail that I felt my heartbeat slow in the reading. She spends one whole page describing a woman walking two steps. It’s extraordinary.
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David Olusoga is fast becoming one of my favourite BBC presenters (though David Attenborough will always have my heart). Olusoga presented the excellent two part series on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners in 2015, showing how after slavery was abolished the legacy continued in the compensation paid out—not to the erstwhile slaves but to their “owners”—and in the underlying prejudices that became embedded in the culture. Brilliant documentary, watch it if you can.
His latest documentary is a review of Black British writers. It’s called Africa Turns the Page: the Novels that Shaped a Continent.
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Two books by Eileen Merriman
Get hooked onto Eileen Merriman for some fast, compulsive reading. These are page turners, books for which you need a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door. Believe me, Merriman will disturb you enough. Don’t worry about the categorisation, read the YA books, too.
I first dipped into Merriman’s writing with A Trio of Sophies. Young adults must be into pretty dark stuff these days. The main character, Sophie, is a school girl with two other Sophies in her group, but there’s nothing Sweet Valley High about them. Plenty of rocks below those schoolgirl smiles. The main theme is a teacher/pupil power imbalance, a subject that probably could use talking around before giving this to your teenage daughter.
Continue reading “A Trio of Sophies & The Silence of Snow – book reviews”
The Dickens Boy, by Tom Keneally
Definitely my book of the year so far. I’m a Keneally fan (since Schindler’s Ark all those years ago) and a Dickens fan with a keen interest in Victorians and colonial history and here’s The Dickens Boy with all that wrapped up in a gloriously written novel. Keneally is a master storyteller with characters I can really care about and a honesty that makes me believe that everything here could be true (and quite a lot of it seems to be). Just goes to show you don’t need clever literary devices or pretentious language to write a captivating book, you just need to tell a bloody good story.
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Hell Ship by Michael Veitch
This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.
Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.
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The Bell in the Lake, by Lars Mytting
Norway, 1880. So cold a woman leaned against a wall in church and froze to death, her skin stuck to the wall. No wonder my ancestors left. I love stories like this that are so atmospheric you need to wrap yourself in a blanket to read them.
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Book recommendations for the guys
There are mostly blokes in my book club. We’ve been a good unit for years now, meet bi-monthly in our homes. We’re vaguely kept on track by Roy. It’s a different vibe to the women’s book clubs I’ve been to. There is no chatty gossip or confidences but we know we can count on absolute trust and life support from the group if required. We meet, sit outside or in depending on the season, wine is poured, and the host might say why he chose the book before we do a round robin and back to the host to lead a discussion. There is little talk about writing style, not much on character or theme, but lots of talk about the subject of the book in a wider context.
Continue reading “Blokes & Books”