Here’s one I strongly recommend as a Christmas present. It’s got a very wide appeal, it’s a mixed genre—mystery-ish, crime-y, survival, literary fiction—whatever category it falls into, it’s a gripping read, the sort of book you take on holiday to justify staying all day in the hammock.
The story starts horrifically with a car coming off the road and plunging through the trees into a river below. It has a real “there but the grace of God” feeling to it—who hasn’t taken a corner too fast on some remote bush road and put a hand to their heart when the tires held? John Chamberlain’s last hope, as they leave the road and he reaches for his wife and baby in the passenger seat beside him, is that his children in the back are still asleep.
The poor wean. There’s love, but it’s inconsistent and unreliable, a selfish love given up in tiny doses. There’s food, occasionally, perhaps a tin of custard. I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise Shuggie doesn’t even get off the ground floor. He can’t tick off a thing.
This is not so much a novel as a commitment. There are a lot of lives here and they all ask you to take the time to read, to listen, to understand. Don’t skimp on this book. Don’t try to squeeze it in with quick gulps when your mind is elsewhere.
I found the level of intimacy from strangers a bit overwhelming to begin with. These are straight talking and honest women sharing their experiences from a cross-section of black Britain. They take you right into the living room and sit you down. There are twelve main characters who tell their stories in separate chapters, up and down the generations and all loosely linked. The bunch is tied together at the end in a party.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is an indescribably sad book about inhumanity. A man, born and raised in a war zone, escapes his home country with nothing more than his life (and “home” is a word that needs re-thinking in the context of this story) and yes, he gets away and is rescued at sea from a sinking boat by the Royal Australian Navy.