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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A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville
John Macarthur was a British lieutenant who sailed on the second fleet to Botany Bay in 1790 with his wife and child. By all accounts he is a thoroughly nasty man, quarrelsome and jealous. As he manipulates his way to grants of land and stock his influence and holdings increase dramatically. This much is recorded history. But he is not the hero of this story.
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We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Second time round for this book. I read it when it first came out in 2013 and it took a while to recognise it because the title sounds too frivolous for the book it becomes, and the story starts on a bit of a side note. A couple of girls in a canteen meeting and becoming friends. But then our narrator mentions her sister, Fern, and it all came flooding back and made me very uncomfortable all over again.
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All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton
Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.
Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)
It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.
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The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
I was given this book for Christmas and was so excited. Right up my street. Historical—1600s—a sea journey, Norway, an island setting, a storm, a bunch of women surviving remote and desolate lives. What’s not to like?
I was well into this story before I read the blurb a bit more carefully and discovered what’s not to like. The witch trials. They’re based on fact.
What is it with these blokes in power who see strong women as such a threat that they have to burn them at the stake? A woman has poppets in her house. She wears trousers. Burn her!
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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A brilliant story teller on the birth of Biafra and the war, the war, the starving millions. This is a hard book.
I was a child in Wellington during the Nigerian civil war. We learned about the starving children of Biafra and I am still haunted by those first images of black children with distended bellies, held by women with arms so thin they seemed to contain no flesh at all. I didn’t then know the reason for the big bellies but I do after reading Half of a Yellow Sun. The systematic malnutrition of babies and children by the Nigerian generals, aided by British weapons and ammunition was causing acute protein deficiency, leading to the condition known as kwashiorkor.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story is centred around five linked people, who lose all control over their lives as Nigeria erupts into civil war and they become “Biafran” for the three long years of the secessionist state’s existence. All are interesting and fully engaging characters and we walk with them as their stable and happy world disappears fast into chaos and brutality.
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