The Midnight Library—book review

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is an extremely popular modern writer and I can see why. He writes about the idiosyncrasies of being human and what makes us tick. What is normal, what are other people’s lives like, what are we here for, what’s the point? And he covers these big, existentialist questions in a blithe, chatty way to disguise where he is taking you. I’ll be slammed for suggesting that he diminishes important ideas to the level of pop culture, but there we are. If you want to spark a deep conversation when you’re sitting with your mates on sofas and pouring out the chardonnay (and that’s a yes from me), this book might start you off.

Actually, I have moved this review into my books that don’t make the cut section because, while Haig is a popular author and The Midnight Library an interesting read, I did have a few qualms about the subject matter treated in such a way. SPOILERS FOLLOW. Continue reading…

The Dictionary of Lost Words — book review

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

Not a light-hearted book, this one. It’s a long, slow burn, perhaps a bit over-written, a 300 page story stuffed into a 400 page one. I did get into it, but at the start the writing felt contrived — quirkiness which missed authenticity by a beat.

At heart it’s the story of women coming of age through the 1900s and the long slow finding of their seat at the table. This much I loved. The men are kindly old academics but blind to their blindness and the women have an unspoken hunch that equality would be nice. They work as hard as the men with the brains of the men but get no credit for any of it and pretty much everyone accepts that. Rebellion is very much on the fringe which is spot on.

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The Bright Side of My Condition — book review

The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall

I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.

But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.

Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.

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Shuggie Bain — Book Review

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart

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.

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Girl, Woman, Other – book review

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

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.

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Pure – book review

Pure, by Andrew Miller

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 — book review

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 – book review

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 — book review

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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African literature

David Olusoga’s reviews

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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