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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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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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
I was so excited when I saw the new Ishiguro on the bookshelf. His previous: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are wonderful books, full of insight and character that leave you thinking deep philosophical thoughts and spark great conversations.
Sadly, I found Klara and the Sun — seems almost sacrilegious to say so — boring.
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The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
They’re not old. Early fifties is not old. But after sleeping rough on the trail for a few weeks they are often mistaken for a pair of old tramps. True, they have lost their house and are living hand to mouth, sleeping in a tent on waste land and often going without meals. Ray talks of her birds-nest hair and filthy clothes and Moth’s illness makes him frail and tentative. They kind of are tramps. Don’t judge the homeless, is a refrain throughout the story.
This is the journey of a couple who find themselves homeless. It’s a six hundred and thirty mile journey. Unable to secure a flat and with no income (their home-stay business lost with the house), they pick up a copy of Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path and decide to walk through the summer, freedom camping, a burden on no one. They have £115 topped up with a small weekly benefit, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, a copy of Beowolf. Not much else. Oh, and the complication that Moth has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and been told to get lots of rest, take occasional gentle walks, not too far, and be careful on the stairs.
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Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia is a woman in small town hillbilly USA, pregnant at seventeen, now ten years a wife and mother who is bored and disappointed in her life, heavy with the burden of being judged and found wanting. Her husband Cub matches his name; I can hear his slow drawl in my head. He’s gentle, a two-hundred pound child and dumb as a cow and Dellarobia has the smarts but not the provocation to take her beyond small town life. “Her anger collapsed into a familiar bottomless sorrow,” is a good description of her state.
The book opens with Dellarobia walking up into the hills to a tryst, but what she finds instead is a small movement, a fleck of orange wobbling, a butterfly on the wing. It changes everything, as we all know a butterfly beating its wings can do.
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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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