Master & Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
I felt a huge sense of relief to get through this ordeal of a book without being scuppered or broadsided and blasted by a thirty-six pounder or court marshalled and shot by my own side. I kept a furtive lookout for the massing enemy French fleet showing the tips of their masts over the horizon. The thought of comforting myself with several bottles of wine with dinner occurred to me, and a tot of rum a day wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Much of the detail of the action went right over my head and I know that’s the truth for most readers, though there are men who swear they understand every manoeuvre (who you really should not engage in conversation if you have somewhere else to be in the next, say five hours).
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The Secrets of Strangers, by Charity Norman
Next time you are in a café, pretend to be Charity Norman and imagine a backstory for everyone in the room. I heard her talk last week and she explained that this was how she came to write the The Secrets of Strangers, just looking around patrons in a café and imagining their stories. One customer knows she has just failed IVF again and is waiting for the confirmation, she’s on a timeline for court and has four minutes to pick up a coffee. Another is an ex-teacher with a gambling addiction, sleeping rough. A boy comes in for breakfast with his grandmother and he will need saving first. There’s a woman who has escaped such atrocities in her homeland it is hard to believe she still functions but she is rock solid and kind to strangers. The girl behind the counter plays too easily with others’ emotions; one man gaslights and manipulates and is about to get shot and one is so traumatised he will pull the trigger.
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Don’t worry about the blurb, just start reading. This is a clever and erudite read but accessible! Makes you feel like these whip-smart dark comics have packed you into a van with them and are taking you for a ride across northern Europe, letting you sit in on their banter, their arguments, their weird discussions. The story is told mostly by the dialogue between three men and their father: all of them perceptive and intelligent in that very English way that produces such fantastic stand up. Sure, the boys are taking their father to Dignitas, but it’s not a quiet journey. The boys are brought up to talk, and they do. Brilliantly.
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State Highway One by Sam Coley
State Highway One is a disturbing read. Gripping, though. As fast paced as the car roaring down those familiar NZ roads at death defying speed with the deranged, drunk, sleepless boy at the wheel and his harpy twin sister lighting his cigarettes and talking in his ear. He loses her occasionally but she always finds him again. Weird, that.
They’re both selfish, unlikable kids. They’re made that way by their selfish, unlikable parents who are Auckland mega-celebs: rich movie moguls who trot the globe and abandon their kids in the swanky party pad to finish their private schooling free-range. Do people like this really exist? Feels very LA, but perhaps Auckland is heading that way and growing a generation of rich, entitled brats.
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It’s pretty bold, calling your book Love. You’ve got to be confident to think anyone will find you on google with that title. So this is a destination book, for those of us who already love Roddy Doyle (me). And the cover is unbelievably gorgeous.
This is a modern day love story, where loves are described by two increasingly drunk old friends across a collection of Dublin’s pubs. The love is off the page, we don’t meet any of the beloved. It’s one guy talking most of the time — that’s Joe gabbing about meeting up again with a girl the men both fancied way back and leaving his wife for her (don’t get him wrong, he loves his wife but this is different); and our man listening — that’s Davie, frustrated by Joe’s circuitous story, thinking of his wife at home in England, how they met, why he loves her.
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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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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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No Friend but the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani
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.
Thank God, you would think. Wouldn’t you?
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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.
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