‘She must turn back. She can hear her children turning in their beds, scent their morning breath, feel on her fingers the roughness of their uncombed hair. There’ll be small bare feet on that carpet, small morning erections in dinosaur pyjamas. She’ll just go to that bay ahead, where the loch laps boulders and tree roots under the fog, a tenderness between water and land that’s almost a beach, and she’ll pause there, a moment’s triumph before she turns back.’
I was in Kirkcudbright for the day a few months ago and happened to notice Gallovidia Books, a picturesque little independent bookshop on the main street. As you often find in these places, the staff are immensely knowledgeable, and upon picking up ‘Summerwater’ by Sarah Moss I was informed that it was a clever and absorbing read that the assistant had himself only just finished.
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Hodder and Stoughton
‘We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.’
It has long since stopped being fashionable to criticise Stephen King for lack of literary merit. A tiresome snobbery once existed regarding his books, long since buried under the millions of copies sold and the dozens of film and television adaptations. The Maine-born writer tells a wonderful story, and some of my favourite reads growing up included The Shining, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Carrie, Misery, and Needful Things amongst others. The juxtaposition of King and a protagonist going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy should then have been infallible, a stone-cold guaranteed thriller. It didn’t quite reach this level for me, but it was still a good read.
Amidst the winding Highland B-roads and the long, creeping dark of a northern winter, Lauren and her father Niall try to come to terms with the disappearance of Christine, Lauren’s mother. One cold October evening when out guising, they find a gaunt, barefoot, woman lying in the road. Lauren and her father give the woman shelter, but when morning comes she has disappeared. Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards and in the sideways glances of friends and neighbours. In a close-knit and claustrophobic village, someone knows the secret linking the two disappearances. Although Francine Toon’s poetry has appeared in the Sunday Times, Best British Poetry, and Poetry London, ‘Pine’ is her first foray into novel writing. It was shortlisted for and won a slew of literary prizes and in my opinion is well worth the praise.
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Very Good, Jeeves
Penguin: Random House
There has been a glut of non-fiction in my reading diet recently. Doctoral literature has been eating up a lot of my at-home reading time, whilst I am finding that the commute to work lends itself more to non-fiction (history mostly) – my tendency to let my thoughts wander whilst driving means that I’m better able to plug back into a narrative I’m already familiar with. In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, I read my first Wodehouse, an author regularly cited as a bona fide genius by the likes of Stephen Fry and Kate Mosse. Wodehouse was prolific in later life, writing more than ninety books, two-hundred short stories, and forty plays. He is perhaps best known for his Wooster and Jeeves series of novels and short stories chronicling the chaotic, bumbling socialite Wooster and his long-suffering, brilliant manservant. I chose to start with ‘Very Good, Jeeves’, a collection of stories about the duo.
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Erebus: The Story of a Ship
Built in 1826, HMS Erebus was not much to look at. A squat bomb vessel constructed at a time when Britain’s navy found itself at a loose end after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Erebus was nevertheless destined to undertake two great voyages at opposite ends of the earth. The ship achieved a ‘furthest south’ record during its 1839-1843 journey before embarking upon its fateful search for the fabled Northwest passage. Michael Palin takes us through the ship’s life before trying to piece together exactly what led to the deaths of everyone on board as, desperate, starving and icebound, the crew set out on foot south on a journey from which none of them would ever return.
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The Mirror and the Light
‘The scuffling and haste, the sudden vanishing of papers, the shushing, the whisk of skirts and the slammed doors; the indrawn breath, the glance, the sigh, the sideways look, and the pit-pat of slippered feet; the rapid scribble with the ink still wet; a trail of sealing wax, of scent. All spring, we scrutinised Anne the queen, her person, her practices; her guards and gates, her doors, her secret chambers. We glimpsed the privy chamber gentlemen, sleek in black velvet, invisible except where moonlight plays on a beaded cuff. We picked out, with the inner eye, the shape of someone where no one should be – a man creeping along the quays to a skiff where a patient oarsman with a bowed head is paid for silence, and nothing to tell the tale but the small wash and ripple of the Thames; the river has seen so much, with its grey blink.’
That Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ did not win the Booker was not sad in itself – there was a worthy winner in the form of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart – and after winning a Booker apiece for ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ Mantel is hardly in need of literary gravitas. Nevertheless, it was disappointing in that the lack of such a prize did take attention from what is undoubtedly an astonishing achievement. As a sidenote, I did find it refreshing that Mantel was upfront in her disappointment at not making the shortlist, the obvious tendency amongst people being to denigrate or shrug off baubles which they do not win. Real judgement perhaps lies in legacy, and in this the Wolf Hall trilogy is unparalleled. I doubt that any writer in my lifetime will dare to attempt a similar project. Mantel’s Cromwell is the fictional portrayal by which any other will be judged, and she has probably gone beyond a fictional remit in influencing the debate about Henry VIII’s chief minister.
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‘What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.’
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The Salt Path
‘Something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burnt in by the sun, driven in by the storms. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and growing stronger with every headland.’
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The Western Wind
‘“Man is a foul thing, little and poor, a stinking slime, and after that a sackful of dung and, at the last, meat to the worms. In his final hour he lies with a shooting head and rattling lungs and gaping mouth and veins beating, his fingers cooling, his back aching, his breath thinning and death coming. His teeth grin grimly in a bony head, maggots make breakfast of his eyes. Man is weak and fruitless, a clothed cadaver clutching at his worldly things, a skeleton that will one day clack for want of blood and flesh; a festering mound of skin and nail, and after than an unlubricated heap of bone. Is man the master of his life? Does he own the moments that make it up? No, those moments are God’s, to add to or subtract as he wills. Man is a sinner whose life speeds him day by day towards a tomb, not a master of his body but a slave to it; his red lips will turn black and his eyes will fog over and his feet will stiffen and his tongue will slacken and his ears hiss with death.”
Amen, they said, as they trailed up the nave with gifts for the dead.’
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Thomas Cromwell: A Life
There have been many biographies of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, but surely few so weighty or well-researched. Like many, my interest in Thomas Cromwell was catalysed by Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light. Cromwell is atypical of Tudor dignitaries in that he was lowborn. The son of a blacksmith, he was self-made and self-educated. From these inauspicious beginnings he rose to the right hand of a capricious and unstable king. Cromwell bullied lords and dined with dignitaries. He liquidated a centuries-old religious order and ushered in political foundations that remain to this day. Not a bad biographical subject.
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