Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

61scQWukLuLFor the fourth meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted for Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange.

What follows are the perspicacious ponderings of Ernest, Garfield, Gloria, Karen and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Genre: Historical Fiction

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: quiet, historic, engaging
Garfield: historic, engaging, nice
Gloria: odd but cool
Karen: history, sisters, crime
Oggy: war, bombs, death – lots of it!

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A hermit crab, a stone animal, a goldfish, a dragon, an octopus.

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Space grey, a whirl of colour, green, and yellow. 

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Petra: Hufflepuff
Everyone else: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Mutti
Garfield: Grandpa Joe
Gloria: The Sea Monster
Karen: Magda because she is cool
Oggy: Magda

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest would have told on Michael, everyone else would have pushed him off the cliff. Garfield and Gloria would have followed Magda. Karen would’ve told Magda about Michael. Oggy would’ve told everyone’s secrets.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
In Ermentrude’s absence, Greta Thunberg was unanimously cast as Petra. Gloria suggested Jennifer Lawrence for Mutti and Tom Holland for Michael. Karen also suggested Tom Holland for Michael and Emma Watson for Magda. Oggy suggested Ian Somerhalder for Michael.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ernest enjoyed the secrecy, Garfield liked the history, Gloria and Oggy liked Michael, and Karen liked the suspense.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 3.5 stars.

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

44647479._SY475_For the third meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted for Deeplight by Frances Hardinge, and were entirely mature about the illustrations of the Hidden Lady’s boobs in the endpapers.

What follows are the unfathomable inklings of Ernest, Ermentrude, Garfield, Gloria and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Genre: Fantasy

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: tense, confusing, long
Ermentrude: very long, good
Garfield: tense, magical, confusing
Gloria: confusing, confusing, confusing
Oggy: deep, light, confusing

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A lionfish, a Nemo-fish, a kraken, a blobfish, a jellyfish

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Blue or black

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Hark: Gryffindor
Jelt: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Selphin
Ermentrude: Jelt
Garfield: Hark
Gloria: The sea
Oggy: Dr Vine or the gods

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest and Oggy wouldn’t have saved Jelt, Ermentrude would’ve married Jelt, Garfield would’ve destroyed the heart.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
As usual, Ermentrude would’ve cast herself.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ernest enjoyed the suspense, Ermentrude liked Jelt, Garfield liked the mystery and Oggy liked the gods.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 4½ stars.

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

41W2E5tmYZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_For the second meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted to re-read a book most of them had already read and enjoyed, The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. (Which suggests that, while publishers may be tired of dystopian fiction, teenagers clearly aren’t.)

What follows are the lyrical waxings of Ernest, Ermentrude, Garfield, Gloria, Karen, Mudge and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

Genre: Dystopian

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: heart-racing, adventurous, dystopian
Ermentrude: longer than DeathlessGirls
Garfield: adventurous, irritating, dystopian
Gloria: torturing children! cool!
Karen: colourful, children, death
Mudge: children, powers, colours
Oggy: fun, dystopian, thriller

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A jaguar, a rainbow unicorn, a raven, a peacock, a black panther

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Orange of course, black, red

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Ruby: Gryffindor
Liam: Hufflepuff
Chubs: Ravenclaw
Zu: Hufflepuff
Clancy: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Liam
Ermentrude: Chubs
Garfield: Liam
Gloria: Zu
Karen: Zu, Ruby, Liam or Chubs
Mudge: Zu
Oggy: Zu and Chubs

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest and Karen would’ve told their friends they were orange, Ermentrude would’ve kept her head low or avoided being born at all, Garfield and Oggy would’ve kissed Liam and not made him forget, Gloria would’ve run.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
Ermentrude would’ve once again cast herself as all the characters in a one-woman-show.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ermentrude liked Chubs the best, Garfield liked the dystopian theme, Gloria liked it when Sam’s mind got wiped, Karen enjoyed all the detail, Mudge liked the characters, and Oggy liked the friendships and the adventure.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Legend by Marie Lu, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Never Fade and In the Afterlightby Alexandra Bracken.

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 5 stars.

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

43453718._SY475_For the first meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club we decided to read The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

What follows are the erudite musings of Ernest, Ermentrude, Garfield, Gloria, Karen, Mudge and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Genre: Fantasy, horror, feminist, adventure, LGBTQ+

Describe this book in three words:
Ermentrude: descriptive, feminist, long
Gloria: weird, confusing, vampirey
Karen: death, vampires, travel
Oggy: feminist, interesting, modern

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A bear or a lion

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Brown, crimson, red and black

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Kizzy – Gryffindor
Lil – Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ermentrude: Kizzy
Gloria: Albu the bear
Karen: Albu and the twins
Mudge: Albu the bear
Oggy: Mira

What decision would you have made differently from the main character
Ermentrude would’ve kept her head down and avoided associating with people. Gloria would’ve gone on the run with the bear. Karen, Mudge and Oggy wouldn’t have turned, and Oggy wouldn’t have left Mira.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
Ermentrude would have cast herself in a one-woman show. Karen would’ve cast Zendaya as the twins. Oggy suggested Nina Dobrev for Lil, Victoria Justice for Kizzy and Troian Bellisario for Mira.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ermentrude enjoyed the non-dead peeps, Gloria liked the evil lady, Karen liked the adventure and the unexpected twists, and Oggy liked how feminist and modern it was.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill and A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 4 stars.

 

What to Read This Summer

Here are twelve new books/series that I’ve read this year and can highly recommend for your holiday reading. I’ve arranged them loosely into categories but most of them don’t conform to just one genre.

CONTEMPORARY

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Daisy Jones & The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This book is quintessential summer reading—I’m predicting you’ll see a lot of it on Instagram holiday posts. Daisy Jones and the Six is a band-biopic-style story about the rise and fall of it-girl Daisy Jones and rock band The Six, set in seventies Los Angeles, told in the form of snippets from interviews with the band and those connected to them. It has a cast of characters so believable you’ll want to google them. There’s Daisy herself, a neglected child and drug addict, but also a brilliant songwriter exploited by male artists until she learns to stand up for herself. Billy Dunne, the lead singer, is arrogant, self-centred and locked in a love-hate relationship with Daisy. Camila, his wife, knows what she signed up for and is determined to stick with Billy despite everything. And Karen, the keyboardist, wants to be a professional musician but the men in her life can’t quite get their heads around the fact that she doesn’t want to get married and have children. Daisy Jones & The Six is a wonderfully atmospheric, nostalgic read that captures the fleeting nature of youth and fame, while also being optimistic about the resilience of love. I couldn’t put it down – a thoroughly enjoyable book.

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The Heavens
by Sandra Newman
Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York and at first it feel like a quintessential millennial meet-cute, a New York version of Normal People, but then we read that the Green Party is in power, there’s a female president, poverty is in decline and things are looking up for the planet—it seems that Kate and Ben live in a utopian alternate reality. But then we learn that Kate sometimes dreams she has been transported into the dreams of another woman. One day she wakes up in another time and discovers that her actions in the past can change the present, but they could also have disastrous consequences for the future. I love a genre-bending novel and The Heavens is a synthesis of beautiful prose, scalpel-sharp observation and a dreamlike sequence of events that put me in mind of Station Eleven, The Summer of Impossible Things, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Russian Doll. A disorientating and captivating novel.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, this book will inspire anyone to appreciate their own annoying younger sisters. (Just testing to see if they read my blog posts.) Korede is the dutiful, responsible hard-working older sister. Ayoola is the beautiful but spoilt younger sister and favourite child. She is also a psychopath. Korede spends her time clearing up after her sister: helping her dispose of bodies, cover her tracks and hide evidence. Her work as a nurse and her blossoming friendship with an attractive doctor makes the hospital Korede’s oasis away from her demanding sister, but Korede’s loyalty to her sister is tested when Ayoola invades the hospital and sets her sights on the same doctor. I really enjoyed My Sister, the Serial Killer—a scalpel-sharp and darkly humorous portrait of sisterly love.

CRIME & THRILLER

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Into the Water
by Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train was the lauded as the new Gone Girl, became a bestseller and received the Hollywood treatment but I found Paula Hawkins’ next novel, Into the Water, a better written and much more interesting book. Jules ignores a phone call from her sister Nel, and now Nel is dead in an apparent suicide, and Jules must return to the town she escaped from and confront her past and her fears. At first glance this book is a thriller but there’s a lot more going on below the surface, from the wonderfully atmospheric setting of ‘The Drowning Pool’ and the complex relationships between Jules, her sister and her niece, to the theme of women being violently silenced by men. Highly recommended.

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Red Snow (Tuva Moodyson Mystery #2)
by Will Dean
Will Dean is a British author who writes Scandi-Noir inspired by the terrifying forest on the remote outskirts of Sweden where he lives with his family. (Read Dark Pines – Tuva Moodyson #1 first if you haven’t read it.) Tuva’s return did not disappoint, Will Dean maintains the sinister atmosphere that made the first book so chillingly enticing. Tuva is finishing up her last couple of weeks at the Gavrik Posten before moving south for a better-paid position in a larger town, but there’s a new murderer on the loose, nicknamed ‘The Ferryman’. Tuva digs for the inside scoop on the Ferryman, recklessly endangering herself in the process, while also taking on some freelance research work—interviewing the eccentric and ill-fated Grimberg family who own the local liquorice factory and employ most of the town. Another beautifully written, evocative, intriguing story—I may never feel warm again.

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Blood for Blood (Ziba MacKenzie #1)
Nothing to Lose (Ziba MacKenzie #2)
by Victoria Selman
Ziba Mackenzie is a profiler, still coming to terms with her husband’s sudden violent death two years earlier, when she is involved in a horrific rail accident. The same accident incites a notorious serial killer to start a new killing spree and Ziba is called in to profile him and track him down. In Nothing to Lose Ziba finds a lead in her husband’s unsolved murder case and starts to dig deeper into a case of corruption and cover-up that will put her life in danger, while also investigating a new serial killer on the loose whose victims look alarmingly similar to Ziba herself. I thoroughly enjoyed these unpredictably twisty thrillers and I’m looking forward to the next Ziba MacKenzie book.

HISTORICAL FICTION

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The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, a shop-girl who longs to be an artist, and Silas, a sinister taxidermist and collector. Their fateful meeting leads to Iris being asked to model for one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, opening doors for her to learn to paint and pursue her own artistic dreams. At the same time Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and begins to plan a different future for her. The Doll Factory definitely falls into the ‘lush historical fiction’ category with books like The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Victorian London is evoked in wonderfully visceral detail, but it is also a romance, an artistic coming-of-age story and a page-turning thriller. Brilliantly done.

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The Corset
by Laura Purcell
I loved Laura Purcell’s first book, The Silent Companions—a super-creepy ghost story, but The Corset is subtler, more sinister and reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Dorothea Truelove uses her charitable visits to Oakgate Prison as a respectable cover to indulge her true passion, phrenology—the study of personality through the bumps on a human skull, popular in the Victorian era. When Ruth Butterham arrives at the prison Dorothea jumps at the chance to examine the skull of a real murderess to see what she can divine. Ruth confesses to Dorothea an outlandish belief that her stitching and embroidery has the power to kill people. The truth is beautifully unravelled as Ruth tells her tragic story and the final reveal is suitably satisfying. A fiendishly clever book – loved it!

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The Binding
by Bridget Collins
The blurb of The Binding made it sound quite similar to The Corset, and it has a similarly beautiful cover design, but though it has a historical feel—this book is set in an alternate past. Emmett Farmer is summoned from the fields of his family farm to become an apprentice to a Bookbinder, but in this world, bookbinding is something more magical and more sinister than the name implies. I don’t want to spoil the plot by giving too much away, suffice it to say this is a captivating adventure and love story, with a hint of magical-realism. Perfect for fans of The Miniaturist.

FANTASY

If you’re looking for your epic fantasy fix now Game of Thrones has finished, here are my suggestions:

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The Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
I’ve had this one on my to-read list since I heard about it, particularly because of its evocative title. And The Priory of the Orange Treeis everything I hope it would be: a richly-detailed world with beautifully imagined histories, genealogies, mythologies and religions, plus complex characters and, of course, dragons. I’m glad I bought the hardback version (even though it’s a gigantic tome) as I frequently needed to flip back to the maps at the front to work out where the action was happening. (Kindle really need to work on a functionality solution for maps.) I particularly love the way Samantha Shannon uses a classic fantasy structure but turns the traditional tropes on their heads, like the conventions of monarchy, for example. (Why isn’t the word ‘Queendom’ used more often?) A thoroughly engrossing world.

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The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)
The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2)
by S.A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass is an ambitious fantasy novel set in the magical world of the Djinn. Nahri is a fortune teller and thief living off her wits and her magical healing abilities in Cairo until the day she accidentally summons a Djinn and is swept away (on a magic carpet of course) into a world she knows nothing about. Dara the Djinn takes her to Daevabad, the home of her ancestors, a city simmering with historical tensions between the Djinn and the half-human Shafit people and between the various Djinn tribes. The second narrator, Alizayd, is the second son of the King of Daevabad. A devout Muslim, Ali is concerned with the plight of the Shafit and is secretly funding a political group to aid them. When Nahri arrives in the city, Ali and Nahri are both caught up in the King’s machinations as he tries to maintain peace and hold on to his power in politically turbulent time. The author has created a richly detailed world, some layered, nuanced characters and an interesting plot. The second book, The Kingdom of Copper, is even better. Can’t wait for the final book.

Some of my favourite fantasy series came to an end in 2019, like Sarah J Maas’s epic, Tolkienesque Throne of Glass series. (Definitely worth a read if you’re a big fantasy fan—but warning, there are seven hefty books plus a prequel novella in the series.)

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The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)
by Katherine Arden
The final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy was also released this year. (Read The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower first.) The Winter of the Witch picks up exactly where the last book left off. Vasya has defeated the usurper but Moscow is in flames, still vulnerable to attack and its people are looking for a scapegoat. Can Vasya save herself as well as Moscow, and will she finally discover her own place in the world? The final book is everything I hoped it would be. Vasya continues to forge her own way and she defies anyone who attempts to constrain her—even her relationship with Morozko is defined on her terms, rather than his. The trilogy is set in medieval Russia at the moment of unification and it was fascinating to discover that many of the characters are based on real historical figures. Katherine Arden has created a beautifully seamless and lyrical blend of historical fiction and folklore. Unputdownable.

16 Best Books of 2016

Writing a post like this on the 15th of December makes me anxious—there are still 16 days left of 2016 in which I could read an incredible book, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Or perhaps I should read only terrible books for the next two weeks. (Any recommendations?) 16 books for 2016 seemed like an appropriate number—according to Goodreads I have read 154 books (so far) this year so this is roughly my top 10%.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my book of the year—I’m so glad Waterstones agrees with me and that this novel is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith. I read it on Kindle but I couldn’t resist buying the stunning blue Waterstones exclusive edition hardback as well.

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The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

I have emigrated several times (from England to South Africa as a child and vice-versa as an adult) but as a white, English-speaking immigrant you get to blend in a lot more easily in the UK. Your ‘otherness’ is not so clearly signposted on your face. I like to think of myself as an open-minded, empathetic person—curious about other people’s lives, but these essays opened the door to a world I know very little about. This is an important book. It’s not perfect and it’s not exhaustive, but these fifteen essays give a fascinating glimpse into the British black, Asian and minority ethnic experience of living in the UK, storytelling that is essential in creating a diverse and inclusive society—an ideal that seems increasingly under threat.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is structured as a series of short stories based on characters living in a small town in Maine but most, if not all, of the stories feature the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in some way and we’re able to follow the main events of her life through the book. Many of the stories are about marriage, relationships and loneliness—and there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the book. But there are also occasional glimpses of hope and redemption to make it bearable. It’s a poignant and moving book. My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout’s most recent book, and was on several literary award shortlists this year, but I personally enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

In the Atwood-esque world of The Power, young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Whatever you think about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver could NOT have written this book. A laugh-out-loud funny and wincingly satirical look at race in ‘post-racial’ America. When his hometown ‘Dickens’, a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is literally taken off the map of California, the narrator reinstates racial segregation as a way of putting Dickens back on the map. A brilliantly clever and challenging book.

 

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A strange and eerily beautiful story about family relationships and grief in a style that is part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness and part fable. The crow that arrives, like a profane version of Nanny McPhee, to help this bereaved father and his sons, is sometimes wise and maternally protective, sometimes vulgar and belligerent. Yet somehow the crow is the perfect catalyst to allow the family to move on with their lives. A short book, but a profoundly moving one. The whimsical cousin of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

 

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You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston

Brian Bilston (the Poet Laureate of Twitter) is a master of pithy wordplay and the supreme commander of the pun (my personal favourite is ‘Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice’). Many of the poems made me laugh out loud. He has much to say on the perils contemporary life: autocorrect, procrastinating on Twitter, holiday cottages with no wifi, delivery charges for internet shopping, Black Friday and the unreasonableness of someone wanting to borrow your mobile phone charger. The poems are sometimes Excel spreadsheets, flow charts and scrabble boards. Bilson’s loathing for The Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson is a frequent theme. He also has some poignant observations: like ‘At the Intersection’ a moving venn diagram poem on the ways we misunderstand each other, and ‘Chore Play’ – the awkward juxtaposition of seduction with the boring minutiae of married life. Brian Bilson’s poetry is witty, wise and always enjoyable.

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I’ve read many YA fantasy series this year but if I had to pick one it would be Leigh Bardugo’s outstanding Six of Crows duology, Crooked Kingdom is the second book. This is an epic, rollercoaster of a story with a cast of brilliantly flawed and fascinating characters, and also a satisfying end to the duology. It was also great to see some of the characters from the Grisha trilogy pop up in here as well.

 

 

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

I have never read anything by this author before as he primarily writes non-fiction, so I had no idea what to expect. 1746: a mysterious young Englishman, Mr Smith, arrives in the then small town of New York with a bill of credit for £1000 but won’t tell anyone where he got the money from or what he intends to do with it. Golden Hill has a sense of authenticity that suggests a lot of research but it is also completely immersive, tightly-plotted and entertaining. It reminded me a little of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and a final heartbreaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly: ‘To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.’ Highly recommended – poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

Portable Veblen
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. Elizabeth McKenzie is like a gentler, more whimsical version of AM Holmes. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!

 

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

How well can you truly know another person? This book tells the story of Sophie Stark, an indie filmmaker, from the perspective of those people who supposedly knew her best. The result is a collection of stories and reminiscences that build a fragmented, abstract image of an artist, like one of Sophie’s own experimental films. Anna North is a wonderful storyteller and in that her writing did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking read. 

 

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Short afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet – to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon, but it is also brilliantly inventive, thought-provoking and moving. I couldn’t put it down.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly is a budding natural scientist. She possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree—a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth. It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just brilliant: vivid, compelling and honest. I’ve never read anything by this author that I didn’t like, but I found the themes of cultural identity, assimilation and the immigrant experience particularly resonant in this book.

 

 

 

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
(translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence and ultimately aspires to become a tree. Dark and disturbing but also hauntingly beautiful and intensely moving. The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

 

 

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Bonus Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’m a third of the way through this so I don’t have a conclusive opinion yet. Of course, it’s crammed full of Zadie Smith’s typical wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Damn it! And so far I’m enjoying it more than NW.

 

That’s all folks, working on the ‘Best Bookcovers of 2016’ for my next post.

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Independent PeopleHalldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is to date the sole Icelandic Nobel laureate. Independent People is one of his most well-known novels, and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘considered among the foremost examples of social realism in Icelandic fiction in the 1930s’. I also did a Twitter search and found that Hari Kunzru had nominated it as one of the ‘world’s most depressing works of literature’. This did not particularly inspire me to read the book but it was selected for book club so here we are.

Independent People is about Guðbjartur Jónsson, a sheep farmer, in rural Iceland in the early twentieth century and, apart from sheep, Bjartur’s main passion is independence. His primary goal is to be an independent man: owning his own land, supporting his family and not in debt to anyone. In addition to being a farmer, Bjartur is also a well-respected poet. The book is an interesting blend of the harshly pragmatic realities of farming life with supernatural elements of Icelandic myths and legends. Bjartur’s land is supposedly cursed, haunted by an evil woman named Gunnvör and the demon she was in league with, Kolumkilli, and his first act as landowner is to rename it from ‘Winterhouses’ to the more optimistic ‘Summerhouses’ in defiance of this supposed curse.

In addition to the battle with Kolumkilli over his land, Bjartur also has a longstanding rivalry with Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson, son of the wealthy local Baliff, whose life is intertwined with Bjartur’s in several ways and who is inexorably successful at all he sets his hand to, while Bjartur trudges through life in stiff-necked, principled poverty.

The book is tough going to start with: the weather and the lifestyle are both bleak, there are disturbing scenes of slaughter, starvation and death. Bjartur is so pig-headed about his independence that he forces his children to live in deprivation rather than ask for help, and is more solicitous for the wellbeing of his sheep than his family. A notable low point was when his first wife dies alone in childbirth while he is away from home, the dog shelters the newborn child and miraculously keeps it alive until Bjartur gets home. After discovering what has happened he goes out again to see the Baliff and spends ages reluctantly hemming and hawing about asking the Baliff’s wife for help with the baby (still at home being babysat by the dog), wasting time with his pig-headed stubbornness as the baby’s life hangs in the balance. This was just one of several moments when I wanted to scream at him.

Despite this inauspicious start the baby survives to becomes the light of his life, his flower, Ásta Sóllilja (beloved sun lily) and the relationship between Bjartur and his daughter is the heart of the book. There is quite a bit about Icelandic history and politics that made me shamefully doze off, but as soon as the book turned back to Bjartur and his interaction with his family, Ásta Sóllilja in particular—I was hooked. Laxness’s characterization is deft and his portrayal of Ásta Sóllilja’s teenaged sexual awakening is as sensitive and nuanced as his portrayal of Bjartur’s independent spirit. The novel was strangely funny as well, I think this description of Bjartur’s afternoon nap sums his character up pretty well:

The man himself remained unaltered. He allowed himself no greater luxury in his mode of life than that of sprawling on a haycock for four minutes during the daytime, in the hope that he would soon roll off, preferably into a puddle.

These moments strike a lighter note in the unrelenting misery of Bjartur’s life and help the reader to forgive him his faults.

As annoying is he is, there is something noble and poignant in Bjartur’s desire to be independent regardless of the fact that the system is stacked against independent men like him. And despite the awful weather, the hardship, the politics and Bjartur’s frustrating, self-sabotaging stubbornness, Independent People is a thoroughly absorbing saga—grim but gripping. You’ll be glad to know, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, that there is a small sliver of hope and redemption at the end, to give the reader some sense of closure.

Books like this are the reason that I belong to a book club (several book clubs in fact), I would never have read this book otherwise and even if I had started it I might not have continued reading it. Having pushed through to the end, and wept copiously through the final chapters, I can concede that it was worth the effort. A literary masterpiece, albeit a rather depressing one.