Do yourself a favour. Take a moment out from whatever you have to do (now is the perfect time, as we approach the Christmas rush at work, school and home) and read this little book. It’s written by Erling Kagge, a publisher, writer and the first person to reach the North Pole, South Pole and climb Mount Everest. Kagge knows a thing or two about silence, having spent 50 days alone on his trek to the South Pole.
Hot on the heals of a successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes a Netfilx adaptation of Alias Grace, another of Atwood’s best-selling novels. I’d take any excuse to re-read this excellent book, which is still as good today as it was in 1996. It’s based on the true story of Canadian domestic servant Grace Marks who in 1843, at the age of 16, was convicted of murdering her employer Mr Kinnear and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in society; the prejudices held against them, the sexual abuse and innuendo, the back-street abortions and the assumption that they are all liars. An absolutely riveting read.
Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.
Two Muslim families collide in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire; one from a wealthy, privileged, political family, the other from Wembley’s poor immigrant community. Eammon, son of British Pakistani Home Secretary, Karamat Lone and his glamorous American designer wife, Terry, falls head over heals in love with Aneeka, orphaned Pakistani girl with Jihadi father and brother. Interesting premise for a story and fertile ground for moral dilemmas and culture clashes. Shamsie keeps the suspense and gripping love story moving at an impressive pace. Shame, then, that the ending feels contrived. I blame it on Sophocles.
I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.
This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.
As I’ve just discovered, it’s never too late to read this brilliant Booker Prize Winner from 2011. Before you see the film, just out in the cinema in the UK, read this marvel of a book about interpreting the past, suppressing memories and coming of age. It’s a book that will make you question your own past and wonder how differently others might perceive it.
A clever imagining of a world in which women (literally) have the power, this Baileys-shortlisted novel blends science fiction with dystopian global politics. Think The Hunger Games meets late Jeanette Winterson with a dash of Malory Blackman, this is a book your teenage daughter will love.
Yejide and Akin fall head over heals in love when they meet at university in Ife, Nigeria in the 1980s. Marriage follows soon thereafter as should babies, but none arrive. The humiliation of childlessness (particularly strong in Nigeria) propels Yejide, Akin and the tenacious mother-in-law to go to extreme lengths to fix it, jeopardising their mental health and relationship on the way. I was gripped by 26-year-old Adébáyò’s storytelling, despite her sometimes uneven writing. An easy, accessible novel that should garner many fans.
The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is well known and highly respected for his award-winning non-fiction bestsellers such as Jerusalem, The Romanovs and Stalin. However, this gripping historical novel also proves his expertise as a writer of fiction. A quicker, slimmer read than many of his other works, it is just as involving and darkly exciting.