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.
Once in a while I come across a book that I simply cannot stop reading; that I walk around with while I cook or brush my teeth and keep reading late into the night. The North Water is such a book. An absolutely riveting read, an unputdownable book. The novel, set in 1859, tells the story of 27-year-old surgeon Patrick Sumner, who joins an ill-fated whaling expedition to the Artic. It’s an extraordinarily violent and brutal book, so if you mind graphic sex and violence, don’t even think about reading it. If you don’t, you’re in for a nail-biting thriller, which will keep you on your toes to the very last page.
Twenty years after winning the Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy is back with a new novel. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness weaves together many stories, but at its core is the story of Tilo and her three suitors: Musa, Naga and Biplab and the violent history of Kashmir and India. My feelings about this book oscillated between wild enthusiasm, slight confusion and occasional boredom. Roy’s undisputable skills as a writer kept me going, but I’m not sure I’d call it a flawless comeback.
Eleanor is a woman who has elevated living alone to an art form. Her days follow the same pattern week in week out – a dull office job, the Telegraph cryptic crossword, the Archers, a regular chat with ‘Mummy’, no friends…and two bottles of Tesco vodka to get through the weekend. She is clearly not fine at all, and the novel is an investigation into why she is not fine, and what happens when she deals with her terrible past and finally allows herself to thaw.
Meet English teacher James Darke, a 60-year old grumpy, selfish, snob, as cynical, judgemental and politically incorrect as they come. Darke has decided to close the world out – literally – starting by drawing the curtains in his house, filling in the mail slot in his door and cancelling his email account. There are no limits to what Darke will do in his quest to be left alone, and that includes pretending to be deaf so he won’t need to talk to people. There is, of course, a reason for Darke’s dark behaviour, which, as it’s slowly revealed, turns out to be far from funny. If you, like me, enjoy dark humour, the occasional unpleasant character and many-layered stories, this book is for you.
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.
It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.
New York, a small frontier town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy autumn night, a mysterious, handsome stranger, fresh off the long Atlantic crossing from England, turns up at a counting house on Golden Hill Street in Manhattan. The enigmatic young man has a suspicious yet compelling proposition. From his pocket, he produces what seems to be a promissory note for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. An enormous sum of money in 1746, this bill has the power to shake the whole local economy as well as the political establishment. And, amiable and charming though Smith is, he won’t explain who he is or where he comes from, let alone what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.
I devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace when they came out quite a few years ago, but somehow missed The Handmaid’s Tale. That was a mistake. Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic story about a totalitarian regime where women’s bodies are political currency has become a modern classic since it was published in 1985. Even more relevant now with religious and political extremism on the rise, The Handmaid’s Tale is about to come out as a TV-series. I suggest reading it first. It’s creepy, it’s dark and it’s a page-turner that will keep you reading long into the night.
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.