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.
Did you know that Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah’ took him two years, ‘ 50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey’ (to deepen his voice) to make? Or that ‘Amazing Grace’ was not actually written by a slave but a repenting slave trader. Or that Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ on his campaign trail, promising that he, just like the song, would make the electorate’s dreams come true, without realising that the song was actually about a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to find work? Neither did I, until I stumbled upon Cheal and Dalley’s compelling little book The Life of a Song, a compilation of the stories of 50 well-known songs written by music critics. A perfect present to your music loving friend, or even yourself.
The Life of a Song is published by Financial Times and Brewer’s, 208 pages.
‘But all the roads in Albion are drowned now.’ And so it proves to be, under the rain-sodden skies in La Belle Sauvage, the majestic first volume in a new series by Philip Pullman. Decades after its initial publication, we return to the dazzling multiverse of His Dark Materials, to uncover the early childhood of beloved heroine Lyra Belacqua. Prepare to be entranced by a book of big ideas, that demands of its readers, curious and open minds.
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.
Well, here’s something utterly different. A book with a cacophony of 166 different voices portraying the Bardo (a temporary state in between death and re-birth in the Buddhist faith) of President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. It’s an unusually structured and challenging book, and a moving portrayal of death and grief (and you’ll never walk through a cemetery at night in quite the same way).
4321 is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Paul Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.
Scottish novelist Ali Smith published this Man Booker Prize short-listed novel set in the autumn of 2016, in the very same year and season that it explores. Its punch and originality comes not only from Smith’s playful, poetic and non-linear writing style but also from its contemporaneous nature. Autumn is a novel that examines the here and now as Smith tries to make some sense out of a badly fractured post-Brexit Britain.
Cassandra and Judith Edwards are identical twins. Both brilliant and beautiful; one happily engaged to be married, the other severely depressed. This 1960s psychological drama is an intense read that will bring you into the psyche of both protagonists and show the devastating effects of depression not only on the depressed, but also those around. Brace yourself for something much darker and a great deal more profound than the title suggests.