Accompanying me over Christmas were three glorious women all of whom, at different points, called a grand palazzo in Venice their home. An eccentric, reclusive countess, a gold-digging seductress and an art-collecting heiress. The Unfinished Palazzo is a hugely entertaining biography which firmly sits in the ‘you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up’ category. If you’re looking to brighten up January, this will do!
His debut novel took Matthew Thomas a decade to write. Was it worth the ten-year slog? In my opinion, yes. Thomas has simultaneously crafted an intimate story of an ordinary family and an epic of post-war America. Born in 1941, the product of a stormy Irish Catholic working-class upbringing in Queens, New York, Eileen Tumulty craves respectability. Coming of age in the early sixties, she meets and marries a young scientist named Edmund Leary. But while Eileen is deeply aspirational for her family, the quiet, unassuming Ed refuses to give up his teaching for a better-paid job. Eileen dreams of a different life: a better job, a bigger house, more respectability.
The story behind this short John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
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).