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.
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.
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.
I have to confess to not being a big consumer (or fan) of crime fiction (perhaps I just haven’t read enough good ones), but this intense and eerie little book got the better of me. Written in the 1950s by Swiss dramatist and novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is a crime novel with a twist designed to challenge the formulaic (according to Dürrenmatt) nature of the genre.
At the beginning, The Underground Railroad feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.
Praised by the likes of Stephen King and sporting one of the best covers I’ve seen for ages, this award-winning book has all the ingredients for a creepy, atmospheric, wintry read. A desolate stretch of English coastline, a gloomy old house, apocalyptic weather, evangelical practices, pagan rites, and a cast of eccentric characters. The story follows events one Easter in the 1970s as a group of evangelical Catholics take a mute boy to be ‘cured’ at a holy shrine. The writing is evocative and Michael Hurley certainly knows his Catechism, with biblical quotes lending a reassuring authority to the narrative. He sets up a series of intriguing mysteries – why did Father Bernard lose his faith? How did the old lady regain her sight? What happened to the baby? What are the dodgy men up to? Why does the younger brother feel the need to record what happened before it is too late? The themes are worth exploring too: witchcraft/nature vs scripture/civilisation; the innocence or otherwise of childhood vs the so-called wisdom of adulthood.
Disappointingly, the book meanders around these themes and never quite knows where it is going; the Gothic tropes, so crammed in the narrative, can hardly breathe; there are too many balls in the air; too many loose ends left untied and – worst of all – the final long-awaited denouement is unconvincing and baffling. The main mystery is why this book ever won the Costa Book of the Year.
The Loney is published by John Murray, 368 pages.
Novels don’t come more English than this: boys at boarding school, stately homes, social class, unspoken rules. Leo Colston, our narrator, looks back at his 12-year-old self during the summer of 1900, a summer that would shatter his naivety and change his life. A great English classic and an ominous, intense, coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended!