At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that? And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.
Leo Gazzara is hovering on the brink of both turning thirty and plunging into an existential crisis. Keen to avoid respectability, his days are spent avoiding hard work, his nights indulging in the hedonistic thrills of city life. Originally published in 1970, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich is an Italian cult classic. Here translated into English for the first time, it captures those heady days when Rome was the capital of glamour. A boozy, smoky and intoxicating novel, it tells the story of the year Leo’s dolce vita turned sour.
It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.
It’s been a while since I read a novel this good. The Promise by Damon Galgut is the work of an author at the top of his game, in complete control of the narrative and the language. This multi-layered story is both gripping and quietly devastating. The crumbling of the Afrikaner Swart family, living in the shadows of South-Africa’s brutal history, deals with the personal and the political, in perfect balance. I haven’t read all the books on the Booker short-list yet, but this, for sure, is one that deserves to win.
Imagine this: You’re enjoying your breakfast as usual, tea and toast with delectable honey, some cheese, a pear, perhaps an egg. While musing on the day ahead, you notice that a tiny scrap of paper has been pushed under your door. It reads ‘you had poison for breakfast.’ A potential murder is under way and it’s your own! In Poison for Breakfast by Lemony Snicket, the legendary narrator reveals how he employed both investigative expertise and philosophy when landed with this very dilemma.
The term taboo arrived in the Western world via the peoples of the far-flung South Pacific Islands, a noteworthy connection given that both lie at the heart of Paul by Daisy Lafarge. In this Betty Trask award-winning debut novel, we join Frances, an emotionally fragile young woman on a volunteering holiday in the south of France. Having fled from an undisclosed scandal in Paris, Frances is vulnerable and easy prey for charismatic older man, Paul. Deception is in store, of both the wilful, and blindly self-inflicted kind.
A punch in the stomach is the best way to describe International Booker Prize 2021 winning At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. We’re dropped right onto a WW1 battlefield where the narrator watches his adopted ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba as he dies a violent, agonising death. The ‘I’ is Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting on behalf of France in a war that makes even less sense to him that the ‘blue-eyed’ French soldiers. When war gets the better of him, the racist stereotype of the black man as a savage rears its ugly head.
Stefan Zweig – Diaries by Stefan Zweig, covering the period from 1931 to 1940, has just been published in English for the first time. Die-hard fans, like me, will want to read this but if you’re new to Zweig’s writing, I’d start with his books or short-stories instead (The World of Yesterday, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman or short-story collections). As a companion to his other works, I found this an interesting peek into the author’s mind; as much for the things he doesn’t say as for what he says.
In an early chapter of Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney, acclaimed novelist Alice considers the burden of life under public scrutiny, the vampiric nature of contemporary media sparking loathing both inward and out. It looks very much like an auto-fictional interlude for the stratospherically successful Rooney, under pressure to deliver the goods with her third novel.