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.
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.
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.
Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.
The desperately sad situation in Afghanistan brought back memories of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Powers is something as contradictory as a machine gunner and a poet, as well as an extremely talented author. A Michener Fellow of Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, Powers served as a machine gunner in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. His novel The Yellow Birds, inspired by his own experiences of war, is a superb book, heart wrenching, moving and beautifully written. Read full Review
I shed a tear as I finished The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, an Italian writer whose books keep winning prestigious Italian book prizes. Veronesi’s writing was new to me and that, it seems, has been a mistake. The life story of ophthalmologist Marco Carrera had warmth, humanity, universal truths and provided the perfect holiday read.