From the beginning, 19-year-old Eli tells us that he’s something other than he appears to be. Young and gay in Norfolk, 1953, this austere, post-war decade demands a conformity and obedience that threatens to stifle his dreams. In mourning for his dead mother, Eliza, who was lost to the infamous North Sea flood, Eli lives with his mentally fragile aunt in a hostile community, whose members are prone to anonymously lobbing stones through their windows. In The Gallopers by Jon Ransom, torturous secrets are uncovered through the prism of Eli’s relationships with workmate, Shane Wright, and Jimmy Smart, a charismatic showman from a travelling fair.
Ever wondered what goes through Vladimir Putin’s mind? How he and his cronies see the world? We’ll never know for sure, of course, but in The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli we get a what appears to be a pretty good guess. Da Empoli worked as Italian ex-Prime Minister Renzi’s advisor and spent some time in Russia. This best-selling, Prix Goncourt nominated novel is his fictionalised account of Putin’s rise up the ranks. A must read for anyone interested in Russia and geo-politics.
Both fantastical and true, Under the Hornbeams by Emma Tarlo tells the story of her friendship with two men who live under the trees of a famous London park. In this lovely, life-affirming book, Tarlo recounts her introduction to self-proclaimed hobos, Nick and Pascal, in the early months of the Covid pandemic. As they share food, thoughts and confidences against the peculiarly constrictive backdrop of a national lockdown, she is compelled to reconsider notions of freedom and fulfilment.
A nameless man of military persuasion is in pursuit of a silvery-haired girl; tracking her across an unearthly white snowscape, he is intent on possessing her in more ways than one. We will never learn his name, the girl’s name, or even their location. In the 1967 dystopian classic, Ice by Anna Kavan, we’re taken to a frigid, blanched world that is being engulfed by avalanches of ice and snow, the cause of which appears to be unknown. As society breaks down under the weight of misinformation, fuel and food shortages and the inexorable advance of icy doom, the girl keeps running and the man keeps pursuing.
With its timely publication coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the award-winning Close to Home by Michael Magee considers the legacy left for the following generation of Belfast youth. The scars of The Troubles run deep for 22-year-old Sean, leading a precarious existence of casual employment, impecunity and thwarted dreams, his chief escape that of boozy nights out with mates and ‘baggies of white.’ When he’s found guilty of Actual Bodily Assault following yet another chaotic evening, Sean’s life looks set to unravel, unless he can come to terms with the traumas of his family and community’s past.
I rarely write about books I don’t enjoy but in the case of The Bee Sting by Paul Murray I feel I should as I spent the better part of my Christmas break reading the 656 pages book and I’m not sure you would want to do the same. The Bee Sting was Booker Prize short-listed and recommended by loads of people and does indeed start off in a very promising way.
It’s a Tuesday morning in October, and hundred of kilometres above Earth, six astronauts snooze weightlessly in their sleeping bags. The uncleared paraphernalia of last night’s dinner sits in the galley, while beyond the spacecraft’s titanium shell, ‘the universe unfolds in simple eternities.’ In the beautiful Orbital by Samantha Harvey, we spend one day and sixteen orbits of the Earth in the astronauts’ company, as they reconcile their scientific objectives with existential contemplation and the insistent human buzz emanating from our lonely planet.
In surely one of the most captivating opening scenes in British literature, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, takes us to the vaulted hall of a remote Scottish castle. Here, in a crumpled heap on the flagstones, beneath a tall stained-glass window, lies sixteen-year-old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, and covered in blood. Unloved and misunderstood in life, she has met a ‘murderous death.’ Moonlight filtering through the stained-glass picks out the legend Moriens sed Invictus; dying but unconquered. In Barker’s glorious and darkly funny portrayal of an outsider heroine’s short and intense life, the truth of this proves undeniable.
We’re in France at the brink of the revolution. A sinister, Hannibal-Lecter-like character rumoured to be devouring everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, including forks, rats and babies, is imprisoned in a monastery. Sister Perpetue has the unenviable task of guarding him. But who is this mysterious Tarare and what is his story? The Glutton by A.K. Blakemore is one the better books I’ve read this year. A brutal story of poverty, survival and class, set against the backdrop of revolutionary France and written by a hugely talented young author. Go get it.
A bildungsroman unlike any other, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq takes us to the Canadian Arctic and a landscape of boundless terrain and immense skies. It’s the 1970’s and a young Inuk girl tells of her childhood in this extraordinary environment, where deprivation and discrimination sit uneasily beside a magical northern world of nature and mythology. When puberty arrives, it will bestow a shamanic gift upon the girl and prompt her, incredibly, to seek communion with the Northern Lights.