First emerging from the oceans to live on land over 350 million years ago, the humble moss plant is an evolutionary pioneer. The natural world is blessed with an amazing 22,000 varieties, and yet its entry in the English Dictionary insults with its miserly wordage. The splendid Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer seeks to introduce us to these beautiful ‘rainforests in miniature.’ A scientist and proud Native American, Kimmerer combines biology, cultural history and indigenous philosophy. In this deliciously unexpected bestseller, we learn not only the history of an unsung plant hero, but the forgotten practice of true attentiveness.
The spirit of George Orwell hovers over the memoir A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm. Indeed when Chisholm first arrives in the city in 2012, a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London is nestled in his suitcase, set to provide succour for his subsequent years of living unexpectedly on the brink of destitution. His account of life as a poorly paid, highly stressed waiter, surviving almost literally on coffee, cigarettes, and filched bread rolls, deglosses the elegant façade of one of the world’s most iconic cities.
A hero for some and villain for others, Haile Selassie cuts a controversial figure. Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie stood up to white imperialism, introduced a wide range of reforms and courted Western powers who showered him with foreign aid. He’s considered God by some in the Rastafarian movement. He also ignored millions of starving Ethiopians while spending lavishly on himself and his courtiers, imprisoned or executed his own people on a whim and built up a considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is a collection of interviews with some of his surviving courtiers, conducted clandestinely after Selassie’s fall. It’s an absorbing study in what power does to people and of a court which makes the courtiers at Buckingham Palace seem like pussycats.
A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, Booker Prize long-listed Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan feels like it might as well have been set in 1885. We meet protagonist Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he delivers goods to his freezing clients in the run up to Christmas. Poor but happily married with five bright daughters, Furlong takes nothing for granted. Bill was born outside wedlock and owes his relatively harmonious upbringing to the kindness and acceptance of his mother’s employer. Up at the abbey, not everyone has had the same luck.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley positively springs from the Booker Prize 2022 longlist, and not merely for its conspicuously pink cover. At the age of 20, Mottley is the youngest author ever to make the longlist, dazzling with a debut coming-of-age novel set on the meanest streets of Oakland, California. This is 17-year-old Kiara’s story, technically still a child, but with adult-sized problems. When a dire financial emergency pushes Kiara into prostitution, her ‘baby ho,’ status renders her irresistible to a certain type of man, some of them even sporting Oakland Police Department uniform. What follows is a blistering study of corruption, abuse of power, and young black womanhood.
First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. From his love affair with Montana, to misgivings about Texas, Steinbeck considers the ways that his country has changed since his wandering youth. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.
Briefly A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is an intoxicating debut novel, blessed with a brilliantly inspired storyline. Set in a Mallorcan former monastery in 1838, it tells the story of Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl. Habit has kept her haunting its environs for centuries, measuring her days in the tiniest increments, ‘A pomegranate seed, nudged in the path of a sparrow. A spider scaling a pane of glass.’ This three-hundred plus years interlude is interrupted the day George Sand and Frédéric Chopin come to stay. Smitten by their creative, free-thinking ways, Blanca finds herself falling in love. Read full Review
Michael Miller lives a comfortable East Coast life as a retired diplomat. One day, a padded envelope arrives which will rip open a part of his past he’d rather forget. As a young man, Michael was a paper pusher at the American embassy during the final days of the Vietnam War. Ostensibly a benign role which became less so as he fell under the spell of hawkish CIA analyst Ignatius Donovan. Spies in Canaan by David Park, follows on from his exquisite Travelling in a Strange Land, and, again, Park creates a complete and gripping fictional universe within a mere 200 pages.
A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past.’