Irresistibly billed as a combination between a Kafka story and a Wes Anderson movie, What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron is a mesmerising work of psychological fiction. The action, inaction, and plain weirdness centres around an unnamed, middle-aged American couple and their quest to adopt a child. Dying of cancer, the wife wishes to provide her husband with someone to love when she’s gone. Their destination is an orphanage located in the chilliest reaches of northern Europe, but first they must navigate the peculiar world of the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel and its eccentric inhabitants.
The Years by Annie Ernaux is an unusual book, a sort of communal memoir mapping the personal story of Ernaux alongside the social and political history of France (and the world) between 1940 and 2006. This might sound a bit dry and academic, but The Years is strangely compelling, mainly because it speaks our own memories, of time passing and things changing. There were references here that went above my non-French head and I’m sure a native French would find this book even more poignant. It didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it though. The experience of time passing seems as universal as anything.
I’ve been craving a juicy historical drama and along comes The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. Set in Renaissance Italy, the novel is loosely based on Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici’s disastrous marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. As many aristocratic girls of her time, poor 13 year-old Lucrezia becomes a chess piece in the political game of strategic unions. Farrell gets under the skin of our bewildered heroine as we follow her from one golden cage to the next. Her writing transports us to a different time with evocative descriptions of landscapes, interiors, clothing, smells and sounds. Is it as good as the fabulous Hamnet? Not quite, but it’s nevertheless a delightful, fairytale-esque, page-turner.
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.
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The public wasn’t ready for The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger when it was first published in 1966. Despite Pressburger’s fame as a filmmaker, sales of the book were poor. The reason becomes apparent once you start reading this psychological thriller. The protagonist is a Mengle-style Nazi war criminal hiding in a Pimlico boarding house and working as a piano tuner. However, Karl Braun (aka Dr Otto Reitmüller) is not your usual villain, he’s both cultured and charming and, as the story progresses, you find yourself oscillating between (almost) wanting him to escape and wanting him to be caught. Pressburger, himself a Jew whose mother and several family members perished in concentration camps, wanted to make a point. Even villains can be likeable which is exactly why they are so dangerous.
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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.
Lost track of the many literary prizes and literary dates? Just missed the announcement of the Booker or Pulitzer prize winners? Join the club! Even we struggle to keep up. Here’s a bit of help with all the important dates for the literary calendar. We’ve focused mainly on dates for the UK except some internationally significant book prizes and festivals. Please let us know in the comment field below if we missed any (which we surely have)!