Cogito Advent Calendar

Warrior by Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething

This is a must read for all those interested in early medieval history and in the kingdom of Northumbria in particular. Its exciting starting point is the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s bones, unearthed during an archaeological dig at Bamburgh Castle. What then follows is an inspired attempt to place this ancient figure into historical, archaeological, and social context. This involves a wonderfully vivid interpretation of the unending struggle to conquer and unite disparate kingdoms, the spread of Celtic Christianity east from Ireland, and, of course, the life of this region’s most famous leader, Oswald.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

James Rebanks needs no introduction, which can only be a good thing. Exploring how the delicate balance of our farmland has been eroded within our lifetime, English Pastoral raises a passionate call to action – for farmers and consumers alike – to restore the equilibrium. In prose that is both spare and poetic, Rebanks recalls a time when farming was intensely physical – and uncovers the disconnect between the way we live and our relationship with the land that feeds us. Whether musing on Virgil’s Georgics, or working the sheepdogs with his two-year-old son, Rebanks takes us along for the ride. Whilst addressing some of the thornier debates around how we breathe life back into the land, Rebanks retains a sense of spellbound wonder at nature simply doing its thing. Deeply personal, full of hope and more than a little revolutionary, this book is a joy to read.

The Glovemaker by Ann Weisgarber

Intensely involving, beautifully paced and offering a fascinating perspective on the little-known religious persecution of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in 1880s Utah; this book is immediately immersive. Deborah’s life in the small settlement of Junction is proving particularly difficult; Samuel, her wheelwright husband, hasn’t returned home from a journey as expected and a strange man has appeared at her door demanding sanctuary. Who is he and why doesn’t his appearance shock Deborah? As we learn more about her life and the challenges she faces, the novel builds into an incredibly suspenseful struggle between her deeply held religious beliefs and her own conscience.

She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but the title of this book alone had me hooked. Exploding the myth that British women sat fanning themselves while men had all the agency in the heyday of the East India Company, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen interrogates history to uncover the stories of many intrepid – if unsung – women. Traders, stowaways, courtesans and powerful society ladies burst into life through Hickman’s astute and intricately researched accounts of their lives. In this rich and wide-ranging history, Hickman presents a sensitive and nuanced perspective on a politically turbulent and deeply conflicted period, through the prism of female experience.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This is without doubt one of the most beautiful books I’ve read this year; there’s such an abundance of vivid life in its pages even as it seeks to explore the most profound loss. Maggie O’Farrell’s premise is a bold one: to write a life of Shakespeare (although he is never named) as viewed through the prism of his wife Agnes and their children. Although the eponymous Hamnet, the playwright’s only son, is the talisman, his loss the novel’s fulcrum; the book ranges through the life of this extraordinary family from the unconventional courtship of Shakespeare and Agnes to the devastating aftermath of the young boy’s death. The characters are all richly drawn; O’Farrell’s wonderful language giving a powerful physicality to their lives and immediately engaging the reader’s sympathy. This beautifully wrought vision of Shakespeare’s family life has an intensity which is utterly hypnotic; it’s a profound and captivating read.

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

Where do I start? This enchanting gem of a book holds me captivated every time I pick it up. It is just unbelievably stunning; Jackie Morris’ exquisite illustrations perfectly matched by the thrilling vitality of Robert Macfarlane’s poetry. Continuing their quest to counter the tune of loss which has begun to characterise the natural world and our relationship with it, Macfarlane and Morris have created a talisman bursting with life. Just the right size to fit in your coat pocket, The Lost Spells is perfect to take with you on walks. With Macfarlane and Morris by your side, in their words, ‘the world is sudden with wonder again’.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is that rare thing; a beautifully written novel which has you wanting to slow down to savour each word and race to find out what happens next. The story has its genesis in events which unfold in ‘The Dutch House’ and which reverberate into the protagonists’ future. With exquisite subtlety, Ann Patchett gently uncovers the tremors which underpin many of the characters’ ostensibly functional lives – often encapsulating a lifetime of emotion in a few words. Prepare yourself for heartbreak and joy – I can’t remember when I found a novel this satisfying, or thought about it as much once I’d put it down.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This fascinating book reveals the disparate lives of five women, better known for the circumstances of their deaths. Although we may recognise their names, they have long been overshadowed by the cult of their killer, alias Jack The Ripper. Diminished in the face of sensationalism, dismissed as prostitutes and objectified as victims, I love the way that Hallie Rubenhold has reclaimed these women’s stories. Compelling, compassionate and immaculately researched, The Five resets the skewed perspective of history. Essential reading!

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This brilliant novel left me lost for words. It pulls no punches, yet navigates life’s complexities with warmth, humour and grace. Shining a spotlight on twelve interconnected characters in turn, Evaristo reveals a polyphony of voices, each ringing with their own truth of what it means to be black, British and born female. Despite (or perhaps because of) its eclectic range of perspectives, this is a book which will grab you by the heart, and succeed in doing so twelve times over. Astoundingly good!

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn

I just love Raynor Winn’s writing. It amazes me that she hasn’t been a writer all her life. There is something close to perfection in the way she combines emotional honesty and self-deprecating humour with a lyrical sensitivity to nature – and captures it all in exquisitely crafted prose. In The Wild Silence, we revisit Raynor and Moth, as they discover life is not necessarily easier to navigate once they have a roof over their heads – until an unexpected turn of events presents an interesting opportunity... Uplifting and life-affirming, The Wild Silence is both an ardent celebration of our connection with the natural world and a reminder to tread lightly within it. Above all, it is the song of a great and enduring love.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This is a wonderfully absorbing story set in a small rural community in Norway where, in 1880, the beauty of its surroundings is starkly contrasted with the harsh reality of desperately long, cold winters and people’s struggle for survival. Here, lifestyles and mindsets are strongly rooted in the land, but times are slowly changing, and the arrival of a new pastor calls into question the formidable position of the church. The story centres around three main characters all of whom dream of achieving their ambitions but to do so means breaking society’s restrictive conventions. Mytting’s characters have depth, his storytelling is vivid and emotionally rich, and his writing effortlessly unfolds a captivating tale.

Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

The year is 1781, and decorated war hero Harry Corsham is reluctantly inveigled upon to investigate the violent death of his friend, firebrand abolitionist Tad Archer. And so, Harry is drawn into a web of criminal and political intrigue which is as fascinating as it is terrifying. The book (part of which is based on real events) masterfully illustrates how powerful and pervasive the ‘industry’ of slave trading was; revealing to what extent all echelons of society were invested in this horrifying enterprise. The novel illuminates the menacing world of eighteenth-century London superbly and offers a window on to the disparate communities peopling its dangerous streets.

Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith

I enjoy this book more every time I read it! Surprisingly captivating for anyone with an interest in running, mountains or armchair sportsmanship, it combines Askwith’s fell-running misadventures with insights into the sport’s history. Interviewing characters from fell running’s heyday – many of whom have lived and worked their entire lives in one valley – he creates a timely portrait of a way of life. Far from being nostalgic, however, Feet in the Clouds is an uplifting read, celebrating the mud-fuelled delights of running in some of our most remote and beautiful landscapes.

The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood

Jimmy, living on the streets of Newcastle and suffering from PTSD, has to be one of the most unlikely candidates for detective work that you’re likely to meet. But Trevor Wood has created a gem here, not only in the fantastically original lead character, but also in the fascinating perspective that Jimmy allows him to bring to everything about the novel. An unusual and superbly well-paced thriller.

The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright

I know less than I would like to about wild plants and fungi – certainly not enough to eat anything more adventurous than the odd blackberry. So, I expected to find The Forager’s Calendar useful and informative, which it absolutely is, with clear descriptions and excellent colour photographs. Not only a superb practical handbook, it is also full of thought-provoking insights and sparkles with John Wright’s humour. Equally fascinating on conservation, nutrition and the relationship between foraging and the law, Wright will prove the best of companions on your forays into finding food for free.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

Cogito favourite Emily St John Mandel has produced a new novel which once again showcases her beautiful, almost mesmeric writing, and her ability to create wonderfully nuanced characters. She weaves a dark and subtle tale of greed, corruption and (partial) redemption around the life of her central character Vincent, who acts as both magnet and prism; drawing out others’ venality while revealing her own organic integrity. But it’s the man whom Vincent marries, Jonathan Alkaitis, who appears to drive the novel’s narrative arc; he sits like a spider at the centre of a financially fraudulent web which draws all of the characters into a superficial world of frailty and delusion.

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

There really could not be a more timely or informative read in our current pandemic circumstances. In this erudite and well researched book Laura Spinney attempts to anatomise and analyse the effects of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918-19. It’s a fascinating examination of the origins of the disease and how different countries and communities responded to it medically, socially and culturally. It’s impossible not to trace both the similarities and the differences with our own situation but we’re also offered the strange comfort of perspective in the final chapters on a post-pandemic world.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy’s engagement with young people as a teacher and author goes far beyond our rigid national curriculum and a dominating exam passing mentality. Her observations result in a wonderfully inspiring and compassionate read that provides insight not only into the stoic and caring efforts of some remarkable teachers but ultimately demonstrates the importance of young individuals being given the opportunity to find their voice and identity. Clancy’s stories are eye-opening, incredibly thought-provoking, show impressive talents and are sometimes heart-breaking. They certainly make you question how our schools move forward. At the heart is the power of poetry as an essential means of hearing other people’s stories and multicultural lives.

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

Nobody writes quite like Lissa Evans; her knowledge of the human heart with all its frailties and its surprising capacity for endurance and joy is unique. This is the third novel in a loose trilogy linked together by the wonderful Noel Simpkin; the singular, endearing boy we first meet as a small child at the end of Old Baggage. It’s now 1944, with Noel still rubbing along with his ramshackle guardian Vee, who has assumed the respectable identity of a landlady. But Vee’s chance witnessing of an accident involving an American soldier throws their quiet life into disarray, while figures from Noel’s past emerge to disturb his own fragile equilibrium.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

It’s almost impossible to sum up why this book is so heartbreaking, so beautiful and so important. Having finally gained access to the records which document his childhood, and the circumstances in which he was taken from his mother shortly after birth, Sissay sets out to make sense of what happened to him – and why he spent the formative years of his life answering to a name which was never his. A searing indictment of the failures of the care system, My Name is Why nevertheless remains ultimately uplifting, as Lemn Sissay triumphantly reclaims his name and forges his identity as an award-winning poet.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Wishing you could be a bit more optimistic about the future of society? Utopia for Realists delivers a route map to exactly what it promises. Powerful, encouraging and inspiring, Bregman presents well researched concepts with clear logic and enthusiastic writing. Almost from the first page I started thinking “this could actually work” and I finished feeling unusually hopeful.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

A superb coming-of-age novel, given wonderful freshness and humour by Benjamin Myer’s glorious writing. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, Robert Appleyard, a boy on the cusp of manhood, sets outs from his home in a Durham pit village for one last summer of freedom. He heads to the Yorkshire coast where he meets an unconventional older woman, Dulcie Piper, who takes him under her wing. Dulcie is independent and unconventional; a woman with stories to tell but also painful memories to hide. This beautifully written, inter-generational friendship nurtures Robert; revealing his potential to change his own fate should he choose to do so.

Wintering by Katherine May

This is a fascinating account of how we can learn to cope when our lives become ‘frozen’ by sudden change or trauma; in the author’s case this took the form of an unexpected family illness. After an initial period of shock and emotional paralysis Katherine May learned to embrace her period of ‘wintering’ by exploring different cultural approaches to these times of enforced retreat and re-assessment. The book is both wise and illuminating and obviously so very relevant to our present collective experience and I must say that I found reading it greatly comforting.

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

This is such an absolute treat; the first in a mystery series featuring the Bronte sisters. Summoned from Haworth to the house of a local grandee by a friend who’s employed there, they discover a blood-soaked bed and the absence of the house’s mistress, Elizabeth Chester. Suspicion and rumour swirl around her disappearance and presumed murder, and it’s up to Charlotte, Emily and Anne to discover the truth. Elegant, witty writing, a gripping plot and a writer who captures the nuances of each of the sister’s unique personalities, combine to make this an intelligent and utterly pleasurable read.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Inspired by the real-life relationships of actors Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and author Bram Stoker, Joseph O’Connor conjures a novel which is both gloriously entertaining and at times almost unbearably poignant. It’s occupied primarily, with the period from 1878 when Irving and Terry, already legends of the Victorian stage, take over the running of the Lyceum Theatre in London, employing Stoker as its manager. Relations between the three are tempestuous and complicated; agendas are pursued, arguments abound, and love causes more pain than happiness. Wonderful writing captures the strange, garish glory of Victorian theatre, to which Bram Stoker’s insular flights of imagination and crises of confidence act as an eerily fascinating counterpoint.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

This compelling yet unsettling book is beautifully written, original, and wonderfully intelligent. A writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to attempt the completion of a book about Isaac Newton’s study of alchemy. The book’s original author has been found dead in mysterious circumstances and it is her son, Cameron, Lydia’s former lover, who persuades her to take on the project. The novel’s complex plot explores both Newton and Cameron’s consuming scientific obsessions in parallel, as we slip between seventeenth and twenty-first century Cambridge. Boundaries between time periods ultimately become blurred as threats emerge from both the past and present to menace Lydia.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

This complex novel follows the life of a doctor, Lucius Krzelewski, from his student days in Vienna to the harsh conditions of a military hospital on the First World War’s Eastern Front in northern Hungary. The book is both epic and ambitious while at the same time managing to be incredibly intimate, insightful, and humane. The extensive research into the Austro-Hungarian empire is lightly worn, and Lucius’s gradual evolution from medical student to military doctor facing challenges of which he’d never dreamed, is a beautifully written exploration of the possibilities of human endurance and endeavour.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Interweaving Scottish folklore with historical realism, The Ninth Child takes us to the shores of Loch Katrine in the 1850s. Uprooted from her home and unmoored by a series of miscarriages, Isabel Aird accompanies her husband on a revolutionary project to deliver clean water to Glasgow. Immersed in nature – and divorced from the distractions of city life – Isabel begins to confront her feelings of loss and to define her place in society. Marking a pivotal moment in the history of medicine, engineering and public health, this novel retains more than a hint of magic.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Sometimes we are so familiar with a story that we almost forget we haven’t read it. Trainspotting was one of the defining films of my teens, but nothing prepared me for how dazzled I would be by the novel when I finally began reading it, many years later. What struck me most was the virtuosity of Welsh’s style; written in dialect, Trainspotting has a uniquely staccato and yet lyrical rhythm and reads like a dream. While it is perhaps best known for its unflinching portrayal of an underworld of addiction and crime, Trainspotting is also a sensitive (if unsentimental) celebration of friendship, and ultimately of life itself.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

In this fascinating, beautifully written collection of essays on everything from foraging to migraines, bird-feeding to wild boar, Helen Macdonald brings the natural world up close. I kept having ‘yes, exactly!’ moments as she captured how many of us may feel in response to nature but are unable to articulate. I particularly love how she interrogates her response to deer and sums up her encounters with them: ‘I wish there was more magic in the world. And then the deer have appeared to say, Here it is.’

There is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee

Berners-Lee’s earlier book How Bad are Bananas? has been a consistently excellent source of reference for me as I struggle to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and so I was very excited to hear what he had to say now at what feels like a pivotal moment. I wasn’t disappointed. Berners-Lee takes what is often a refreshingly unusual angle as he attempts to answer a series of key questions, frequently unearthing points that are not in the mainstream narrative. He manages to pull off the trick of presenting his incredibly thorough and detailed analysis in a manner that is punchy, entertaining and positive.

Staying Human edited by Neil Astley

We could all do with taking this book along as we navigate ‘this upturned world’ (as Neil Astley so aptly terms it). Like a brilliant DJ, Astley draws disparate voices from a multitude of perspectives together to resonate and interact, encompassing the full, messy complexity of staying human in our times. It might not be the easiest book to read in public (you can expect some tears as well as smiles and nods of recognition!) but it is overwhelmingly, joyfully life-affirming.

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