Cogito Advent Calendar

Expectation by Anna Hope

Expectation has the sort of pitch-perfect brilliance that feels effortless to read. Hooked from the first page, I became even more deeply immersed as the tale unfolded, tracing the lives of three friends across three decades. As the novel opens Hannah, Cate and Lissa have it all to play for. They are as young, hip and aspirational as the newly-gentrified area of London they inhabit. Ten years later, life has taken some interesting turns. New mum Cate is feeling the strain, while Hannah is desperate to conceive; Hannah has a chic apartment and rewarding career, but Lissa’s acting never quite got off the ground and she struggles to make her rent… Each wants what the other has, and the ties of friendship are tested. With warmth and compassion, Anna Hope explores how we navigate the space between the expectations we place on ourselves and reality – in a world where demands on us are increasingly complex – and the importance of taking good friends with us on this journey.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

I’ve been hugely impressed with this collection of short stories, which much to my delight has taken me some way out of my reading comfort zone. The stories are sometimes magical, occasionally quite strange, and most definitely at odds with reality, yet, I was completely drawn into these worlds. The writing is compelling, rhythmic and the ideas woven through these contemporary fairy tales leave you with so much to think about. I’m in awe of Jen Campbell’s command of language, imagination and craftsmanship.

The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson

As the author sets out in his preface, the purpose of this hugely informative and entertaining book is to attempt an understanding of ‘why the North East remains one of the most distinctive parts of England’. I’m sure no native of the area would dispute this assertion, and in this vividly rendered, meticulously researched book Dan Jackson swoops and soars over crucial aspects of our region’s social, political, intellectual and industrial history. There emerges from its pages an affectionate but never sentimental portrait of a people uniquely shaped by their environment. It’s a must read for anyone interested in North East history from the Tees to the Tweed. Just wonderful.

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

The war reporter Marie Colvin was described in many different ways by many different people: courageous, inspirational, rebellious, driven, dedicated – a dedication that ultimately cost her her life in Homs, Syria in 2012 – and yet also vulnerable, self-obsessed, and with a yearning for security. Here, her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum weaves the threads of Marie’s complex character together, with a combination of investigation, analysis, and brilliant storytelling, into an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary woman.

Between Stone and Sky by Whitney Brown

This was easily my book of the year. At twenty-six, Whitney Brown’s career path is mapped out. That is, until chance brings dry-stone waller Jack to Washington DC. Fascinated by his craft, Whitney accepts an invitation to visit his home in Wales. Mere months later, she is working alongside him on the hill. Delighting in the physicality of the job (despite smashed fingers and bruised shins) and the shifting beauty of the Welsh countryside, Whitney discovers she need not be on native soil to feel a sense of homecoming. Between Stone and Sky is suffused by Whitney’s lively warmth, humour and originality. She deftly sketches the local topography by listing the gear changes required to navigate its valleys, revels in the local language and discovers the joy of elevenses. More than the delicate love story at its heart, Whitney’s is also a tale of finding harmony between body and soul, between the heft of stone, the inspiration of good friends and the joy of travel.

Botanical Brain Balms by Nicolette Perry and Elaine Perry

We were fortunate enough to welcome author Nicolette Perry to Cogito Books earlier this year to talk about this utterly fascinating and incredibly useful book. Based on years of scientific research and practice into the use of plants to enhance the way our brains work, the different sections give comprehensive advice on which plants to use to promote calm, sleep, energy and memory, and there are additional tips on using plants in everything from soothing creams to gorgeous recipes. If you’re interested in enhancing your mental (and physical) wellbeing in the New Year, then this is definitely the book to help you do it.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

This is a richly atmospheric examination of an obsessive yet doomed love affair between two characters who are both utterly compromised by the corruption of the society in which they live. Frannie is born into slavery in Jamaica; the illegitimate daughter of a plantation owner she is educated only to aid him in the horrific ‘scientific’ experiments he carries out on his slaves. When Langton’s barbarism finally causes his wife to rid herself of him, he brings Frannie to London where he hands her over to George Benham, another whose dehumanising ‘scientific’ interests place her in further jeopardy. However, here Frannie becomes involved with Benham’s wife, Marguerite, whose unhappiness in the house of her controlling, cruel husband is threatening her sanity. Frannie and Meg’s relationship is a poignant plea by two women trying to find sanctuary, meaning and freedom when all agency is denied them. In this impressive and powerful novel, Sara Collins’ exploration of slavery is unflinching yet multi-faceted and in the character of Frannie she has created a flawed but fiercely courageous heroine.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I just loved this witty, literary take on a Gothic thriller, combined with pacey, contemporary police procedural. It’s a bold move on Elly Griffiths’ part but she most definitely pulls it off. The set-up is just perfect; an English teacher, Clare Cassidy is researching a Victorian writer, RM Holland whose ghost story The Stranger is the subject of one of her classes. However, real life intrudes in horrific fashion when bodies begin to turn up, murdered in identical ways to the victims in Holland’s story. So just how is Clare connected to the murders? DS Harbinder Kaur is assigned to investigate and immediately gets under Clare’s skin. Alternating between Harbinder, Clare and Georgia’s (Clare’s daughter) perspectives, Elly Griffiths creates a deepening mystery, with plenty of satisfying nods to the Gothic tradition, but which is also full of rather wonderfully sympathetic characters and a great line in warm, wise cracking humour. It’s an absolute delight.

Viking London by Thomas Williams

Having read Thomas Williams’ Viking Britain earlier this year I was really looking forward to this companion volume exploring the fractured but enduring influence of the Vikings on London. The Viking raids on the city were numerous and violent and as in the rest of the country met with great resistance but also caused London to remake itself over time becoming ever closer to the city we recognise today. This beautifully written and vividly engaging book reveals to us the depths of the Viking influence on London and traces the ghosts of its presence in the modern city. It’s a feast of fascinating research for anyone interested in the history of our ever-evolving capital city.

Skybound: One Woman’s Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine

‘Uplifting’ is the right word for this book on so many levels. Literally, Skybound describes Rebecca Loncraine’s love affair with flight as she discovers gliding, one year into remission from cancer. Emotionally, it brings her unexpected joy, and we delight with her as she soars in silence, reacquainting herself with her home valley from the sky. I loved Rebecca’s sketches of the birds who circle alongside her, and of the rugged mountains, rock and moss which form the backdrop to her flights. Skybound is a book of distilled beauty: a paean to the natural world; to the sky and to the birds who make it their element.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

This book should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. It’s poignancy and beauty can be appreciated by anyone at any age; warm, wise and profoundly kind it follows a young boy and his animal friends on a gentle journey of self-discovery. Charlie Mackesy has combined his gorgeous illustrations with emotionally direct prose which taps into a well of kindness I think we’d all like to see more of in the world. I’m thinking of keeping this book permanently by my bedside as a constant source of spiritual balm.

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Making the bold decision to cease farming and instead let nature take its own course on land that has been in the family for generations, Isabella Tree and her husband begin a revolutionary rewilding project. Sparking many a lively conversation in the bookshop this year, Wilding discusses how history has shaped the British mindset to farming and food production, its effect on the land and how alternative approaches do exist. Their estate is not prime agricultural land and earning a living was always a struggle, but left to its own devices the land flourishes with species of rare flora and fauna re-establishing a presence. A fantastic, closely observed, first-hand account of a new approach to land management.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

This intense, beautifully wrought novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars and follows the attempts of soldier John Lacroix to recover from both the bodily injuries and the unacknowledged psychological damage he’s sustained during the army’s desperate retreat to Corunna. His journey is one which is both physical and emotional; as he sets out for the Western Isles of Scotland, trying and often failing to recall the terrifying events of his recent past. This is a remarkable and thought-provoking study of war induced trauma.

Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian between 1995 and 2015. Part memoir, Breaking News gives us a raft of fascinating behind the scenes glimpses of some of the biggest stories of the era, but above all, this an extremely honest account of the personal and commercial challenges faced in delivering meaningful journalism against the constantly changing backdrop of the digital revolution. Written with authority, passion and also humility, Breaking News has a definite sense of significance and provides a real inspiration to strive for quality and truth in a world that is all too often filled with noise, vested interest and mediocrity.

Lanny by Max Porter

This profound and original novel almost defies description, but its bold, beautiful language, innovative form and content are a rare treat indeed. It’s the story of a village, a family and a unique, imaginative child; the eponymous Lanny. Yet it’s also an attempt to capture all at once, our contemporary world and it’s more traditional roots and how one feeds into the other when a community’s fears and prejudices are brought to the fore when a child goes missing. The book interweaves elements reminiscent of a folk tale with incisive commentary on contemporary attitudes and behaviour to create a hybrid which is visionary, disturbing and totally unique.

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

An epic 2000 mile canoe journey down the Yukon river provides the narrative thread for this enticing and wide ranging exploration. The chinook, or king salmon that breed in the river are the headline focus but Weymouth delivers so much more. Stories from the individuals and communities who live in this raw environment, beautifully depicted landscapes, sharp wildlife observations and moments of adventure combine to make this a terrific window into one of the most remote regions of North America.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

This is just the most magnificent treat for any fans of historical crime fiction. Set in Victorian Edinburgh’s medical community, the novel cleverly weaves together real historical figures and embryonic fictional investigative duo Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, in a deliciously addictive mystery. As Will and Sarah, drawn reluctantly together, begin to investigate the deaths of young women in the city’s notorious Old Town, we enter a wonderfully realised world of poverty, crime and a medical profession in its infancy; compelling yet terrifying at the same time. Full of great characters, fascinating historical detail and a rallying commentary on gender politics throughout, this is a fantastic start to a new crime series.

Trees of Life by Max Adams

In this book, local archaeologist, historian and naturalist Max Adams looks at humanity’s relationship with some of the world’s most iconic trees and, in his typically engaging style, examines how much we rely on them for everything from food and shelter to medicine. The book is packed with fascinating facts and is sumptuously illustrated with beautiful photography and gorgeous botanical illustrations. Divided into six themed chapters detailing the many ways in which trees contribute to our daily lives it’s a wonderfully informative read and a great reference book for tree enthusiasts.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

In June 1934, aged just 19, Laurie Lee set out on foot from his home in Gloucestershire with nothing but a rolled-up tent, a tin of treacle biscuits and a violin under his arm. It was the start of a two-year journey that would take him first to London and then south through a Spain that was on the verge of civil war. Lee’s language is lush and his prose as languorous as his stride, yet he has an eye for the kind of almost careless detail that most people would miss. The landscape is evoked in all its harsh, vibrant beauty, but it is the characters that he meets along the way which give the book its humanity and humour. This is a beautiful, yet un-romantic portrait of a long-forgotten Spain – I often wish I could discover it for the first time all over again!

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

Set in the 1990s, this impressive novel is full of intrigue and beautifully written subtleties. Spanning three generations, the story sifts to the surface family feuds and secrets that have long been buried in misguided attempts to dampen the trauma of war. It takes us from the steady rhythms and workings of a Norwegian homestead, to the rough, rugged shores of Shetland with its hidden grandeur and to the solitude of a unique woodland discovered during the Great War. Each place, vivid with detail, is linked to the mystery surrounding the death of the protagonist’s parents twenty years earlier. An ambitious plot delivered with real elegance.

Circe by Madeline Miller

As captivating as it is revolutionary, Circe is a bold reimagining of the witch-goddess best known for seducing Odysseus. Not considered pretty enough to be important, not ruthless enough to seize power, Circe lives a stunted life in the halls of her father Helios. That is, until she discovers she has a gift: witchcraft. It is not long before this gift lands her in trouble. So begins her exile – and her salvation – on the mystical island of Aiaia. We follow Circe’s bare feet as she wanders amongst Aiaia’s verdant woodlands and heady, herb-scented hillsides, watch as she heals, begins to flourish, grows powerful in her craft. The woman who stands tall, tame lioness at her side, and turns lascivious sailors into swine is practical, self-taught, sensitive, strong: a beacon of light for women navigating the seas of our own age.

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession

I started to read this book and almost immediately it began acting as a wonderful uplifting tonic. It’s a disarmingly simple story of two friends, both very singular in their perspective and outlook on the world, yet happy in their own skins. We learn the ins and outs of Leonard and Hungry Paul’s families, work routines and their wonderfully low-key hopes and desires. Although very moving at times, this is the most heart-warming, gentle story where nothing dramatic actually happens, yet as a reader, you’re more than happy to spend time in the company of the two main characters and Ronan Hession’s mesmerising and often hilarious writing. I just loved this book; an object of quiet but total adoration.

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

Bookworm is a celebration of childhood reading and recreates that magical feeling, when as a child, you read a book by a new author for the first time. Told with Lucy Mangan’s warmth and humour, she shares an impressive reading list from toddler years to adolescence, demonstrating her well-earned status from which the book takes its title. Full of nostalgia, Bookworm explains the historical context of the cornerstones of children’s literature and interweaves entertaining author biographies. I guarantee by the end you’ll be seeking out old favourites to re-read or picking up titles you may have missed.

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