Cogito Advent Calendar

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Set in Ireland in 1985, we follow coal merchant Bill Furlong on his final rounds before Christmas. A gentle, affectionate father, Bill’s intention is ‘to keep his head down and keep on the right side of people’ for the sake of his family. But Bill experienced kindness and acceptance as a child – and he is increasingly troubled by the lack of compassion within his community and its silence about a terrible wrong in its midst. Keegan’s tender portrait of the yearning, sensitive, conflicted soul of an ‘ordinary’ man and the pressure on him to maintain a pragmatic exterior reflects wider repressions within his society. Spare and beautiful, this is a hopeful read about the bravery of kindness.

Mantel Pieces by Hilary Mantel

A treat for Mantel fans – a collection of reviews, essays and memoir from a much-lamented great author. Mantel shines her sharply focused gaze on topics from Madonna to Marie Antoinette; from Danton to sparring with the Devil himself in a post-operative fever dream. Authoritative but always entertaining, she hones in on the telling detail within a massive topic with her trademark wit and clarity – can the Terror really be, in part, an expression of Robespierre’s miserable childhood? In an astonishing piece on her own hospital experiences, she manages to show herself the same empathy and brutal honesty she brings to all her subjects.

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

This is a wonderfully daring and powerfully humane novel which takes one of the most well known incidents in Agatha Christie’s life, that of her disappearance in December 1926, and reimagines the lives of those involved to create a moving meditation on love, ambition, identity and motherhood. The narrative emphasis shifts between Agatha and her husband’s mistress Nan (a fictional Nancy Neele), along with the two detectives investigating the case and a figure from Nan’s past. This mystery is hugely satisfying, and although it’s difficult here to talk about the plot without giving away spoilers it would be a hard heart indeed which failed to be moved by this tender and sympathetic tale.

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flynn

This was an absolute highlight of my reading year. Cal Flynn explores the human connections and environmental legacy of abandoned spaces in a lively, original way. Every setting has its own story; Flynn is brilliant at evoking their individual atmospheres and examining the backstories to their dereliction. From an uplifting look at how a rich ecosystem is regenerating on the abandoned spoil heaps of West Lothian, to a haunting chapter on Detroit’s ‘blight’ (where the inexorable encroachment of nature reflects a wider economic malaise), Flynn presents insightful perspectives on how nature moves in when humans move out.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

This is an absolutely exquisite read, if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler then you’ll be in safe hands with the wonderful Mary Lawson. The novel centres on three disparate but connected characters, all at very different stages of life; an elderly woman lies dying in hospital, confronting past trauma and deep regret; a young man contemplates life post-divorce, wondering if he’s actually capable of anything other than emotionally distanced relationships, and a young girl struggles to cope with the sudden disappearance of her older sister. This beautifully written book reveals the complex, moving stories of ordinary lives made utterly compelling by the author’s belief that they are so, it’s an absolute triumph of empathy and insight.

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie

I walk, enjoy the wind in my hair (breeze not gusts) and have a deep sense of pleasure from being surrounded by the natural world but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m artistic. Yet, I took this book, a new notebook, and my pencil case on holiday when time takes on a more generous dimension. Spurred on by Clare’s constructive suggestions, practical tips, and gentle, supportive encouragement, I started my own nature journal. Not only fun and unexpectedly relaxing, this source of inspiration also heightened my sense of awareness and I noticed so much more; insects, unusual patterns in bark and stones, and stunning changes in light. It’s brilliant when a book opens your eyes. So go on, have a play and try something new!

The First Kingdom by Max Adams

In this book Max Adams investigates a most contested, historical period: that of post-Roman Britain. It’s a fascinating time, shrouded in myth primarily because until very recently the lack of written records and widespread archaeological evidence were huge obstacles to discovering the true extent of the changes to society engendered by the protracted abandonment of Britain by its Roman colonizers. But with advances in archaeogenetics and a re-framing of what actually constitutes kingdom and community the author is able to reveal a fascinating picture of a world which was emerging, fragmented but tenacious, from the Roman behemoth.

On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

Chosen as one of our all-time favourites by two of us on the Cogito team, this wonderful book illuminates the quiet tragedies and joys of lives lived unremarkably against the backdrop of huge social, political and economic change in the 20th century. What I love most about the book is its deep sense of place, a rootedness in its landscape and ways of life. Encompassed by the long lives of twins Lewis and Benjamin, who for forty-two years sleep side by side in their parents’ bed, On The Black Hill tells the interconnected stories of a single remote community of unforgettable characters.

The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell

Here is a plethora of creatures we believe we know: the seal, the bear, the bat, and the giraffe (amongst many others) revealed through the fresh perspective of Katherine Rundell’s literary insights. Her combination of erudition and charm make this highly original look at the animals within its pages an utter treat, and all accompanied to gorgeous effect by Talya’s Baldwin’s beautiful illustrations. Instantly immersive and endlessly fascinating, this is the book I’ll be keeping by my bedside this winter.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

This is a poignant, compelling tale of an unconventional family; full of great characters, it’s hugely emotionally engaging, with shocking secrets and damaging lies at its very core. When their mother Dot dies, middle aged twins Jeanie and Julius are forced to fend for themselves for the first time. Prevented from living lives like their peers due to Dot’s suffocating need for their constant proximity, they are at an apparent disadvantage when navigating the complexities and casual cruelties of everyday life. But their story is also potentially one of discovery and possibility: will they be able to reconstruct their lives free of the influence of their mother or will their lack of experience of the outside world be their undoing?

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

1926 London, a post-war, party city determinedly shaking off grief – our heroine Gwendoline, heartbroken by the Great War but bored by the peace, arrives to search for a missing girl. Aided by exciting but jaded Niven – son of notorious Soho nightclub queen Nellie Coker, and the stolid Det. Frobisher – fighting corruption in his force and ghosts of the war at home, Gwendoline finds the excitement and independence she craves. With beautifully realised period detail and fully fleshed out characters, we’re immersed in a world revelling in an atmosphere of determined carelessness, where some profit and some are lost. Atkinson’s genius is on dazzling display with this witty book glittering like mirrored Art Deco cut glass.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

No matter how much I read about Antarctic exploration it’s a subject I find endlessly compelling, and Julian Sancton’s book illustrates exactly why. It follows a Belgian expedition – setting out in 1897 and containing amongst its crew a young Roald Amundsen – which became trapped in the ice and was forced to overwinter on this most terrifying of continents. The manner in which the captain and crew dealt with physical and mental health issues, morale, food supply and – most importantly – preventing their ship, the Belgica from being crushed by the ice, is a phenomenally interesting story, full of strangeness and wonder. The incredible ingenuity and the terrible darkness of humanity is on thrilling display throughout.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Lighthouses have always held a fascination for me; their unique architecture, urgent function and often isolated locations seem to invite drama and intrigue. And, indeed, these are qualities which Emma Stonex’s novel supplies in abundance. In 1972, three lighthouse keepers disappear without trace. The mystery remains unsolved until, twenty years later a writer decides to investigate the incident, tracking down the men’s partners hoping to discover the circumstances which led up to that fateful day. This is such a beautifully constructed and incredibly sympathetic portrayal of fractured relationships, grief, and regret, interwoven with the suggestion of a ghost story; cleverly subverting expectations to produce a profoundly satisfying read.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

It feels as though the whole of humanity resides in this hugely ambitious novel; its multi-timeline narrative journeys back to the fall of Constantinople, charts the upheaval and conflict of the twentieth century and propels us, perhaps, into a strange and uncertain future. Our guides to these worlds are a set of characters whose experiences are vital, terrifying and beautiful, and each in their particular way is obsessed by an ancient text which seems reborn or rediscovered regardless of the passage of time. Ultimately this book is a testament to the power stories have to sustain us and to bear witness to the connectedness of our fleeting individual lives: life-affirming and utterly wonderful.

Undreamed Shores by Frances Larson

This is the story of five very different women, who at the beginning of the twentieth century set out to pursue their respective ambitions of education, travel and freedom. Detailing the obstacles placed before them by society at large and even by their families, this is an unvarnished look at the institutional misogyny they had to overcome to be granted even the smallest opportunity. The descriptions of the locations to which they travelled as some of the world’s first female anthropologists are inspiring but their stories are fraught with sadness and injustice which is at times absolutely rage inducing.

Tall Bones by Anna Bailey

This is a stunningly ambitious and brilliantly executed hybrid of crime and literary fiction. Set in Colorado in the small town of Whistling Ridge, it’s a brutally convincing examination of abusive power, corruption, prejudice and domestic dysfunctionality, rendered in prose of elegance and emotional power. When teenager Abi Blake goes missing after a party in the woods, the subsequent efforts to discover her whereabouts bring a myriad of toxic secrets to light, threatening to expose the hypocrisy of one generation and poison the future of the next. Although not always a comfortable read, this book expertly cracks the veneer holding a community together while still holding out hope of redemption.

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

This is such an uplifting, entertaining read. Whether you relish a physical challenge, delight in the love of food or dream of a more French way of life (or like me, embrace all three), this food memoir combined with cycling adventure celebrates French cuisine, the vast landscape of l’Hexagon and the frustrations of navigating French systems, all from the seat of two wheels. With warmth, wit, and an infectious dollop of enthusiasm for the indulgence in good eating, even the steepest mountain slog or constant whipping rain fails to obliterate Felicity’s grit and determination, as there is always the joy of food…one more croissant for the road anyone?

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

This book was a huge hit with our Fiction Book Group, taking a fascinating perspective on that most complex of periods in British history, the War of the Roses. Annie Garthwaite has long been fascinated by Cecily Neville, the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, and in this fictional portrayal she provides a much needed interrogation into the way in which a woman could wield power and influence in a world where, even for a someone of her status, all access to agency appeared to be denied. It’s a wonderfully multifaceted, nuanced picture of an intelligent, politically astute and uncompromising woman whom it is impossible not to admire.

A Modern Way to Live by Matt Gibberd

Most of us aren’t architects or interior designers but nonetheless many will at some time refurnish a room, redecorate or even undertake a building project. If like me, you find these projects exciting but at the same time sometimes struggle to visualise how all the elements will come together, A Modern Way to Live will almost certainly provide some great tips and inspiration. Written very much from the perspective of the use and enjoyment of a home, the book’s themes of space, light, materials, nature and decoration, make this nuanced and often overlooked subject very approachable. A Modern Way to Live has changed the way I view our home and very much increased my appreciation of it.

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Incredibly twisty-of-plot, this is both an homage to and a subversion of Golden Age crime fiction, with a contemporary narrator who happens to be extremely unreliable. Steve Smith is a man for whom little has gone to plan, and the beginning of the novel sees him delving into his past to try and discover where the rot first began to set in; apparently, with his possession of a book by once celebrated author Edith Twyford. Were her cosy children’s books in reality hiding the key to a much darker mystery, the solving of which threatened lives? Steve’s attempt to crack the ‘Twyford Code’ will keep you endlessly on your toes with its labyrinthine puzzles, but I also found myself unexpectedly moved as a more nuanced picture of his life slowly emerges.

Landlines by Raynor Winn

Landlines combines everything I loved about The Salt Path with a deeper understanding of the humour and interdependence that underpins Raynor and Moth’s relationship. Faced with a decline in Moth’s health, Raynor reaches for the one thing they know can bring solace – another guidebook; another path. But this is not just any path: encompassing over 200 miles of terrain through some of the UK’s most remote landscapes, the Cape Wrath Trail presents Raynor and Moth with their biggest challenge yet. Deciding to put themselves ‘in the way of hope’, with ill-fitting boots and chronically inadequate provisions, Raynor and Moth put their faith in the process of putting one foot in front of the other, sharing fascinating perspectives on how we impact, relate to and curate the natural world.

I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood

This is a highly original piece of crime fiction which plays with the ideas of truth and memory. The novel’s central character Xander Shute lives an isolating and difficult existence, homeless on London’s streets. One night he believes he witnesses the murder of a woman in a Mayfair flat. However, his failure to convince the police of the event’s veracity forces him to a point of crisis in which he begins to question everything about his life, taking him back into his past to painfully rediscover and try to accept the man he really is. This is a complex and compelling read giving an insightful and sympathetic examination of Xander’s interaction with a society of which he no longer feels a part.

Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

Far from needing lots of time, money and an exotic destination, Alastair Humphreys explores how we can bring adventure into our everyday lives. Instead of meeting friends for dinner in town, he persuades them to journey the same distance out of the city and meet him up a hill for a meal around the campfire. After too many days in front of a screen, he takes a bivvy bag into his back garden and sleeps under the stars. Funny and insightful, this book questions the mindset that the logistics of our lives are barriers to adventure – and provides a practical guide to excursions close to home.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This book is both a life affirming coming-of-age story and a superb examination of changing gender roles in modern Ugandan society. As our central character Kirabo grows up, sheltered by her prosperous family and the familiar surroundings of her village, she begins to question what path her own life will take and whether she really knows the truth about her closest relatives. Beautifully weaving together stories past and present and featuring wonderfully realised complex characters, the novel re-visits recent history to uncover a feminist narrative steeped in myth, folklore, and endlessly difficult choices.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

By turns deeply moving and hilariously witty, Sorrow and Bliss is shot through with a kind of redemptive joy, revealing the existence of hope even when we feel everything is broken. Feisty, talented and funny, Martha Friel is a magnetic character struggling against the tide, who can’t seem to help lashing out at those who love her most (for reasons which are explored as we follow her story). Mason’s portrayal of a complex web of relationships is astute and affirms that there is room for much love within an ostensibly dysfunctional family. With echoes of Fleabag in its spiky tenderness and celebration of sisterhood, this is an uplifting and hugely enjoyable read.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

This is a compelling and engaging account of one family’s unflinching determination and endurance to survive the atrocities and desperate suffering that plagued Vietnam over decades. Told in the first person from both Huong and her grandmother, the storytelling has an immediacy and familiarity, and I found the rhythm of the writing and voices strangely consoling in the face of the brutality and hardship the pair face. The unveiling of one family’s story is set against the wider back drop of the history and politics of this country’s conflicts and through it all there is the incredible integrity, resilience and hope of the human spirit.

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