Cogito Advent Calendar

River Kings by Cat Jarman

I’m a huge fan of Norse history and Cat Jarman’s book brings a fresh perspective to the Vikings’ achievements as explorers, as she attempts to trace the provenance of a carnelian bead excavated at the Repton site in Britain. Using the latest forensic archaeological techniques, she tracks the bead’s possible journey through the river routes of northern Europe into Iraq and perhaps even to India, exploring settlements and trading relationships along the way. Fascinating, enlightening and just utterly inspiring.

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

I adored this historical novel, not least because the author’s vivid depiction of nineteenth century Edinburgh is a shining delight throughout. But this is far from the book’s only source of joy. Set in 1822, its central narrative involves the relocation of the city’s Botanical Gardens from their original site in Leith to their (still current) site on Inverleith Row. Against this backdrop the author’s central characters Elizabeth, a young widow traumatised by a violent marriage and Belle, a courtesan determined to maintain her independence at all costs, form a complicated friendship wherein the author examines gender roles, class, and social hypocrisy with a keen yet humorous eye.

The Fell by Sarah Moss

This exquisite novel explores the very pertinent issues of human frailty and forgiveness in the context of the second lockdown period in November 2020. With her beautifully nuanced writing, Sarah has created characters who perfectly render the shattering effect the pandemic has had on life as we know it; their fragmented, confused, and conflicted responses are utterly convincing. Once again, Sarah brings her unique gifts to bear telling the story of us: breaking, adapting, and surviving in the most difficult circumstances.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

I was fascinated that Abi Daré avoided reading fiction while writing this book, to keep her central character’s voice clear in her mind. And what a voice it is! Adunni is fourteen, her mother has died and she is third wife to a much older man. But she wants an education, to teach – and most of all, a louding voice. A voice which will go out into the world and be listened to, which can ring changes and create opportunity. Without undermining the scale of the challenges faced by Adunni (and millions of girls in her position, without access to education or the means to an independent future), Daré has created a novel which simultaneously warms the heart and signals an urgent need for change.

Tough Women edited by Jenny Tough

There is something special when you read the right book at the right moment; in 2021 this was the book for me. A compilation of accounts by a selection of inspirational women who thrive in the face of a physical challenge - certainly not always the fastest, highest or most epic, this is about individuals’ personal challenges and one’s capability to dig deep. I read it when the confines of lockdown felt at their most restrictive but within these accounts, I found hope and inspiration. Yes, we’d be outdoors again, experiencing the adrenalin of embracing playground wildernesses. I’ve been on some amazing walks this year, thanks to the motivation of these stories, I hope it leads to some great adventures for you too.

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

This is such a superb psychological thriller; set in Oxford and centring around an apparently successful but highly dysfunctional family with nods to gothic fiction and a wonderfully tricksy potentially unreliable narrator, it’s an utterly fabulous read. A child has disappeared, and her nanny Dee is being questioned by the police; she seems like a sympathetic character but we’re seeing everything through her eyes regarding the family’s behaviour: how far can we trust her, plausible as she seems? Lucy Atkins’ writing is just so good; she has a brilliant eye for character, and she also evokes a great sense of Oxford as a city full of ghosts and often at odds with itself.

Field Work by Bella Bathhurst

Bella Bathurst turns her focus on the farming world in this fascinating book. Illuminating disparate elements of the industry by turn, Bathhurst takes us through a day in the life of a knackerman, to auction, to an emotionally charged workshop on succession-planning and from the compact, familiar pastures of the cottage she rents on Rise Farm in Wales to the mesmerising uniformity of a commercial-scale apple farm. There’s real warmth in the connections Bathhurst makes with the people she encounters, and her astute observations bring us closer to understanding the complexities of their industry and way of life.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

It’s not often that the heroine of a novel dies in the first sentence, but the fact that Shafak develops a dead character with such intimacy and integrity is testament to her writing. From the beginning, I felt I was in the hands of a gifted writer. This is a multisensory novel; as Tequila Leila lies dying, different smells conjure memories from her life. From her childhood in rural Turkey to the life she has created for herself in the underbelly of Istanbul, there is a great richness in the scents, sounds and colours in a country where the cultures of the East and West collide. Yet, the greatest richness comes from the friendships she has made and the power of these continue long after Leila has left the world.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This powerful novel is based on the true events of 1617 when the village of Vardo in northern Norway was hit by a sudden storm which drowned nearly all of the male population. Kiran Millwood Hargrave sensitively examines the lives of the women left behind through her central characters: fisherman’s daughter Maren and the new church commissioner’s wife, Ursa. Their relationship develops in the claustrophobic crucible of village life, as the growing agency of Vardo’s women comes into increasing conflict with the dictates of the church, bringing the prospect of danger ever closer. This important, moving story is wonderfully served by the austere beauty of the author’s prose.

A Flight of Arrows by AJ MacKenzie

One for the medieval historians here. Set in 1346, we follow Edward III’s army as it journeys through France, skirmishing and burning as it goes, heading towards the pivotal Battle of Crécy. Simon Merrivale, the Prince of Wales’s herald, is tasked with investigating the murder of an archer, but he soon discovers that this is not an isolated incident; he may well have stumbled upon a much wider conspiracy which could endanger his own life. With a reassuring labyrinthine plot, great characters, and wonderful historical detail in both the depictions of battle and everyday life on military campaign, this is a fantastically gripping, suspenseful read.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (and These Precious Days) by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s first collection of essays reads like a memoir; we find out about her life’s loves, her thoughts on key elements of society, her family and how being a writer is at her core. Her writing and ideas are sharp and articulate, delicately exposing the nuances of her topic whilst simultaneously addressing major issues. Her consideration and difference of opinion is refreshing, her honesty is admirable, and her writing is intelligent, respectful, entertaining, and incredibly thought-provoking. In reading her non-fiction, it has been a pleasure to spend time with this extraordinary, ordinary woman. Her second collection continues to show her exceptional skill as a writer, and unsurprisingly given current times, it has a reflection on life, and our consciousness of being alive.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Off the island of Black Conch, a strange beauty haunts the waters. Strong-featured and striking, with a tail of iridescent scales, Aycayia is cursed to endure a loneliness as wide as the ocean. It’s 1976, and a fisherman’s life is about to be transformed. As David strums his guitar on the rocks, Aycayia is drawn to him and they bond instantly. So when she is captured, David is compelled to intervene…

In a lyrical patois as mesmeric as the tale she spins, Roffey combines mystical elements with a refreshing realism. With echoes of Jean Rhys, this is an off-beat love story which interrogates colonial history.

The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

When detective Elma returns from Reykjavik to take up a position with the Akranes police, she’s immediately plunged into an unusual murder case when a woman’s body is discovered beside the town’s old lighthouse. Elma must then delve deep into the lives of prominent local figures in the small town she thinks she knows so well, unearthing its disturbing secrets, while coping with her own emotionally turbulent personal life. The novel brilliantly captures the atmosphere of life in a small community, where too often familiarity breeds a sense of security which is completely at odds with the reality of the suffering and trauma enacted behind closed doors.

Wanderers by Kerri Andrews

Kerri Andrews has curated a super collection of mini biographies of ten women for whom walking has formed an imperative part of their being. There are wonderful glimpses of social history by hearing these women’s voices through their diaries and letters. It’s fascinating the different ways walking offered freedom; not only escapism, exploration, and understanding of the landscape but also the opportunity for headspace to develop their thoughts and creativity. The author’s accounts of her own expeditions to retrace the routes these women roamed and hiked, offer powerful insights into changing social mores. Reading this has altered my own connections with the landscape, it has rooted me in my boots, focused the mind on the experiences of those who walked the path before me and emphasised the connection between physicality and creativity.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I love the way Chambers captures the atmosphere of 1950s suburbia – and offsets it with a marvellously outlandish premise. Local journalist Jean Swinney’s working days are filled writing gardening columns and putting together tips for thrifty housewives, her home life dictated by her mother's whims, until she is contacted by a woman claiming to have experienced a virgin birth. Entrusted with handling the investigation, this is a scoop for Jean professionally, but one which turns her personal life upside down and her emotions inside out. Beautifully written, this subtle and warm-hearted novel explores the impact of grand passions on quiet lives.

Less is More by Jason Hickel

From the title you might be forgiven for thinking you were in for a lengthy lesson on why you should adopt a simpler and more frugal lifestyle. However, Less is More is actually focussed on unpicking the history and drivers of our current economic models and probing whether they serve our best interests. Hickel’s analysis and observations force you to take a step back from many of our in-built assumptions and he draws together a very well structured and eye-opening case for how we might, and indeed should, do things differently.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet

Effortlessly compelling, The Vanishing Half charts the lives of twins Stella and Desiree, who grow up in a small southern black community until they run away at sixteen. As their paths diverge, Desiree and her black daughter find themselves back in her home town, whilst Stella cuts all ties to begin a new life, passing as white. But when their daughters’ lives collide, Stella’s careful subterfuge begins to erode… With a delicate touch, Bennett explores the complexities of racial prejudice and gender identity whilst weaving an intricate plot which kept me spellbound. Tender, incisive and thought-provoking, The Vanishing Half is a book you will be thinking about long after you put it down. 

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

This is a genuine emotional roller coaster of a novel which examines the consequences which ripple out across time after a young girl is found dead outside a small Californian town. Years later, her supposed killer is released from jail and returns home; her damaged, psychologically fragile sister Star is then found dead, and the town seethes with suspicion once more. Star’s children Duchess and Robin become the focal point of the town’s attention; who will protect them as the local police struggle to find out what happened? This novel is heartbreakingly poignant as it follows the children’s journey to try and reach some kind of sanctuary, and in the teenage Duchess Day Radley, Chris Whitaker has created a complex, brave, and utterly compelling heroine.

A Trillion Trees by Fred Pearce

Protecting our woodlands and forests, and planting more trees is something we all instinctively feel is absolutely the right thing to do, especially as we head ever closer towards environmental tipping points. A Trillion Trees takes a much closer look at this instinct, investigating how trees influence our climate and weather and asking is it always a good idea to plant more trees? Full of real-world examples, of the good and the bad, Fred Pearce’s mix of science, history, travel and political observations make compelling reading as well as being hugely informative and more than a little hopeful.

Native by Patrick Laurie

Laurie has been described as a farmer with a poet’s eye, and I couldn’t agree more. I absolutely loved this quiet but powerfully evocative book. Farming the slow-maturing Galloway cattle, Laurie retains a connection to the methods and traditions of the region’s past, whilst aiming to secure a future for its dwindling wildlife. He writes sensitively about the difficulty he and his wife have conceiving, in contrast to the fertile cycle of life on the farm. With grace and humour, Laurie takes us through a year as he grapples with rusting machinery, listens for curlews and immerses himself in the heritage of his beloved Galloway.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

This enthralling piece of crime fiction introduces us to one of my favourite new characters: Persis Wadia, India’s first female detective. Set in Bombay in newly independent India, we’re in a country alive with febrile tension; the new way ahead not yet clear and the scars of imperial suppression very much in evidence. Vaseem Khan skilfully weaves the story of a high-profile murder case, the roots of which are buried deep in complex political history, with Persis’s own personal family life and her burgeoning professional relationship with Scotland Yard criminologist Archie Blackfinch whose caution and deference are a perfect foil to her own pugnacious dynamism. The novel is supremely eloquent and convincing in its tackling of misogyny, corruption, and the toxic legacy of empire.

Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

This is an absolute must read for anyone interested in interrogating the representation of some of the most famous female characters in Greek myth. Natalie Haynes examines the way in which figures such as Helen, Jocasta, Medea, and Penelope have been critiqued through the centuries and investigates the validity of these contextual appraisals by returning to their appearances in their respective original texts to reveal a fresh feminist perspective of these literary icons. This is all dazzlingly accomplished with her trademark wit, intelligence, and scholarly passion for her subject.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This is a wonderfully bold piece of imaginative storytelling. A novel which plunges the reader into the unforgettable world of its central character; where tides cause waves to crash through a house of infinite and strange spaces, all revealed to the reader in poignant detail as we try to work out just who and where Piranesi actually is. There’s a mystery to solve but the truth is as obscure to the novel’s central character as it is to the reader, with the curtain only slowly and tantalising being drawn aside by this supremely talented author. Clarke’s book is a subtle and beautiful look at humanity’s constant questing for something beyond ourselves, into obsessive investigation and the consequences thereof. Stunning, moving and delicately memorable.

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

This is a very personal exploration of the legacy of empire, melding memoir, history and Sanghera’s excellent journalism, in an attempt to understand how Britain’s imperial past is still influencing our evolving present. His historical research is illuminating, and his journalism probes our disinclination to examine with honesty and discuss the effects of empire on contemporary multiculturalism. I cannot recommend the book highly enough; it supports the vitally important work of encouraging a dialectical approach to the study of our problematic imperial history; changing the narrative to give us a deeper more inclusive understanding of our past.

This is Happiness by Niall Willams

This is a wonderful quiet read, full of compassion with a gentle nod to times past. Young Noe recounts the spring he stays with his grandparents after his mother has died and he’s experiencing a crisis of faith. Faha in County Kerry seems locked in time, but as Easter is being celebrated there is excitement for the new possibilities that electricity will offer. The magic of this novel is Williams’s eye for detail, capturing the intricacies and complexities of the riches and pains in life’s tapestry of grief, faith and love. Written in beautiful lyrical prose with such warmth and wit, this is a novel to spend time over.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

Often darkly funny, this novel is as brilliant as it is unsettling. Overseen by the Rock itself, 400 years unfold as we follow the lives of three women. Accused of witchcraft, Sarah is on the run, while, postwar, Ruth feels an outsider in her new home. 60 years later, the house becomes a refuge for Viv as she attempts to reconstruct her life. Whilst sketching some wonderfully tender relationships between male and female characters alike, Wyld is fierce in her indictment of the violence suffered by generations of women at the hands of men. Like a walk on a Scottish beach, this book combines the shock of sea-spray on a biting wind with a redemptive glow as rays of sun break through.

The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

I was immersed in this book from page one. Vee is a press photographer, struggling to reconcile her passion for her work with society’s expectations of her as a woman. It’s 1968, and an encounter with the inimitable Leonie Barratt is about to change her life. Inspired by Leonie’s passionate fight for equality, Vee finds her calling and embarks on a groundbreaking career documenting women’s lives through the lens – until a single photograph cuts it short. Now, Leonie’s niece is curating a controversial retrospective of Vee’s work, with that photograph as the centrepiece… Astute and beautifully written, this novel is a fascinating examination of second-wave feminism – and the challenges of living up to its legacy.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

In this fascinating book, Jessica Bruder takes to the open road to understand the lifestyle of a fast-growing (and ageing) community of nomadic workers – and uncover the economic malaise which underpins this shift. Bruder brings us close to the lives of the individuals she encounters as we experience the vicarious thrill of a ‘no ties’ existence – and the nagging fear of a life without security. With Linda May’s jubilant rendition of ‘[Queen] of the Road’ ringing in my ears, Nomadland left me with a yearning for big skies and expansive landscapes – and an even greater disquiet about the economic forces which, for many, have rendered life on the road a necessity.

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