Cogito Advent Calendar

Cuddy by Benjamin Myers

A sweeping collage of northeast history, framed by the life (or more accurately, the death) of the illustrious yet humble Saint Cuthbert. Bold in both style and concept, the complex narrative takes the reader on a journey from the peregrinations of Cuthbert’s coffin to its final resting place (in what will become Durham Cathedral), right through to the present day. The histories and characters woven through the intervening centuries are original, beautifully realised and often extremely moving. This book was an absolute highlight of my reading year, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself marvelling at its linguistic virtuosity while it simultaneously steals your heart.

Beryl by Jeremy Wilson

Without listing all of her achievements, it is hard to capture just how successful an athlete Beryl Burton was and it is also hard to explain just why she is so largely unknown. This fantastic biography brings great passion to exploring both of these topics, including a wealth of observations from sports psychologists and sports scientists, as well as family, team-mates and competitors to aid the reader in their understanding of Beryl and to put her achievements in context. Definitely not just one for the sports fans – a fascinating woman and a highly engaging read.

The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris

This is a superbly engaging biography of Harold Gillies, famous for his pioneering work in the field of facial reconstructive surgery during the First World War. Fitzharris writes lucidly and unsentimentally about his work, with unflinching examinations of battlefield injuries, while never losing sight of the sheer human endurance required by both medical personnel and patients to survive such challenging conditions. Ultimately, this is actually much more than a biography; it’s a deeply moving, humane story of hope, determination and community, which is felt most especially in the tributes paid to the individual soldiers whom Gillies treated. An absolutely outstanding read.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Feeling a sense of wanderlust and out of touch with his fellow Americans, Steinbeck embarks on an investigation of America, his purpose: to listen and understand localness. The account of his travels is prophetic, philosophical, and above all, human. It offers a snapshot of America in 1960, celebrating social interactions, the serendipity of journeys and the unknown in the everyday. His honest practical approach keeps his romantism for the past in check, couching nostalgia in the reality of the era. His observations describe the complexities of this diverse nation; at times troubled, deeply personal, yet generous and hopeful, Steinbeck writes with such a refreshing ease - a privilege to be in the hands of such a prodigiously talented writer. 

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

This is a brilliant debut set in an old manor house beside the sea. We arrive at Chilcombe on New Years Eve 1919 and when we leave in May 1945, there has been a great deal of change for both its inhabitants and the whole world. Throughout, the house stands solid offering familiarity and stability in uncertain times. It is home to three eccentric siblings, who share a childhood full of play and adventure rather than the same genetic biology. Bonded by their isolation and imagination, this is a book founded on their stories. With echoes of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalets series, this is a novel with a big stage and cast. It draws you in with charm and heart, navigating social mores with grit and ambition. It is such a wonderful book to spend time with, I felt bereft after I turned the last page.

Femina by Janina Ramirez

In this dazzling attempt to reframe medieval history’s narrative, Janina Ramirez requires the skills of both historian and detective. From Viking royalty to Hildegard of Bingen, the author places all of the women’s stories in context; illuminating their importance within their own time, before the influence they exerted was marginalised or ignored with the passing of time. She is absolutely brilliant when demonstrating how difficult it can be to discover evidence of women’s lives when it has been deliberately removed from recorded history, and how essential it is that the effort to redress this situation should be an absolute priority.

City of Vengeance by D V Bishop

Prepare to be transported to sixteenth century Florence, awash with institutional corruption and personal intrigue, at the centre of which is Cesare Aldo; soldier and officer of the criminal court, struggling to hold on to his life and integrity, as he’s tasked with investigating a politically sensitive murder. The plot is wonderfully labyrinthine (as befits its setting) and Aldo a charismatic yet flawed central protagonist, as he attempts to navigate the murky moral waters of Medici Florence, never without his trusty stiletto tucked into his boot.

Shadowlands by Matthew Green

This engrossing book is a travelogue with a difference; perfect for those of us who love to contemplate the stories behind ancient ruins, abandoned buildings and mysterious shapes in the landscape. Matthew Green tours Britain from the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney, to the remnants of medieval Winchelsea on the Sussex coast, exploring how and why these locations rose, fell and left tantalising traces for us to wonder at. It’s both astonishing and inspiring to realise there’s so much left for us to discover in these ‘shadowlands’: whether blighted by natural phenomena, disease or political change, there’s a fascinating tale behind them all.

Brave Hearted by Katie Hickman

Already a fan of Hickman’s writing, I was drawn to this social history of women in the American West (1836-1890). With trademark vivacity, Hickman presents us with a multiplicity of perspectives on history: individual voices spring from the pages. I particularly enjoyed Keturah Belknap’s exuberance: ‘We set our faces westward … and saw prairie to our heart’s content, and verily we thot the half had never been told’. Personal stories of pioneers, profiteers and missionaries bring insights into the realities of the journey west – and are juxtaposed with accounts from women such as Josephine Waggoner of the Lakota, who, within her own lifetime, witnessed the systematic destruction of her people’s lands, livelihood and cultural heritage. Jaw-dropping in many ways, this is a fascinating read.

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

What an absolute treat this book is; contemporary fiction with a charming alien twist, uniting the disparate Lennox, Ava, and Heather, three denizens of Edinburgh, all struggling with very different but equally traumatic lives. Johnstone cleverly weaves gritty realism with a sprinkling of science fiction, resulting in a road trip like no other. In their attempt to safeguard otherworldly, octopus-like ‘Sandy,’ who’s made landing just north of the city, our central characters’ lives are slowly revealed to us, in prose which is nuanced, humorous and always convincing. This is a wonderfully humane book with a huge heart and a lightly worn but vital message about the value of sympathy and tolerance.

Wild Guide - North East England

This meticulously researched book by Sarah Banks will take you from the Borders to Spurn Head, from incomparable Northumberland beaches to the wildflower meadows of Upper Teesdale. It includes recommendations for cosy pubs, funky seafood shacks and traditional afternoon teas. Being a Wild Guide of course it is also brilliant for the more adventurous - with author-tested sites for swimming and wild camping, and treks to ancient stones, ruined castles and craggy scrambles. I love how each chapter begins with a suggestion of a ‘Perfect Weekend’ for that particular area to help you prioritise the places you want to visit. But ssshhh, don’t tell anyone or they’ll all be coming here!

Politics On the Edge - Rory Stewart

Written from a very personal and heartfelt perspective, this political memoir is unusually candid, pacy and witty and provides an all too rare view into the opaque inner workings of parliament and government. Rigour, honesty, balance and compromise are not often associated with modern British politics and so it is that Rory Stewart describes the many challenges he faced in attempting to deliver these qualities during his time as a minister and MP for Penrith and The Border. Powerful yet entertaining, a clear call for better politics.

Vagabonds - Oskar Jensen

Full of interest, insight and wonderful research, this book brings an incredibly fresh perspective to the study of poverty in nineteenth century London. Oskar Jensen has eschewed the ‘top down’ approach to his study and instead concentrates on the stories of individual ingenuity, endurance, success and failure amidst the capital’s poor. He cleverly ranges across age and gender to highlight particular issues faced and writes brilliantly about the complex psychological and prejudicial interactions between the perceived ‘lower’ classes and those they encounter. In its examination of the ‘othering’ so often at the heart of social injustice, this is a book which still resonates hugely with us today.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Fugitives Edward Whalley and William Goffe take ship for New England: signatories to the death warrant of Charles I, they are two of the most wanted men in Restoration England. This is superlative stuff from Robert Harris, following the pair’s attempts to evade capture and salvage new lives from the wreckage of their old; adrift in a new continent and pursued with relentless obsession by Richard Naylor, Secretary of the Regicide Committee. But it’s not only Naylor’s men who dog their every step, both are haunted by thoughts of home; by decisions made and regrets accrued; meditating on the importance of family and belonging and, of course, what remains when all appears lost.

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams

The author’s exquisite writing seems particularly suited to this delve into the fragmentary, quasi-mythical realms of the post-Roman world. Williams deliberately ignores the early medieval kingdoms which prospered and goes in search of the smaller often more vulnerable ones, which existed for a time and then disappeared or were subsumed – their individual identities lost to posterity. This book is a testament to the author’s love of his subject, to ever evolving archaeology, to what might have been and also to honesty; Williams is the first to admit that sometimes it’s impossible to know the extent and character of these regions when the past is so very distant.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

This novel is a towering achievement; ambitious in scope it is both a scathing indictment of state induced poverty and addiction and a love letter to Kingsolver’s native Appalachia. We follow central character ‘Demon’ from his early life as a neglected and abused infant through to early adulthood in a small-town community where the odds stacked against even the most hopeful, resourceful individuals are huge. The author, with all of her gifts, ensures that we’re emotionally invested in all of the characters here; furiously eschewing any stereotypical portrayal of social deprivation, and placing complex, poignantly realised human lives at the heart of this vitally important story.

Edible Economics by Ha-Joon Chang

Using the medium of food, Ha-Joon Chang offers a refreshingly accessible yet substantive approach to discussing the ordinarily dry topic of economics. With culinary references a plenty, he discusses the historical development of a wide variety of economic policy areas whilst navigating the reader through the various benefits and potential pit-falls. Highly informative, thought provoking, amusing and even a little optimistic.

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

The formidable talents of Natalie Haynes are on dazzling display in this retelling of the myth of Medusa and Perseus. In this fiercely feminist reframing, we have a story placing family, acceptance and nurturing at its heart on the part of the Gorgons, and a brilliantly constructed narrative interrogating the idea of what constitutes a monster; the othering of those who aren’t like us: the fear of the unknown. Haynes then brilliantly demonstrates what happens when the conventions of the ‘monster’ narrative are carried to their inevitable, tragic conclusion; when Perseus, the supposed hero, is revealed in all his vainglorious brutality. A fantastically thought provoking read.

Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell

This effervescent biography fizzes with wit and insight. It would be hard to find a more perfect match between subject and biographer. Children’s author, nature writer and academic, Rundell is a virtuoso of ‘transformations’ herself, and brings rigorous scholarship and great sensitivity to this portrait of one man’s many ‘lives’. Rundell shows how light and dark intermingle in Donne’s poetry – Donne’s brother died in prison for sheltering a Catholic priest – and Donne himself wrote a treatise on suicide. Yet this is a man famous for his faith in human interconnectedness: ‘any man’s death diminishes me…’ Reading Super-Infinite is to share in Donne’s delight in the strange wonder and limitless possibility of being human.

The Owl by Stephen Moss

We’re fascinated by these mysterious nocturnal birds and here, in his brilliant book, Stephen Moss provides a great wealth of knowledge to feed our curiosity for these elusive and most revered of animals. His light and engaging prose makes his enthusiastic analysis of the seven species observed here in the UK all the more interesting. Did you know that owls are longsighted and in strong sunlight they can struggle to see at all? Owls are among the most adaptable of all the world’s birds - it’s no wonder we associate them so heavily with great wisdom!

Windswept by Annie Worsley

This is an intimate depiction of the Erradale Valley where Annie Worsley lives in Red River Croft. Annie’s writing is a joy to read, soothing and thoughtful about the world around her and considerate of her own presence in this varied landscape. As she explores this special place, from its geological history and topography, to the wonders and graft of crofting, her connections with nature and exquisite observations embody the movement and rhythms of the land, sea and air. Annie’s rich descriptions of nature through the seasons opened my eyes to a vast spectrum of colours, with subtleties of palette that I hadn’t registered before; her compositions engage all of your senses.

Haven by Emma Donoghue

This is a beautifully wrought and deftly handled story of tyranny and the simple humanity which challenges it. Set in the seventh century, the novel follows a priest and two monks who journey to the skelligs on the far west of Ireland to create a new community, uncorrupted by material wants; it’s to be a place filled only with the love of God. But the harshness of life on the barren island begins to create tensions which will ultimately bring the monks’ conscience into bitter conflict with the strict tenets of their religious faith.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

This is a remarkable book which is, in essence, about the human spirit's ability to heal itself even after suffering extreme trauma.  A veteran of The First World War accepts a commission to uncover a medieval church painting in the village of Oxgodby.  On the surface this is such a simple story, as the author shows us the central character's growing enthusiasm for his work and the people he meets in the village.  The war is felt as an oblique presence, the effects of which are gradually ameliorated by the simple yet profound effects of being reconnected to a community and the work he loves.

Clare Leighton’s Rural Life

This is without doubt one of the most beautiful books to cross the bookshop threshold this year. A comprehensive anthology of Clare Leightons’s writing and artwork, the book is both a feast for the eyes and a wonderful journey through the life of this extraordinary women. The insightful curiosity about her rural surroundings which informs her writing is perfectly paired with her exquisite wood engravings, stunningly reproduced here by the Bodleian Library.

The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole

Despite the weather and rain being a national preoccupation, you probably don’t associate Britain with rainforest. And indeed, only tiny fragments of rainforest remain in our landscape, but it was once a very significant presence. Guy Shrubsole is on a mission to map out these remaining fragments, encourage their protection and put in place conditions for their expansion. Guy’s passion for this mission and his excitement at finding and describing the unusual flora which inhabit Britain’s temperate rainforest bursts from every page – you’ll never look at lichen the same way again!

Trust by Hernan Diaz

This novel is an absolute treat for those who love a puzzle which keeps them on their toes. It is, ostensibly, the life story of a New York financier whose ability to make money astounds his peers. But what kind of human being is he? How do those who around him view him and how does he see himself? Diaz tries to answer this knotty question by presenting us with four narrators who all describe their experience of tycoon Andrew Bevel in greatly differing ways. But who is telling the truth? This elegantly written novel is a wonderful journey through a world of subterfuge and self-delusion where everyone has an agenda and we’re never entirely sure who to trust.

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