Cogito Advent Calendar

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

This is a tautly written, thematically rich, nuanced novella which is definitely one of the finest books to have been published this year. Teenager Silvie accompanies her draconian father and bullied mother into the wild Northumbrian hills, spending the summer attempting to re-create Iron Age living conditions in an experimental archaeology camp. But as the past begins to seep into the present, the characters head down an increasingly dark path towards a violence which becomes inevitable. With its masterful examination of nationalism, sexism, corruption and class, this book demonstrates why Sarah Moss is without doubt one of our greatest contemporary writers.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

Fans of Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series are sure to love this new one. This time in place of Ari Thor just starting out in his police career, we have Hulda Hermannsdottir an experienced Reykjavik detective, being railroaded into early retirement by her unappreciative bosses. As Hulda begins what may be her final case, looking into the death of a young Russian immigrant, the past comes back to haunt her as things become more complex than they first appear. The effort to keep her investigation on track while dealing with her own family issues puts Hulda increasingly at risk, as she becomes more and more isolated from her work colleagues, who just want the case forgotten and her gone from the force. Superb crime fiction from one of Iceland’s rising stars.

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This novel was one of the many highlights at this year’s Hexham Book Festival. A wise fable in itself this novel draws on the Icelandic sagas, both literally and figuratively, to create a compelling story about the transformative nature of experience born of trauma, when all we know and love is brutally taken from us. Based on the true story of a pirate raid on Iceland in 1627, we follow the fate of captive Asta, transported to Algiers and forced into slavery. It is here that she must build a new life with the help of the stories she tells, both as a reminder of her past and a relief from the suffering which threatens to overwhelm her.

The Writer’s Map edited by Huw Lewis-Jones

This beautiful book is absolute heaven for anyone fascinated by maps: a physical manifestation of a journey, either real or imagined, that you just want to be part of. Huw Lewis-Jones has curated a wonderful range of essays from writers who have been inspired by maps, from map-makers of imagined worlds to those whose curiosity is permanently piqued by the exploration of them. With glorious illustrations throughout, this is an original look at the idea of the map as a constant source of wonder.

The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis

Originally published in 1954 this super book provides a great introduction to the geology and journeys travelled by the humble pebble. Written in a relaxed conversational style, this is an engaging read which is simultaneously bursting with knowledge and practical tips for identifying and discovering the origins of pebbles. A pleasure to read in itself and useful as an ongoing reference, this book will really come into its own by enlivening so many walks with an extra dimension of awareness and curiosity.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys & John Evelyn by Margaret Willes

Through the lives of two remarkable men this book vividly conveys the febrile, glorious tumult that was the second half of the seventeenth century. Not the least surprising aspect of Margaret Willes book is the fact of the friendship between the earnest sometimes humourless Evelyn and the more earthy, pithier Pepys. Yet friends the diarists were, with shared interests, including membership of the embryonic Royal Society, and at times powerful influence over the political and administrative state of the nation. This is an endlessly fascinating book, which gives the reader a thrillingly authentic feel for the extraordinary atmosphere of the times, while meticulous research brings a wonderful accessible vibrancy to the lives of the book’s two central figures.

The Green Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer

This is the most brilliant book for anyone wanting to cook simple yet delicious vegetarian meals. The dishes cover everything from light fresh suppers to hearty stews and tasty tarts; all cooked in one roasting tin. The book is also helpfully divided into vegan and vegetarian sections with options to choose quick, medium or slow cooking depending on the time you have available. We’re huge fans of the book here at Cogito; so this one is definitely tried and tested!

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription tells the story of Juliet Armstrong, recruited to MI5 at the beginning of World War Two and who, ten years later, is unexpectedly confronted by the past that she had assumed had been left behind. I completely lost myself in the story, told with Atkinson’s trademark wisdom and flashes of dry humour, and in the ideas that the novel presents – those of identity, patriotism, sacrifice, and exactly what constitutes “real” in a world where so much is invented or imagined. This is definitely one to sink into but keep your wits about you!

Angels of the North by Joyce Quin and Moira Kilkenny

This is a marvellously inspiring book which looks at the contributions made to our national life by the brilliant women of the north east. Some of the women who appear in these pages are already household names; Grace Darling, Josephine Butler and Gertrude Bell to name a few. However, there are less well known, but no less fascinating figures contained here about whom it’s a joy to read; the lives of seventeenth century feminist writer Mary Astell, original Blue Stocking Elizabeth Montagu and sociologist Harriet Martineau are particular personal favourites.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time is like a sparkling, soulful creature that danced its way into my heart this year. A portrait of a friendship that is both tested and enriched by race, roots, music and social injustice. Beginning in 1982, Zadie Smith’s writing pulses with exuberant life as she takes the reader through four decades in London, New York and West Africa. The novel follows in the rhythmic steps of two girls with a passion for dance and growing up in Smith’s favourite city, London. Cultural references are vibrant and rich; Fred Astaire, Gershwin, Goths, Punk and Motown so by the end I felt exhilarated. A dazzling book.

The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair

This is a vibrant, rich journey through the rainbow of colour – from Lead white to Vantablack via Naples yellow, Baker-Miller pink and Absinthe green. The history and stories behind each colour are often as alluring and captivating as the colours themselves, and there are some surprising anecdotes! Beautifully presented and thoroughly researched, this is a must for anyone interested in the art or science of colour, art and culture (or for anyone who just likes dipping into a gorgeous book!).

Kassia St Clair has also recently published The Golden Thread, celebrating the beauty and power of fabric in its many, many forms; this delightful book weaves a complex tapestry back through time.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

This is a story that draws you in, consumes your attention, and remains with you. Cutting for Stone follows the lives of twins born in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa; it demonstrates the stark contrast between places with advanced medical care and those with virtually none. Verghese is a perceptive and skilled writer who builds rich detail and depth into the development of his characters and this has allowed him to create a captivating read that examines the complexities of human relationships and cultural influences. Cutting for Stone is a very human story told with precision, respect and emotion.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Following on from the acclaimed Sapiens and Homo Deus, which considered the past and the long term future, this book addresses the present and the more immediate future. 21 Lessons can be read as a stand-alone work and provides a powerful, clear, wide ranging and balanced exploration of issues that are at the forefront of our minds today, and many more that are soon likely to be. Harari’s writing here is perhaps more a series of discussions than lessons but this makes the book all the more compelling as it obliges the reader to engage with their own thoughts and expectations.

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

The Library of Ice explores different cultural perspectives on snow and ice, encompassing elements of travel memoir, social history, scientific review and artistic inspiration. From first hand experiences of harsh winters in Greenland and Iceland, to researching in the Bodleian Library, Campbell’s writing is considered, observant and reflective. This combined with her poetic language makes Library of Ice an extremely vivid and stimulating read, with the unusual variety of dimensions ensuring a broad appeal.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

This remains one of my favourite reads of 2018: part historical novel, part fable and all imaginative brilliance. Set in late eighteenth century London (which the author brings alive in glorious period detail) it tells the story of merchant ship owner Jonah Hancock who is presented with what one of his ship’s captain’s swears is a genuine mermaid and therefore a guaranteed route to untold wealth. The interest shown by London in this great curiosity brings Mr Hancock into the orbit of the beautiful courtesan Angelica Neal. Their subsequent strangely realised marriage sets them both on a course of danger and self-discovery, as they come under a mysterious malign influence - is it the mermaid’s or a deeper internal malaise - and ultimately, will they both survive it? This novel is full of charm, humour and heartbreak, written with a love of language which leaps straight from the page.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Most of us probably haven’t given the science of sleep a great deal of thought, but Why We Sleep makes an extremely persuasive case for why we should. Walker contends that sleep should be considered as important as diet and exercise, and he certainly convinced me. Clear explanations of the various processes that occur whilst we sleep and demonstrations of their consequences make this usually overlooked subject exciting and significant. Read it and wake up to the power of sleep!

Little by Edward Carey

This novel is such an unexpected and original joy, it must go down as one of my most surprising yet rewarding reads this year. It’s the fictionalised account of the life of Marie Tussaud, founder of the famous waxwork museum which bears her name. Born Marie Grosholtz, and cruelly christened ‘Little’ her story is that of a completely remarkable character who will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. The scope of the novel is both epic and intimate; encompassing the political upheaval and brutality of Revolutionary France while allowing us to become acquainted with Marie’s eccentric world and its inhabitants in wonderful often peculiar detail. Edward Carey’s writing is such a treat; vivid, humorous, compassionate and totally unique, as are his eerily charming illustrations.

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

There is much to enjoy in this legal thriller from the pen of Laura Lippman and if you haven’t read her yet this is a really good place to start. Ostensibly, this novel concerns the preparation for the prosecution of a murder trial by Maryland state’s attorney Lu Brant. Initially she appears to have no personal connection to the case. However, as she probes further, past events involving her brother and his school friends rise murkily to the surface and Lu becomes forced to confront the official version of her own recent family history, as she tries to discover why her victim died. This is a thought provoking thriller in which Lippman mines a rich vein of dysfunctional family relationships, cleverly revealed by alternating Lu’s present with episodes from her childhood, which she must question if she wants to discover the truth.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen

This book really is a must for all fans of Tove Jansson’s art and writing. From the outset, Tuula Karjalainen is keen to emphasise just how important Jansson’s work was to her and looks in detail at its development, influenced hugely by her early family life and the horrifying experience of the Second World War. But her life as an artist was continually evolving and the roles her relationships played in this evolution are examined with great sympathy by the author. There is, as you would expect, much attention paid to the impact the Moomins had on her life and her fame, which is obviously a delight for those of us who especially love this area of her work.

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

This is a short but powerful story about a quiet, unassuming man who plants acorns every day, renewing the Provençal landscape where he lives. The intricate wood engravings that accompany the narrative further enhance the depth of meaning behind Giono’s simple tale and reinforce the importance of our relationship with nature. I’ve read this book several times this year and have been comforted and inspired by its message that even small acts of kindness can have a lasting and significant impact.

Writers as Readers: A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

This year is the fortieth anniversary of legendary publisher Virago’s creation of their Modern Classics list; its ambition, to re-introduce readers to female authors whose work had become overlooked or neglected thus robbing us of this important tradition of female authorship. This celebratory book contains essays by exceptional writers describing their personal relationship with particular authors who feature in the Virago canon. There are wonderful pieces from Margaret Drabble and Sarah Dunant on Jane Austen and Daphne Du Maurier and, amongst my personal favourites, Rachel Cooke on Stevie Smith and Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townsend Warner. Absolute bliss from cover to cover.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

This beautifully written novel is a subtle examination of the effects of Victorian imperial ambition on both the lives of the indigenous people of South Australia and on those seeking to subjugate them. The novel follows one English family, the Finches, telling their story through the eyes of the eldest daughter Hester. It chronicles her initial feelings of duty and responsibility towards her family which are gradually undermined by the growing conflict she witnesses between the beliefs they claim to espouse and the way in which they behave. This is thrown into sharp relief when a boy from the Ngarrindjeri tribe becomes a part of their lives. Wonderful characters people this book, where the personal seamlessly unveils the political, against the backdrop of the stunning yet often brutal Australian landscape. This book was a huge success with our Cogito Fiction Book Group earlier this year.

Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Twelve days of Christmas, twelve short stories, twelve recipes. For several years, Jeanette Winterson has written a new short story at Christmas, and she brings them together here in one delightful volume together with delicious Christmas recipes from her family and friends. Tales of the Spirit of Christmas and the SnowMama happily sit next to recipes for Ruth Rendell’s Red Cabbage and old Mrs Winterson’s mince pies, which were always cooked in the “feral firebox” that was the family oven! Written with Winterson’s usual sparkling humour and style, and with some hilarious personal anecdotes, this is a lovely book to go with that first mince pie on Christmas morning.

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