Cogito Favourites

Warrior by Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething

This is a must read for all those interested in early medieval history and in the kingdom of Northumbria in particular. Its exciting starting point is the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s bones, unearthed during an archaeological dig at Bamburgh Castle. What then follows is an inspired attempt to place this ancient figure into historical, archaeological, and social context. This involves a wonderfully vivid interpretation of the unending struggle to conquer and unite disparate kingdoms, the spread of Celtic Christianity east from Ireland, and, of course, the life of this region’s most famous leader, Oswald.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

James Rebanks needs no introduction, which can only be a good thing. Exploring how the delicate balance of our farmland has been eroded within our lifetime, English Pastoral raises a passionate call to action – for farmers and consumers alike – to restore the equilibrium. In prose that is both spare and poetic, Rebanks recalls a time when farming was intensely physical – and uncovers the disconnect between the way we live and our relationship with the land that feeds us. Whether musing on Virgil’s Georgics, or working the sheepdogs with his two-year-old son, Rebanks takes us along for the ride. Whilst addressing some of the thornier debates around how we breathe life back into the land, Rebanks retains a sense of spellbound wonder at nature simply doing its thing. Deeply personal, full of hope and more than a little revolutionary, this book is a joy to read.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This is without doubt one of the most beautiful books I’ve read this year; there’s such an abundance of vivid life in its pages even as it seeks to explore the most profound loss. Maggie O’Farrell’s premise is a bold one: to write a life of Shakespeare (although he is never named) as viewed through the prism of his wife Agnes and their children. Although the eponymous Hamnet, the playwright’s only son, is the talisman, his loss the novel’s fulcrum; the book ranges through the life of this extraordinary family from the unconventional courtship of Shakespeare and Agnes to the devastating aftermath of the young boy’s death. The characters are all richly drawn; O’Farrell’s wonderful language giving a powerful physicality to their lives and immediately engaging the reader’s sympathy. This beautifully wrought vision of Shakespeare’s family life has an intensity which is utterly hypnotic; it’s a profound and captivating read.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is that rare thing; a beautifully written novel which has you wanting to slow down to savour each word and race to find out what happens next. The story has its genesis in events which unfold in ‘The Dutch House’ and which reverberate into the protagonists’ future. With exquisite subtlety, Ann Patchett gently uncovers the tremors which underpin many of the characters’ ostensibly functional lives – often encapsulating a lifetime of emotion in a few words. Prepare yourself for heartbreak and joy – I can’t remember when I found a novel this satisfying, or thought about it as much once I’d put it down.

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

There really could not be a more timely or informative read in our current pandemic circumstances. In this erudite and well researched book Laura Spinney attempts to anatomise and analyse the effects of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918-19. It’s a fascinating examination of the origins of the disease and how different countries and communities responded to it medically, socially and culturally. It’s impossible not to trace both the similarities and the differences with our own situation but we’re also offered the strange comfort of perspective in the final chapters on a post-pandemic world.

Wintering by Katherine May

This is a fascinating account of how we can learn to cope when our lives become ‘frozen’ by sudden change or trauma; in the author’s case this took the form of an unexpected family illness. After an initial period of shock and emotional paralysis Katherine May learned to embrace her period of ‘wintering’ by exploring different cultural approaches to these times of enforced retreat and re-assessment. The book is both wise and illuminating and obviously so very relevant to our present collective experience and I must say that I found reading it greatly comforting.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

This novel by the brilliant Sarah Moss is centred on a family who have apparently avoided tragedy, yet have to learn to live in its constant shadow. The incisive and wide ranging points the novel makes about modern life are punctuated by the research one of the characters undertakes into the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after the Second World War. This clever time shift informs the way we are persuaded to view contemporary life and allows the author scope to discuss the various ways that we as human beings respond to, and recover from, trauma. This is a thought provoking, yet warm and humorous novel which would make a great introduction to the author’s work.

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. This novel is deeply moving yet unsentimental and the group of characters the author creates are so authentic and brilliantly drawn you wish the novel was longer so that you could spend more time with them!

The Island at the Centre of the World by Russell Shorto

Telling the fascinating story of New York’s rackety beginnings under the Dutch colonists, this book reads like the best fiction and breathes life into an almost forgotten period in the city’s history. It is an amazingly informative read and stays with you even when walking the streets of New York today.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

This is a remarkably ambitious novel, cleverly grounded in the deceptively simple story of a young girl, Edie Mather, growing up on her family’s Suffolk farm in the 1930s. However, this is no bucolic ‘coming of age’ tale. Although the evocation of a way of life long gone is beautifully realised in the author’s descriptions of the natural world and the changing seasons which regulate the cycle of agricultural life, she also makes us vividly aware of the dark undercurrents which are constantly present in this small rural community. Edie’s sensitivity; her view of the world shaped by the reading she loves, often makes her an outsider within her own family and therefore inherently vulnerable, as she tries to reconcile a growing inner conflict. But it’s the arrival of the liberated and politically engaged Connie FitzAllen which acts as the catalyst in bringing personal and social tensions to a head; as Edie begins to question her own prospects in terms of gender, and the burgeoning fascist sympathies of the villagers foments violence in the wider community. The author’s deft handling of both the development of Edie’s character and the febrile political landscape results in an incredibly poignant and moving novel which, amongst many other things, sounds a stark warning against romanticising the past.

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting

I knew that Love of Country, set in the Hebrides, would beautifully describe the natural history that I so enjoy reading about - and it does, wonderfully, but it is so much more than that. Love of Country expands far beyond the landscape of this special remote corner of Britain as it charts the pilgrimage of discovery that Madeleine Bunting embarks upon to explore the culture, stories and soul of the individual islands. This is an extremely readable travelogue with fascinating historical extracts interspersed with her findings on island life today. Her writing is incredibly thought-provoking as she considers the meaning of home, the idea of unity and the motivation for pilgrimage.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years is the first in a quintet telling the story of the Cazalets, a large, wealthy, upper class family who come together each summer at their parents’ house in Sussex. With the extended family, friends and servants all under one roof, Howard has cleverly constructed a stage on which she expertly interweaves the lives of her characters, exploring their individual motivations, hopes and losses, set within the social context of the 1930s and the impending outbreak of the Second World War. I read this on holiday after several recommendations from customers and it’s exactly what I wanted – The Light Years effortlessly draws you in to a different time and place - I became completely absorbed, stealing snatches of time to read ‘just a few more pages’, such is the power of the storytelling.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It is 1922 in London and Frances and her mother reluctantly take in lodgers to help with finances after the devastations of the First World War and losing all the men in their family. Sarah Waters weaves a stunning period thriller which captures the intricacies of life and uncomfortable proximities of an unknown Britain and genteel Camberwell Villa. The atmosphere in the house grows electric and stifling at the same time, as Frances and the thoroughly modern Mrs Barber embark upon a secret affair which is made even more dangerous by a sudden death. Explosive, racy and simply perfect in its period detail.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

It was a packed house for our book group discussion of Anthony Doerr’s Second World War novel All the Light We Cannot See, which tells the story of two children, French Marie-Laure and German Werner, whose lives take very different paths, ultimately leading them both to St Malo in 1944. We were universally charmed by this book; its epic storytelling and the unique nature of its central characters created an atmosphere reminiscent of a fairy tale, but with an overarching sense of sinister threat, apparent in the examination of family, loss, and the brutalising effect of war. The structure of the novel worked incredibly well – short chapters, alternating between the main characters- served to propel the narrative forward and to draw the reader swiftly into very different worlds. However, the end of the novel did divide the group slightly with some members unsure whether the move into the surviving characters later lives really added anything substantial. We all felt that this was a fresh approach to writing about conflict, resulting in a vivid, beautiful and moving book.

King in the North by Max Adams

This is a fascinatingly gripping account of one of Northumbria’s most illustrious kings. Seventh-century Britain comes alive in these pages and it is possible to gain an idea of the context from which Northumbria’s Golden Age grew.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The first in Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed trilogy, charting the dizzying rise of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall is as immersive and satisfying as its reputation would suggest. I’ve never read anything quite like it; on the one hand so intricate with historical detail, on the other, so raw and elemental – almost Shakespearean in seeking to capture the essence of human experience. Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell is rich and multifaceted; he is by turns calculating and loyal; refined (is there a language he doesn’t speak?) and earthy. What moved me most was the compassion of Mantel’s vision; for me, Wolf Hall is as much a tender portrait of flawed humanity as an interpretation of history.

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!).

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is a sublime piece of storytelling, set at an intentionally unspecified period it cleverly weaves together elements of traditional myth and folk lore with the burgeoning world of scientific investigation, all centred around an ancient inn at the village of Radcot, nestled on the River Thames to the north of Oxford. The tale begins with the dramatic night time arrival at the inn of an injured stranger, carrying the body of a drowned young girl. As the quest to identify both the girl and her rescuer gathers momentum, we’re drawn into the lives of those who dwell along the river as their stories are slowly revealed to us; lives blighted by grief and loss and also those lived with quiet dignity and determination. As the plot ebbs and flows like the river itself, we watch fascinated, as relationships are forged, crimes are committed, and always the question remains: who is the mysterious child? There are so many wonderful elements to this book: the fluid storytelling, the sense of place and the wonderful characters, who are so beautifully and sympathetically drawn. It’s a spellbinding read, and a great homage to the nineteenth century novel; definitely one for fans of Wilkie Collins.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

This is the moving story of a solitary man called Andreas Egger and his simple life in an alpine valley, “he had no one, but he had all he needed and that was enough”. Although it is only 148 pages, this is a book to be savoured, written with precision and beautifully translated.

Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes

In this very agreeable account, Bewes journeys to and through Switzerland following the route of pioneering Victorian tourist, Miss Jemima Morrell, on her ground breaking Thomas Cook tour. Bewes’s engaging writing style presents a wealth of observations about the journey, both now and then, including historic, economic and cultural context. A great fireside read that is informative, entertaining and left me excited to head to the Alps.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

This is the first of Mick Herron’s spy series featuring a group of disgraced MI5 spooks led by the hilariously offensive Jackson Lamb, the absolute antithesis of James Bond (and none the worse for that!). The ‘slow horses’ become involved in a real ‘op’, when one of their number discovers a video which appears to show terrorists threatening to behead a hostage. But this situation is not as it first appears, and as things spiral further out of control, it looks as though their investigation is leading right back to the portals of Regent’s Park. This is a wonderful book, written with wry humour and a plot that is cleverly subversive and an unalloyed joy to read.

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus takes the phrase ‘thought-provoking’ to a new level. Harari assesses how the human race has developed and where it will be in the decades and perhaps centuries ahead, and in doing so he challenges the reader to explore their beliefs, their understanding of human nature and their own vision of the future. There is no doubt that this is deep and at times frightening subject matter, but the discussion is well-constructed and written with a surprising wit. Homo Deus stood out for me as an exceptional study and is a book I expect to return to through the years.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing, by the recently 'rediscovered' American author John Williams has been one of the most admired books that the Cogito Book group have read. The book is set in 1870 and follows the journey made by four very different men into the inhospitable Colorado wilderness to hunt down a herd of buffalo. Although this herd seems to have the quality of myth, as if conjured up by one of the characters - the veteran hunter Miller - this is very much a novel which de-mythologises the traditional romanticised view of the old west. We all agreed on the exquisite nature of the writing, especially with regard to sensory experience - the reader feels that they are experiencing the wonders and horrors of the natural world as the characters encounter them on their journey. We also felt that by virtue of the novel's pared down yet lucid style, the essence of the characters was revealed in a very naturalistic way - young Will Andrews undergoes a gruelling rite of passage as he is forced to confront not only the wholesale slaughter and butchering of the buffalo but also the life threatening conditions of a Colorado winter, while the taciturn quasi-father figure of Miller is slowly shown to be someone who has given himself over to an obsession with the hunt which is ultimately tragically futile. Nobody should be put off by the subject matter of this novel - it is a fascinating, beautifully written study of human nature.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This novel, about a woman who has lost her husband and decides to open a bookshop in a small town, is suffused by a profound sense of moral outrage and a deep distrust of seemingly innocuous behaviour. The subsequent trials which Mrs Green endures on opening her shop, as she unwittingly battles against the sinister agendas of others, are marvellously revealed in Penelope Fitzgerald's beautifully understated writing.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

It is tempting to say that if you liked Kite Runner you should enjoy this, in that it gives a compelling insight into a totally different culture, with characters in whose fate you must be interested. Intensely moving, funny, and tremendously entertaining, it is the sort of novel you keep giving to friends so that they will read it too – a work of genius.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack

Malachy Tallack's accomplished debut novel considers the lives of those living in four houses at the end of the road in a remote Shetland valley. The beautifully perceptive prose vividly describes the rhythms of life of this crofting community, deeply rooted in the landscape and working the land in tune with the changing weather. This is not a plot driven read but rather a subtler meditation that tenderly considers the nuances and layers of the characters’ relationships with one another and with themselves. I found the treatment of time particularly fascinating, how it alters our visions and interpretations, and shapes peoples' lives, despite passing and disappearing regardless of our efforts.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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