Cogito Favourites

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.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The simple tale of a shepherd’s life in the Lake District is in fact the story of three generations of a farming family. Yet James Rebanks’ life has been far from what you expect from the outset of the book. He writes passionately about his values and respect for the land, farming methods, his community and family. This is a powerful reflection about the choices we make in the life we live, our roles as ‘nobodies’, and an informative insight into the farming world which is becoming ever more alien to modern life. An impressive, inspiring and uplifting read.

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.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Thank you to all the customers who have recommended that I read this entertaining, life-affirming and charming Scandinavian novel – it made me cry and laugh out loud simultaneously!

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.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

This may well be one of my all time favourite books. It is a wonderfully uplifting and optimistic novel about the times we live in! Really, it is a classic quest tale and wittily name checks all our favourite quests from ‘Lord of the Rings’ to ‘Star Wars’. Our hero is Clay Jannon, failed web designer who, in classic questing style, finds himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings when he takes a job at Ajax Penumbra’s decidedly different bookstore. Here the quest begins in earnest, taking Clay from the world of Google back to the birth of printing and seemingly everywhere in between as he and his friends try to solve the riddle of Mr Penumbra. This book will make you laugh (and maybe cry) and want to start reading it all over again once you reach the end.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

I’ve just read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain including a brilliant introduction by Robert Macfarlane. What an evocative exploration of the Cairngorms; a call to experience the mountains with all our senses. Her prose and acute observations make for almost meditative reading, combined with an infectious enthusiasm to stride outdoors for the real thing. I repeatedly had to remind myself that this was written in the 1930s, a time when few women explored rugged mountains but Nan Shepherd had ideas ahead of her time. I definitely want to hear Charlotte Peacock talk about this remarkable woman - her biography is next on my reading pile!

War Doctor by David Nott

This is the incredible account of the surgical work David Nott has carried out in many war zones across the world. This outstanding book is an informative, compassionate and brave explanation written with passion and hope.

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.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Worthy of its worldwide success, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a gripping thriller set in Sweden. A good translation, great characterisation and an intriguing plot, this book will keep you reading in bed until 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon.

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.

Life Class by Pat Barker

Pat Barker's Life Class takes us from the Slade School of Art in London to the hospitals behind the front line near Ypres during the First World War. Despite being a fairly short novel Pat Barker has skilfully woven into it a whole host of issues, from the acceptance that Britain is now at war, the responsibility of individuals to the war effort, to the role of art at this time. Barker is an excellent writer and creates well-developed characters who illustrate the devastation the war has on those behind the front line. Her descriptions are striking and the beginning of part two is one of the most vivid fictional descriptions I have read of the horrific conditions of war for those supporting the soldiers. Art is heavily featured in this book and it is extremely interesting to investigate the real personalities that Barker has based her characters on and the works that hang in the Imperial War Museum.

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.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I’d been meaning to read The Pursuit of Love ever since Alan Bennett made reference to it in The Uncommon Reader and oh what a joy to discover; I loved it! Nancy Mitford writes brilliantly with such an eloquent turn of phrase but I’m yet to work out how she enables the reader to draw so much from just a few sentences. It is an entertaining, fascinating picture of the lives of an aristocratic family full of eccentric characters.

Wake by Anna Hope

The novel, set in 1920, is centred on the lives of three women endeavouring to cope with the devastation that the First World War has caused to their very different families. These intimate stories are set against the wider backdrop of the preparations for the ceremonial burial of the Unknown Warrior in London. The timing of the novel's setting is very important, as it is two years after the war has ended but the characters are still unable to come to terms with, or to even articulate what they have all suffered during the conflict. This gives the author scope to create some very fractured, complex characters, who are gradually revealed to the reader, as they themselves try to comprehend what has happened to their lives and how they can possibly move on into the future. The sympathetic and emotionally nuanced portrayal of the central characters Ada, Evelyn and Hettie is one of the chief delights of this sophisticated, beautifully written book.

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

We follow the fortunes of the Moberley family from the marriage of family matriarch Elizabeth to painter Alfred, through the childhood and adolescence of their very different daughters May and Ally. Sarah Moss conveys a deceptively complex narrative with precise, economical prose and asks interesting questions, as she examines female roles and the psychological impact of radically subverting conventional behaviour in the mid-Victorian era. The politics and ambitions of the characters are rendered through the distorting prism of family life, where we see how much of themselves they have to supress and compromise, as they try to fulfil their own and other people’s expectations of them.

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.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Picking up a Maggie O’Farrell novel is like meeting up with an old friend for coffee; effortlessly enjoyable. The skill in O’Farrell’s writing is not just in her acute understanding of family dynamics or the scenes she describes but the complete control she masters in revealing her story to her readers. As with all of her books, the story unfolds by returning to events in the past, in this case the summer of 1976. When Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife return home due to the disappearance of their father during this famous heatwave, the events from the past are brought to the boil and family secrets disclosed.

The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones

I love Anna Jones. Her simple yet inventive mouth-watering vegetarian recipes have been a mainstay in our house for the last few years. I don’t know how she’s managed it but she seems to have surpassed herself with this latest collection. Creating dishes perfect for each season of the year adds an extra dimension to this book, which brims with her trademark enthusiasm and laid back style.

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.

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.

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