Summer Reading

The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson

As the author sets out in his preface, the purpose of this hugely informative and entertaining book is to attempt an understanding of ‘why the North East remains one of the most distinctive parts of England’. I’m sure no native of the area would dispute this assertion, and in this vividly rendered, meticulously researched book Dan Jackson swoops and soars over crucial aspects of our region’s social, political, intellectual and industrial history. There emerges from its pages an affectionate but never sentimental portrait of a people uniquely shaped by their environment. It’s a must read for anyone interested in North East history from the Tees to the Tweed. Just wonderful.

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

The war reporter Marie Colvin was described in many different ways by many different people: courageous, inspirational, rebellious, driven, dedicated – a dedication that ultimately cost her her life in Homs, Syria in 2012 – and yet also vulnerable, self-obsessed, and with a yearning for security. Here, her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum weaves the threads of Marie’s complex character together, with a combination of investigation, analysis, and brilliant storytelling, into an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary woman.

Botanical Brain Balms by Nicolette Perry and Elaine Perry

We were fortunate enough to welcome author Nicolette Perry to Cogito Books earlier this year to talk about this utterly fascinating and incredibly useful book. Based on years of scientific research and practice into the use of plants to enhance the way our brains work, the different sections give comprehensive advice on which plants to use to promote calm, sleep, energy and memory, and there are additional tips on using plants in everything from soothing creams to gorgeous recipes. If you’re interested in enhancing your mental (and physical) wellbeing in the New Year, then this is definitely the book to help you do it.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I just loved this witty, literary take on a Gothic thriller, combined with pacey, contemporary police procedural. It’s a bold move on Elly Griffiths’ part but she most definitely pulls it off. The set-up is just perfect; an English teacher, Clare Cassidy is researching a Victorian writer, RM Holland whose ghost story The Stranger is the subject of one of her classes. However, real life intrudes in horrific fashion when bodies begin to turn up, murdered in identical ways to the victims in Holland’s story. So just how is Clare connected to the murders? DS Harbinder Kaur is assigned to investigate and immediately gets under Clare’s skin. Alternating between Harbinder, Clare and Georgia’s (Clare’s daughter) perspectives, Elly Griffiths creates a deepening mystery, with plenty of satisfying nods to the Gothic tradition, but which is also full of rather wonderfully sympathetic characters and a great line in warm, wise cracking humour. It’s an absolute delight.

Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger

Alan Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian between 1995 and 2015. Part memoir, Breaking News gives us a raft of fascinating behind the scenes glimpses of some of the biggest stories of the era, but above all, this an extremely honest account of the personal and commercial challenges faced in delivering meaningful journalism against the constantly changing backdrop of the digital revolution. Written with authority, passion and also humility, Breaking News has a definite sense of significance and provides a real inspiration to strive for quality and truth in a world that is all too often filled with noise, vested interest and mediocrity.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

In June 1934, aged just 19, Laurie Lee set out on foot from his home in Gloucestershire with nothing but a rolled-up tent, a tin of treacle biscuits and a violin under his arm. It was the start of a two-year journey that would take him first to London and then south through a Spain that was on the verge of civil war. Lee’s language is lush and his prose as languorous as his stride, yet he has an eye for the kind of almost careless detail that most people would miss. The landscape is evoked in all its harsh, vibrant beauty, but it is the characters that he meets along the way which give the book its humanity and humour. This is a beautiful, yet un-romantic portrait of a long-forgotten Spain – I often wish I could discover it for the first time all over again!

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

This is a wonderful novel, which not only illumines the human heart with its brilliant insights but also tackles early twentieth century gender politics with gusto. The year is 1928 and we’re introduced to our heroine Mattie Simpkin in typical bravura style as she tries to thwart the theft of her handbag on Hampstead Heath. Mattie is a former militant suffragette; a woman of huge energy and intelligence who feels somewhat adrift now that the right to vote has been won (for some that is, not all). Together with former comrade in arms, Florrie Lee, whose unrequited love for Mattie is one of the book’s most poignant aspects, she endeavours to find a renewed sense of purpose in her post suffragette life.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This is a singular, beautifully written novel which slowly and subtly worked its way beneath my skin. Set in an isolated village in fifteenth century Somerset, the novel has a mystery at its heart which is really secondary to the thing it really seeks to explore: the vagaries of being human and whether when tested, our belief system is one which can truly be translated into action. The village priest, John Reve, is tasked with looking into the disappearance of one of Oakham’s most illustrious residents, Thomas Newman. As we follow Reve in his dealings with the villagers, whose care is his responsibility, we believe he’s trying to discover the truth and yet things are not as straightforward as they seem. Richly atmospheric and innovative in structure, this novel drew me stealthily into the concerns of the medieval mind and the existential crisis of a man of faith.

The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford

A deeply personal exploration into the meanings and importance of trees in our lives. The author weaves history, science, myth and fable; drawing inspiration and revealing roots of memories that lie buried in earlier, often largely unconscious childhood encounters and associations. This style of writing powerfully connects the author to the reader; I began thinking about how trees have played a part in my life, like the willow tree in my parents’ garden that I, aged six and dressed as a fairy, used to trail my wand through. Certainly, this is a book to cherish, a book to sit and read up against the trunk of a tree this summer.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a one-in-a-lifetime book; a book that dazzles, mesmerises, and enchants. When I finished it, I found myself desperately wanting something similar to read – and yet there is nothing similar, which is partly what makes it so special! Erin Morgenstern weaves fantasy, illusion, and the slight darkness of the Victorian circus into a tale of love and magic that will stay with you a long time after you’ve read the final page.

Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller

This is an incredibly gripping debut novel by an American writer who works for the UN and currently lives in Norway with his family. The idea of uprooting oneself and trying to assimilate into another culture is a prominent theme in this interesting book.

The novel, set in Oslo, has the plot and pace of a thriller with the central character rescuing a young boy after his mother has been murdered in his apartment block. However, its overriding concern seems to be with the effect of and attitude towards conflict at individual, family and national level. The main character Sheldon Horowitz is a veteran of the Korean War, and a large part of the novel concerns his seeking what he sees as atonement for the death of his own son in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile other characters have been involved both as aggressors and victims of the more recent conflict in the Balkans. By turns moving and comic this is that quite rare thing – a genuinely thought provoking thriller.

American by Day by Derek B. Miller

When I read Norwegian by Night a few years ago, it was the book I most enjoyed that year. Miller’s follow up to it, American by Day, has an excellent chance of being my favourite book of this year. With Norwegian detective Sigrid Odegard finding herself in up-state New York, Miller cleverly uses the backdrop of a thriller to explore issues of race, culture and social standing. Written with a gradually quickening pace and more than a dash of comic observation, you certainly don’t need to have read Norwegian by Night to enjoy American by Day, but if you do think you might read both books, I would definitely read Norwegian by Night first.

Educated by Tara Westover

It is difficult to believe that this is a true story. Tara Westover grew up in Idaho, her family live completely off grid; no birth certificates, no education and certainly no medical “interference”. To the young Tara, this was normal behaviour. Tara describes how she was faced with pain and loneliness as she started to question her father’s decisions and speak out about the physical and psychological abuse from her older brother. Central to the book is her quest for an education and the unusual path she has taken to acquire it. She seizes opportunities with determination and uses her ability to overcome challenges to equip her for a better future. Tara is a remarkable individual and her story is a powerful insight into lives lived on the fringes of society.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

I loved the fact that this book truly shines a light on Mary Shelley. As fascinated as I am by her famous mother, father and husband, she really does deserve to emerge as a woman, a writer and a mother on her own terms. Although Mary’s fame endures because she did indeed (as a very young woman) write Frankenstein, it feels as if her often difficult life hasn’t been properly explored. Fiona Sampson’s attempt to redress this imbalance feels wonderfully fresh and illuminating, revealing a complex figure emerging from history, as she is finally able to take centre stage!

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

A reimagining of the last days of the Trojan war may seem unfamiliar territory for Pat Barker, yet in this outstanding novel her towering abilities as a writer are deployed with breath taking skill. Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus, has been captured and enslaved by Achilles; forced to survive as best she can in the Greek camp. This was the fate of a great many women in Homer’s Iliad, but we know this about them and little more. Here Pat Barker conjures in brutal, harrowing detail what such a life could have been: the lack of agency and equality cruelly distorting all relationships. One of Pat Barker’s great strengths is her ability to portray the physical sensations of her characters’ experiences and this she does to brilliant effect here; we feel Briseis’ terror, anger and confusion coupled with an emerging steeliness which enables her to survive.

Still Water by John Lewis-Stempel

One of John Lewis-Stempel’s great gifts is understanding and presenting fascinating aspects of nature that would on first inspection often seem quite unglamorous - and so it is with Still Water, a fabulous discussion of the humble pond. John’s depth of knowledge and dedication to close observation are combined with a lyrical writing style that really make his descriptions sing. Historical references and excerpts of poetry add further notes of interest. Still Water is a joy to read and is sure to make you linger a little longer next time you walk past a pond.

West by Carys Davies

I loved the spare beauty of this novel which encompasses so much with so few words. The story is a deceptively simple one with the transcendent air of myth; American pioneer Cy Bellman leaves his home and family on a quest to discover a giant beast, the bones of which have allegedly been unearthed in Kentucky. While Cy follows his dreams into a land of both physical and spiritual extremes, he believes his daughter, Bess, to be safe at home living with his sister. However, by abandoning his paternal duties, has he in fact left Bess prey to threats of a different, more insidious kind? The insightful, menacing portrayals of both the unknown wilderness and the familiar domestic landscape are utterly compelling and the emotional engagement I felt with both Cy and Bess has been long lasting.

The Lost by Mari Hannah

This is the first book in local author Mari Hannah’s new series featuring detectives David Stone and Frankie Oliver. This is a fantastically complex story of family betrayal and revenge set right on our doorstep in the Northumberland countryside. Things begin to unravel for the apparently happy and well-adjusted Parker family, when their son Daniel goes missing, resulting in Stone and Oliver being assigned to the case. As the detectives begin their investigation, they begin to unearth sinister secrets while simultaneously dealing with upheavals in their own personal lives. True to form, Mari’s writing here is utterly gripping, so much so that it’s very hard to put the book down once you’ve started reading!

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

This was a real highlight of all the books that I read last year. Suffering financial misfortunes and bad health, Raynor Winn and her husband come up with what most people would probably think of as a crazy idea. With no home and only a handful of coins in their pockets, this courageous pair, literally put one foot in front of the other and walk the South West Coastal Path - in their way and at their pace. For me, it was this pace that makes The Salt Path such an exceptional read. The rhythm of the writing has a constant, gentle pace and much like the action of walking, enables you to leave things behind, Raynor explains how they move forward on this desperate part of life’s journey. This is an incredibly brave and honest account of the hardship they faced, how fragile our lives can be and the inspiring strength and determination we can find both within ourselves and from the natural world around us.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This crime novel is a mind-bending tour de force, with a plot so complex you might want to make notes as you go along. With nods to both the ‘country house’ murder of crime writing’s golden age and another to the sinister speculations of dystopian fiction, this novel has its protagonist Aiden Bishop, inhabit a variety of different host bodies in a quest to discover the murderer of Evelyn Hardcastle. But who is Bishop? Where is he? And what tricks is time playing on him? This is a hugely entertaining, roller coaster of a read, which is at times genuinely poignant and at others shot through with a menacing undercurrent which seeps right off the page. Prepare to be dazzled.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This is a classic that more people should read. The brutal reality of the First World War, the innocent loss of life, the senselessness and injustices are all vividly described, but what makes this book especially powerful is that it was written by a German soldier and the men trying to kill him are British. Staggeringly, it was published in Germany in 1929 but the book was then burned by the Nazis and Remarque was later deprived of his German citizenship. Amongst the gritty descriptions there are also moments where the beauty of humanity shines through; helping a fellow man, the comradery and the excitement of discovering some extra food. As with J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, Remarque has provided much for the reader to consider in what is a fairly short book – true craftsmanship.

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Connell

This historical crime novel is an absolute favourite, beautifully written with a knowing eye cast toward its antecedents, it still manages to bring a wonderful freshness to the genre. Set in Victorian London, it strikes an almost perfect lyrical yet strange tone right from the outset, as we witness the very peculiar death of a young seamstress. The narrative then drives us on as we’re introduced separately to the various characters who will be key to unravelling the cause of her demise. I felt as if they would genuinely be at home in a novel by Wilkie Collins yet with subtly different shades to their personalities which render them so relatable. A bluff yet insightful CID inspector, an ambitious newspaper columnist and a young man adrift searching for his lost uncle; all in their very different ways, provide huge quantities of both heart and humour.

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 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.

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.

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.

​The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The heroes of classical antiquity are brought alive by Miller’s sensual and original language as she follows the life of Achilles from childhood to his destiny in Troy. However, it is the figure of Patroclus who really takes centre stage at least for the first part of the novel. It is chiefly through this character that Miller finds a way of reinterpreting the classical world in a way which gives the book an emotional realism for the modern reader. It is a book, essentially, about decisions and destiny but is rich in the nuances of a developing relationship and contains some beautiful writing which makes the physical world the author describes vivid and affecting.

​The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen

This book contains many of the key elements I love about Scandinavian fiction: an isolated and harshly beautiful setting, a spare yet moving prose style and characters who appear to be living simply yet are unconsciously addressing some of life’s most fundamental concerns. In telling the story of Hans Barroy and his family, Roy Jacobsen shows us at close quarters what it means to live when life has to be built daily, with the characters’ bare hands and the support of their small familial community.

​A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

A recent favourite with our Cogito book group, this book is a witty life affirming read, with supremely intelligent writing and Spark’s unfailing eye for razor sharp satire. Centre stage is the rather majestic figure of Mrs Hawkins, a young war widow battling with the pretensions, machinations and general madness of the publishing industry. The author pleasurably weaves an eccentric mystery into the lives of her wonderfully drawn characters, while Nancy Hawkins is a true literary heroine, blazing with integrity.

​Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Set against the backdrop of New York as it emerges from the Depression, this novel is a sparkling, witty portrayal of people trying to find their place in a changing world. The style and dialogue is a real treat - a great homage to thirties Hollywood, yet the characters still manage to navigate thought provoking choppy moral waters as their stories progress. Although very different from his latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, this book is alive with the author’s dextrous use of language in his creation of wonderful atmosphere and characters.

​Tin Man by Sarah Winman

I very much enjoyed Sarah Winman’s first two books, particularly When God was a Rabbit but Tin Man really stands out and demonstrates the strength and humanity of her writing. This is an emotionally engaging story about the friendship between two boys, Ellis and Michael and the way in which the world around them shapes their bond. Sarah’s writing is warm and tender in its understanding of life’s challenges, the intimacy of our emotions and the behaviour of human nature. As a reader, you are drawn into Ellis and Michael’s world, sharing their journeys to the extent that you put your own life on hold – I read it in two days.

​The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Like many, music is a big part of my life and living in Manchester for over twenty years, I have submerged myself in music, regularly buying vinyl from a very similar shop (Vinyl Exchange) that Rachel Joyce writes about in this gorgeous book. The Music Shop is a restorative read full of the soundtracks of our lives and powerful messages about the importance of community and independent shops. I also attended Rachel’s stirring talk at Hexham Book Festival which has made me even more of a fan of her writing. A book to share with those you love and definitely those who love vinyl.

​The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Seamlessly combining memoir, biography, philosophy and art history, this evocative and daring book takes one of society’s last taboos – loneliness – and examines it through the lens of art, artists, and culture in one of the world’s loneliest cities, New York. Olivia Laing raises questions not only of artistic inspiration and its origins, but also of the society we live in and what it truly means to be alone. A compassionate, moving, and sometimes humorous insight into a difficult subject, this is summer reading for those who like something a little different!

​Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed by Will Storr

Whether you love selfies or hate them, this book is a fascinating history of human self-obsession and the quest for societal, cultural and personal perfection. Storr’s writing is engaging and light, despite the sometimes provocative and unsettling subject matter, and the book is surprisingly entertaining. This is summer reading with bite!

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