Summer Reading

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

I adored this historical novel, not least because the author’s vivid depiction of nineteenth century Edinburgh is a shining delight throughout. But this is far from the book’s only source of joy. Set in 1822, its central narrative involves the relocation of the city’s Botanical Gardens from their original site in Leith to their (still current) site on Inverleith Row. Against this backdrop the author’s central characters Elizabeth, a young widow traumatised by a violent marriage and Belle, a courtesan determined to maintain her independence at all costs, form a complicated friendship wherein the author examines gender roles, class, and social hypocrisy with a keen yet humorous eye.

Tough Women edited by Jenny Tough

There is something special when you read the right book at the right moment; in 2021 this was the book for me. A compilation of accounts by a selection of inspirational women who thrive in the face of a physical challenge - certainly not always the fastest, highest or most epic, this is about individuals’ personal challenges and one’s capability to dig deep. I read it when the confines of lockdown felt at their most restrictive but within these accounts, I found hope and inspiration. Yes, we’d be outdoors again, experiencing the adrenalin of embracing playground wildernesses. I’ve been on some amazing walks this year, thanks to the motivation of these stories, I hope it leads to some great adventures for you too.

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

This is such a superb psychological thriller; set in Oxford and centring around an apparently successful but highly dysfunctional family with nods to gothic fiction and a wonderfully tricksy potentially unreliable narrator, it’s an utterly fabulous read. A child has disappeared, and her nanny Dee is being questioned by the police; she seems like a sympathetic character but we’re seeing everything through her eyes regarding the family’s behaviour: how far can we trust her, plausible as she seems? Lucy Atkins’ writing is just so good; she has a brilliant eye for character, and she also evokes a great sense of Oxford as a city full of ghosts and often at odds with itself.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

It’s not often that the heroine of a novel dies in the first sentence, but the fact that Shafak develops a dead character with such intimacy and integrity is testament to her writing. From the beginning, I felt I was in the hands of a gifted writer. This is a multisensory novel; as Tequila Leila lies dying, different smells conjure memories from her life. From her childhood in rural Turkey to the life she has created for herself in the underbelly of Istanbul, there is a great richness in the scents, sounds and colours in a country where the cultures of the East and West collide. Yet, the greatest richness comes from the friendships she has made and the power of these continue long after Leila has left the world.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This powerful novel is based on the true events of 1617 when the village of Vardo in northern Norway was hit by a sudden storm which drowned nearly all of the male population. Kiran Millwood Hargrave sensitively examines the lives of the women left behind through her central characters: fisherman’s daughter Maren and the new church commissioner’s wife, Ursa. Their relationship develops in the claustrophobic crucible of village life, as the growing agency of Vardo’s women comes into increasing conflict with the dictates of the church, bringing the prospect of danger ever closer. This important, moving story is wonderfully served by the austere beauty of the author’s prose.

A Flight of Arrows by AJ MacKenzie

One for the medieval historians here. Set in 1346, we follow Edward III’s army as it journeys through France, skirmishing and burning as it goes, heading towards the pivotal Battle of Crécy. Simon Merrivale, the Prince of Wales’s herald, is tasked with investigating the murder of an archer, but he soon discovers that this is not an isolated incident; he may well have stumbled upon a much wider conspiracy which could endanger his own life. With a reassuring labyrinthine plot, great characters, and wonderful historical detail in both the depictions of battle and everyday life on military campaign, this is a fantastically gripping, suspenseful read.

Wanderers by Kerri Andrews

Kerri Andrews has curated a super collection of mini biographies of ten women for whom walking has formed an imperative part of their being. There are wonderful glimpses of social history by hearing these women’s voices through their diaries and letters. It’s fascinating the different ways walking offered freedom; not only escapism, exploration, and understanding of the landscape but also the opportunity for headspace to develop their thoughts and creativity. The author’s accounts of her own expeditions to retrace the routes these women roamed and hiked, offer powerful insights into changing social mores. Reading this has altered my own connections with the landscape, it has rooted me in my boots, focused the mind on the experiences of those who walked the path before me and emphasised the connection between physicality and creativity.

Less is More by Jason Hickel

From the title you might be forgiven for thinking you were in for a lengthy lesson on why you should adopt a simpler and more frugal lifestyle. However, Less is More is actually focussed on unpicking the history and drivers of our current economic models and probing whether they serve our best interests. Hickel’s analysis and observations force you to take a step back from many of our in-built assumptions and he draws together a very well structured and eye-opening case for how we might, and indeed should, do things differently.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet

Effortlessly compelling, The Vanishing Half charts the lives of twins Stella and Desiree, who grow up in a small southern black community until they run away at sixteen. As their paths diverge, Desiree and her black daughter find themselves back in her home town, whilst Stella cuts all ties to begin a new life, passing as white. But when their daughters’ lives collide, Stella’s careful subterfuge begins to erode… With a delicate touch, Bennett explores the complexities of racial prejudice and gender identity whilst weaving an intricate plot which kept me spellbound. Tender, incisive and thought-provoking, The Vanishing Half is a book you will be thinking about long after you put it down. 

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

This is a genuine emotional roller coaster of a novel which examines the consequences which ripple out across time after a young girl is found dead outside a small Californian town. Years later, her supposed killer is released from jail and returns home; her damaged, psychologically fragile sister Star is then found dead, and the town seethes with suspicion once more. Star’s children Duchess and Robin become the focal point of the town’s attention; who will protect them as the local police struggle to find out what happened? This novel is heartbreakingly poignant as it follows the children’s journey to try and reach some kind of sanctuary, and in the teenage Duchess Day Radley, Chris Whitaker has created a complex, brave, and utterly compelling heroine.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

This enthralling piece of crime fiction introduces us to one of my favourite new characters: Persis Wadia, India’s first female detective. Set in Bombay in newly independent India, we’re in a country alive with febrile tension; the new way ahead not yet clear and the scars of imperial suppression very much in evidence. Vaseem Khan skilfully weaves the story of a high-profile murder case, the roots of which are buried deep in complex political history, with Persis’s own personal family life and her burgeoning professional relationship with Scotland Yard criminologist Archie Blackfinch whose caution and deference are a perfect foil to her own pugnacious dynamism. The novel is supremely eloquent and convincing in its tackling of misogyny, corruption, and the toxic legacy of empire.

Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

This is an absolute must read for anyone interested in interrogating the representation of some of the most famous female characters in Greek myth. Natalie Haynes examines the way in which figures such as Helen, Jocasta, Medea, and Penelope have been critiqued through the centuries and investigates the validity of these contextual appraisals by returning to their appearances in their respective original texts to reveal a fresh feminist perspective of these literary icons. This is all dazzlingly accomplished with her trademark wit, intelligence, and scholarly passion for her subject.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This is a wonderfully bold piece of imaginative storytelling. A novel which plunges the reader into the unforgettable world of its central character; where tides cause waves to crash through a house of infinite and strange spaces, all revealed to the reader in poignant detail as we try to work out just who and where Piranesi actually is. There’s a mystery to solve but the truth is as obscure to the novel’s central character as it is to the reader, with the curtain only slowly and tantalising being drawn aside by this supremely talented author. Clarke’s book is a subtle and beautiful look at humanity’s constant questing for something beyond ourselves, into obsessive investigation and the consequences thereof. Stunning, moving and delicately memorable.

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

This is a very personal exploration of the legacy of empire, melding memoir, history and Sanghera’s excellent journalism, in an attempt to understand how Britain’s imperial past is still influencing our evolving present. His historical research is illuminating, and his journalism probes our disinclination to examine with honesty and discuss the effects of empire on contemporary multiculturalism. I cannot recommend the book highly enough; it supports the vitally important work of encouraging a dialectical approach to the study of our problematic imperial history; changing the narrative to give us a deeper more inclusive understanding of our past.

The Glovemaker by Ann Weisgarber

Intensely involving, beautifully paced and offering a fascinating perspective on the little-known religious persecution of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in 1880s Utah; this book is immediately immersive. Deborah’s life in the small settlement of Junction is proving particularly difficult; Samuel, her wheelwright husband, hasn’t returned home from a journey as expected and a strange man has appeared at her door demanding sanctuary. Who is he and why doesn’t his appearance shock Deborah? As we learn more about her life and the challenges she faces, the novel builds into an incredibly suspenseful struggle between her deeply held religious beliefs and her own conscience.

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.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This fascinating book reveals the disparate lives of five women, better known for the circumstances of their deaths. Although we may recognise their names, they have long been overshadowed by the cult of their killer, alias Jack The Ripper. Diminished in the face of sensationalism, dismissed as prostitutes and objectified as victims, I love the way that Hallie Rubenhold has reclaimed these women’s stories. Compelling, compassionate and immaculately researched, The Five resets the skewed perspective of history. Essential reading!

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This is a wonderfully absorbing story set in a small rural community in Norway where, in 1880, the beauty of its surroundings is starkly contrasted with the harsh reality of desperately long, cold winters and people’s struggle for survival. Here, lifestyles and mindsets are strongly rooted in the land, but times are slowly changing, and the arrival of a new pastor calls into question the formidable position of the church. The story centres around three main characters all of whom dream of achieving their ambitions but to do so means breaking society’s restrictive conventions. Mytting’s characters have depth, his storytelling is vivid and emotionally rich, and his writing effortlessly unfolds a captivating tale.

The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright

I know less than I would like to about wild plants and fungi – certainly not enough to eat anything more adventurous than the odd blackberry. So, I expected to find The Forager’s Calendar useful and informative, which it absolutely is, with clear descriptions and excellent colour photographs. Not only a superb practical handbook, it is also full of thought-provoking insights and sparkles with John Wright’s humour. Equally fascinating on conservation, nutrition and the relationship between foraging and the law, Wright will prove the best of companions on your forays into finding food for free.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

​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 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!

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