As we gear up for Durham Book Festival starting next week, my work life seems to be hurtling by at a breakneck pace. By the evening, there is nothing I want to do but curl up with my copy of Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, a nostalgic and comforting love letter to the power of childhood reading.
For Lucy and for me – and, given the nature of this blog, probably for you, too – our childhoods can be marked out in the books that made us: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Milly Molly Mandy, Narnia, all proving useful notches in the timeline of memory.
Lucy’s writing is gorgeous – very funny and warm, but also interesting and insightful – and even better, she seems to have read all the same books as me. As she recalls the almost unbearable sadness of Dogger, the brilliant accidental mayhem of The Worst Witch and learning all about life from Judy Blume, it’s like taking a (very gentle) whistlestop tour through my own childhood. And only the best bits.
The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas is a fascinating journey through Gypsy Britain, which opened my eyes to the rich history of the Romany people and the realities of their lives today. This debut memoir sees the author taking to the road in his transit van and travelling from Hampshire up to Scotland to discover the atchin tans or stopping places along the route. These old encampment sites are known only to Travellers and appear all over the UK.
Part Romany history and part exercise in self-discovery, this journey helps Damian to reconnect with his Romany heritage and make sense of how he fits into it. The Travelling community is rarely depicted in literature and this book provides a welcome insight into the lives and customs of a people we know little about. I can’t wait to hear more about the book at Durham Book Festival this year!
Sarah Perry’s hotly anticipated third novel, Melmoth, is a harrowing, gothic tale that speaks urgently to our times. Perry herself said that she ‘wanted to write a book that would distress people’, and in this she has succeeded – to page-turning effect.
Drawing on the ‘myth’ of Melmoth (via the 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin), a woman who witnessed but denied Christ’s ascension, the novel weaves the supernatural with issues of political and religious injustice and the crippling power of the conscience. Doomed to wander the earth on bleeding feet and witness the worst of human transgression, Melmoth becomes a haunting presence in the life of the protagonist Helen Franklin, who twenty years ago committed an act for which she cannot forgive herself.
Perry’s hallmark is her ability to create an acute intimacy of feeling. Drawn emphatically into Helen’s experience, we feel her terror keenly and even – perhaps worse – become complicit in the crime that summoned Melmoth to her. Hearing Sarah talk about the book in the atmospheric setting of Durham’s historic (and apparently haunted) Town Hall is going to be a singular experience.
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is a charming story of resilience and friendship, set against the backdrop of a war-torn 1940s London. Our plucky heroine Emmeline Lake is staunchly cheerful and resolutely positive in the face of the unrelenting Luftwaffe, and absolutely committed to ‘doing her bit’. After an unfortunate mix-up in her bid to become a ‘lady war correspondent’, Emmy lands herself working for the tyrannical advice columnist Mrs Bird at Women’s Friend, a women’s magazine specialising in knitting patterns and ration-stretching recipes.
While delightfully twee and uplifting, the narrative is punctuated by air raids, bomb-blasts and personal reflections that give the story real emotional heft. Emmy is a thoroughly modern woman, who pushes against the narrow-minded and staunchly conservative world-view of Mrs Bird. She represents the changing position of women following World War II, and reminds us all to jolly well buck-up and be cheerful.
The Lido by Libby Page has been described widely as uplifting and feel-good, and there is no doubt about that; a story about early-career journalist Kate, 26, teaming up with 86-year-old Rosemary to save the local outdoor swimming pool. It’s a celebratory depiction of London’s diversity, community and overcoming adversity. But the story is also about loneliness, about anxiety, heartache and loss. It’s political. Libraries and community facilities close and the capital is bought up by luxury housing providers. The Lido is complex. The relationship between Kate and Rosemary is beautiful and heart-warming, but it’s the flashbacks to the life of Rosemary with her late husband George that really got me. Read it for a complex emotional experience. Read it and you’ll definitely go for a swim.
Cathy Newman’s debut, Bloody Brilliant Women: The Unsung Heroines Who Made 20th Century Britain, gives the reader a fascinating insight into the lives of a number of remarkable women of British history from the mid 19th century onwards.
Their stories are all the more remarkable given the barriers and challenges they faced. This is not your typical dry history book – I found Bloody Brilliant Women an engaging read throughout and can’t wait to see Cathy discuss the book at Durham this October.
Jason Cowley has been the influential Editor of the New Statesman for the past 10 years. His newest book Reaching for Utopia is a collection of his journalism during that period. It opens with an essay about the murder of Polish worker Arkadiusz Joswick during the ‘febrile Summer’ of the Brexit referendum, in his hometown, the new town of Harlow. This very personal essay takes us from post-war to post-referendum Britain, and we spend the rest of the book exploring the political and cultural transformation of the past decade. His interviews with key political figures are often prescient, hinting at Cameron’s demise or Ed Milliband’s failure of leadership. Trained in philosophy, a one time Literary Editor, and a huge sports fan the book also includes portraits of key cultural figures, who help us make sense of these turbulent times. I enjoyed spending time in his company and am keen to see what he has to say about the latest goings-on in this ‘Age of Upheaval’ with Lewis Goodall when he’s at DBF this year.
Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has been on my reading list for a while, due to both the rave reviews and the recent developments in the Golden State Killer case. The clamour is not unfounded – Michelle pushes the limits of the true crime genre, blending aspects of her own dedication to the mystery with the horrific crimes perpetrated in California in the 1970s. Uncomfortable but gripping, Michelle makes sure that her retelling of the facts never becomes a gruesome idolisation of the murders. At the heart of the novel is the humanisation of those deeply affected by the crimes, which includes the victims, the detectives, and even herself and her family. While she never saw the GSK in manacles, her work revitalised a case that had long since stagnated in evidence rooms, old police reports and online forums. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a starkly poignant ode to obsession, and is definitely worthy of being on the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist (which will be announced at DBF in October).
Sophie Collins’ much-anticipated debut Who Is Mary Sue? is an innovative and stylistically variable collection that is wide-ranging and exploratory at the same time as following a structured central theme. This is a collection that works for people less familiar with poetry as it does for regular poetry readers, with poems that are often accessible but take a while to digest as you reflect on them. There’s a really fascinating collage technique that Sophie Collins uses to blend together different texts, as well as sprawling footnotes to take you on tangential excursions. I wasn’t familiar with the term Mary Sue, which comes from fan fiction and relates to a stereotypical female character considered archetypal, but found it repeatedly explored in the collection in so many rewarding ways. There are many excellent poems but I especially liked ‘The Engine’, a haunting prose poem with an unpredictable hyper-real narrative.
Nobody writes about sex and power like Barker and her grasp of war, strategy and the politics of class and warfare are unmatchable. In The Silence of the Girls she takes us to the fall of Troy with Achilles and his army. But in this novel the story is turned on its head and we view the whole affair through the eyes of Briseis, a captured female slave and experience the fear, uncertainty and lust for freedom and escape that she feels. Barker merges very real experiences alongside myth, the Gods and a vivid and bracing re-imagining of history. This is a major work written by a writer at the height of her powers. The novel will speak to both historical fiction fans and chime with the #MeToo generation.
As someone who didn’t really know what a forensic anthropologist was, I was unsure as to what to expect from All That Remains. However, as someone with a morbid fascination for all things true crime/death related, I loved it. Dame Professor Sue Black confronts death every day as part of her job, but the memoir isn’t overly macabre or sad. As she says herself on the book “it is as much about life as about death”. Sue’s voice is funny and compelling, bringing humour to the unlikeliest scenarios and at times causing you to race through the pages as you would the best crime novel. There is tragedy, but ultimately it feels like a wise and measured look into something that we all find ourselves considering.
I’m lucky enough to have seen Sue speak about her book before, and the event was all of the best of the book and more. I was genuinely hooked by the stories and keen to hear more about the way the world of forensic anthropology works. I would really recommend going to see Sue Black at Durham Book Festival 2018 – or if you’re not fortunate enough to be attending the festival this year – buying the book!