What we’re reading: Autumn edition
Charlotte Ramshaw – The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood
For fans of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game saw me fully immersed in the pre-WWII Weimar art scene. Before the war, Germany and the Bauhaus art school were at the forefront of cutting edge creativity and art for art’s sake. The book charts both the school and its pupils; the multiple closures and new beginnings against the backdrop of growing prejudice that lead up to concentration camps, lists and war.
It’s 1922; Paul Beckerman arrives fresh-faced at the infamous Bauhaus art school and is immediately seduced – as was I – by both the place and people. As I expected with a novel set in pre-World War Two Germany, political tensions begin to escalate with the Bauhaus and everything it stands for coming under threat. The Bauhaus Babies, as the new pupils are called, form an intimate and complex friendship that lasts their whole lives. Lies, betrayals, love and art seem to hold them together until the war sweeps in to test loyalties. Wood is asking us if willed ignorance is better than being the perpetrator and as secrets unfold, we see that Paul Beckerman can no longer look himself in the eye.
Wood’s meticulous research about the Bauhaus and her mixture of real people and fictional characters had me fascinated. The book is a tragedy, mystery, romance and history lesson, with Paul Beckerman as our flawed narrator. I finished The Hiding Game in one sitting and I kept thinking about it for a lot longer. A book I would wholly recommend to anyone wanting something to devour over a cold, autumnal week – or in my case – night!
Holly Sinkinson – Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
When I heard that Brooklyn was this year’s Durham Book Festival’s Big Read, I was excited that I had both heard of the novel (validation) AND already seen the 2015 film adaptation. The film was an unexpected joy for me, found one Sunday morning while listlessly scrolling Netflix.
It’s simple, subtle and yet all of a sudden overwhelms you with a sense of truth and feeling that leaves you basking (read: wallowing) in its glow for days. It’s hardly surprising that on finding a copy of Brooklyn on my desk, I immediately abandoned the half-read paperback I was dutifully plodding through, and instead fell happily into Colm Tóibín’s original novel. Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis: a young Irish immigrant finding her way 1950s New York. I loved reveling in the period details and playful characterisation (we all know a Ma Kehoe!) that Tóibín lovingly writes in an understated but authentic style.
With universal themes of coming of age, first love, leaving home and loss, alongside more gritty subject matters (immigration, race and gender politics), it’s clear why Brooklyn has received such critical acclaim. I’ve already sent Brooklyn to an Aunt who has since rattled through at the same break-neck speed as me, she says it’s ‘cosy’ and I think I’d have to agree; a perfect read for the darkening autumn nights.
Anna Disley –The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal
I am very much enjoying The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal, a beautifully written literary thriller and a complete page-turner! Its based on the story of Iris, a young woman who dreams of being an artist. In a bid for freedom from her cold, painfully buttoned-up family, and the drudgery of her job at the doll factory, she finds herself hanging out with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood during the year of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Lurking in the shadows is Silas, a sinister taxidermist who has designs on Iris.
In a society in which women are stifled, the tension ratchets up as the love and liberty she seems to find through art become increasingly precarious. It’s full of atmospheric description of the underbelly of Victorian London: corporeal and sleazy. A dark, cleverly plotted tale of art, ambition and obsession – it’s a rattling good read, which really makes you think, and it’s very hard to put down.
Ruth Dewhirst – Lowborn by Kerry Hudson
Although I’m normally more of a fiction reader, I felt I had to review Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns because it is the most compelling book I have read this year. Kerry Hudson’s searingly honest reflection on growing up in poverty may span the length of the British Isles, but it is brought together by Hudson’s humanity and empathy, both for her revisited childhood neighbourhoods and for the people living there today (the visit to Airdrie’s Love N Light Recovery Cafe is particularly moving).
Lowborn is not always a comfortable read, and it is a better book for it; it forces the reader to confront the realities of modern day poverty, while challenging the narrative that escaping your roots is a necessary or desirable part of ‘social mobility’; an important book with an urgent message for our country.
Rebecca Wilkie – The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the accomplished debut novel from writer Sara Collins. Set in 19th century London the protagonist, Frannie, starts life as a slave on a plantation in Jamaica, where unusually she is taught to read and write by her owner. When her Master brings her to London, although technically free, Frannie is given as a gift to work for Mr and Mrs Benham and the novel begins with her at the Old Bailey, accused of their murder.
It’s an utterly absorbing re-imaging of a Gothic romance and is, as Sara writes in the introduction to my proof copy, ‘a story that is among other things a tribute to Jane Eyre, but with a protagonist who would have lived outside the margins set by history.’ Margaret Atwood’s description of The Confessions of Frannie Langton as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace’ perfectly encapsulates some of the other literary influences in this book, and I’d be tempted to add the novels of Sarah Waters to that list too.
I’m so pleased that Sara Collins will be appearing at Durham Book Festival this year, joining the wonderful Yvonne Battle-Felton who won a Northern Writers’ Award in 2017 for her novel Remembered. I hope to see you there!
Will Mackie – When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson
This compelling, elegantly written and moving memoir is a reflective exploration of Catherine Simpson’s family history on New House Farm in Lancashire. The heart of the story focuses on Catherine’s sister Tricia and her suicide at the age of 46, following many years of mental illness.
Through memory and access to Tricia’s diaries, When I had a Little Sister follows Catherine as she retraces Tricia’s troubled life and seeks to make sense of a household where conversation and any sense of openness were suppressed. It’s a richly rewarding book, told with compassion, dark humour and precision, that takes us all the way back to previous generations as Catherine shows how the way of life on the farm impacted on her and her two sisters, and everyone else who lived there.
Sophie Koranteng – Platform 7 by Louise Doughty
I often find myself gravitating towards mysteries and thrillers, having loved books such as The Girl On The Train and Gone Girl – so inevitably it was only a matter of time until I would pick up the copy of Platform 7 that was sitting on my desk. When the book begins, we are unsure of who the protagonist, and book’s narrator, actually is, and it becomes apparent that neither does she. We are led by Lisa Evans (as we come to know her by) as we collect the missing pieces of her lost identity and try to understand what connects each of the fatalities that took place on platform 7, including her own.
I found the lack of clarity of what happened to Lisa unnerving and unsettling. I felt the desperate aimlessness and uncertainty that she was so clearly feeling. However, despite being in the dark in so many areas, I felt a loyalty to her and a need for closure (both for Lisa and for myself!). It became apparent to me that the significance was less on platform 7 itself, but more so the individual events and inner torments that led to each character ending up on the platform. There is a continuous theme of feeling trapped, in many senses of the word.
The book offers a refreshing perspective on the complex and conflicting nature of emotionally abusive relationships, and questions the blurred lines between what is love and what is possession.
Laura Fraine – Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
In 1975, Esquire Magazine published ‘La Côte Basque’, a chapter of Truman Capote’s long awaited (and, it turned out, never to materialise) non-fiction novel, Answered Prayers. Both the story and the novel took for their subject Capote’s ‘Swans’, his real-life high society friends, who were as vulnerable and complicated as they were glamorous, and whose heartbreaks, secrets and indiscretions he plundered for his art.
Swan Song is Greenberg-Jephcott’s own version of the non-fiction novel, charting Capote’s fall from grace as the Swans discover his betrayal, close ranks and eject the author – ‘a pissant rug rat from Munroeville, Alabama’ – from the society he has worked so hard to infiltrate.
It’s all very meta, gossipy, sharp and neurotic: a Manhattan cocktail of a book.
Claire Malcolm – This is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev
In his new book, This is Not Propaganda; Adventures in the War Against Reality Peter Pomerantsev takes us on a dark journey into the world of the post Cold War propaganda machines that are at still at work now within our politics, media and social networks.
At times jaw dropping (Russia is doing even more than you think, all of the time and did swing the US election), hopeful (a new generation of protestors are writing their own playbook for how to address fake news and propaganda) and distressing (we are not in control of technology and our powers of constraint are not fit for purpose), this urgent and enlightening read will give you a very up-to-date perspective on how those interested in upholding objective truth are fighting back against the dark forces.
Grace Keane – The Body Lies by Jo Baker
The Body Lies falls into one of my favourite, slippery genres – the literary thriller. It follows a young mother who accepts a job at a university in the remote English countryside; a fresh start away from an assault she suffered whilst pregnant. But the isolation of her new home, the absence of her husband, and the pressures of her students start to take a toll. At once, debates about violence against women in literature turn vicious, and a troubled student starts turning in chapters that blur the line between fiction and reality.
As she comes to recognise herself as the subject of his horrific story, she struggles to stop life imitating art. The book is described as dark and suspenseful – which it certainly is – but the focus is squarely on the psychology of the characters, rather than on pacey action or plot twists. I loved the slow burn of this book, and felt that the tension was masterfully built and sustained throughout the novel. The atmosphere, and the theme of fiction within fiction, drew comparisons to Tony and Susan by Austin Wright (adapted into Nocturnal Animals (2016); however, I found The Body Lies much more readable, and much more explicit in its commentary. I loved the book’s examination of the female body: the way it is fetishized and the way violence is inflicted upon it. For me, this interrogation is the triumph of the novel, but undoubtedly the book still stands as a literary drama that is compelling and beautifully written.
Grace Keane – Labels and Other Stories by Louis de Bernières
During the busy lead up to Durham Book Festival, I’ve been struggling to make time in my day to read. Thankfully, this collection has provided bite-size chunks of escapism; perfect to dip into on lunch breaks or commutes. I found the writing so immersive, despite the shorter form, and each place imagined was rich and evocative.
Threads of magical realism leant the collection a gentle absurdity, which I loved, and which was only compounded by de Bernières’ wry sense of humour. Particular highlights were ‘The Turks are So Wonderful with Children’ and ‘Mamacita’s Treasure’, where warmth and wit meet something more ominous. I was also totally charmed by ‘Romance on the Underground’ and as a die-hard Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fan, I have to give an honourable mention to the return of Dr Iannis in ‘Gunter Weber’s Confession’. In a word, Labels and Other Stories is entertaining: I think Louis de Bernières is a master storyteller, and I am very much looking forward to seeing him speak at Durham Book Festival this October.
Book tickets for Durham Book Festival events at durhambookfestival.com