What We’re Reading: Spring Edition
New year, new books! Here at NWN, we started off 2021 with some great reads that got us through yet another lockdown. Read on to find out about the books we’re currently loving.
I’ve recently read and enjoyed Francis Spufford’s new novel Light Perpetual. I had loved his last book the Costa-winning Golden Hill and had been eagerly anticipating this one. This book follows the lives of a group of five working class children in South East London. Although they are killed in the Blitz at the beginning of the book, Spufford imagines the way their lives may have turned out had they survived. It takes in the political and social changes that occur throughout their life-times, as well as their experiences of love, loss and redemption. Some have compared it to Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life, however, it reminded me most of Michael Apted’s seminal documentary series Seven Up, which I’ve always avidly followed. Although it contains sadness, this is not a sad book and reminds us of how precious life is.
I talk about Salena Godden’s Mrs Death, Misses Death in our Spring podcast but I wanted to mention it again, as like Light Perpetual, although dark and confronting at times, it reminds the reader of the fleeting nature of life and to ‘enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think’. This unusual, lyrical book is a debut novel from performance poet Godden, listen to our podcast to find out more.
The rather bleak start to 2021 called for some comfort reading, and a really long book to sink my teeth into. I chose Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and it didn’t disappoint. The style is unusual for fantasy and it took me a little while to get into it, but once I did I was hooked – it’s such an inspired alternative history, the magic is deliciously dark, and there’s a real northern soul to the book which of course I appreciated! The ending is surprisingly touching; I finished the story with tears in my eyes, always a sign of a good read. Piranesi is definitely on my to-read list now.
I also recently finished The Wild Silence, Raynor Winn’s sequel to The Salt Path. Winn’s description of the natural world continues to be wonderful, and her writing beats with a human heart. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the passages of her discovering what it’s like to be a writer, and charting The Salt Path’s journey to publication – it really demystified the experience and should inspire any reader to give writing a go.
Finally, I’ve been dipping into Helen Mort’s No Map Could Show Them. It’s just brilliant! I love Helen’s poems and the interplay between the natural world and female experience, there are moments of both beautiful tranquillity and controlled rage. It feels like a collection worth returning to, so I’m sure it’ll be keeping me company for a little while yet.
I finally began reading The Midnight Library after all the attention it received at the end of last year. Matt Haig’s nonfiction books on mental health are notable and I think he does really well to slot these themes into fiction form. Each chapter sees protagonist Nora experience the realm within life and death where she is able to see and live every possible direction her life could’ve gone down, after her attempted suicide. Her desperate efforts to find a life she is truly happy in is deliberately applicable to any reader’s experience, making it heart breaking and raw at points. The book is based on the regrets we all carry with us and how redundant an exercise that is. Matt Haig’s observations of mental health issues contribute to the compassion of this book; I think it’s timely as we process the past year’s events and embark on life beyond it.
I’ve just started A River Called Time by Courttia Newland, one of my favourite contemporary writers. I’m so excited about this book, a work of speculative fiction set in a near-future alternative London. In this world, slavery and colonialism haven’t happened – instead of exploiting the continent, Europeans sought to learn from their voyages into Africa – but extreme injustices still exist. At the centre of this city is the Ark, a symbol of inequality reserved for elites away from the poverty affecting the majority. Markriss, who has a mystical ability to lift his spirit from his body, is given a place on the Ark where he makes a dangerous discovery with immense consequences for humanity. Courttia Newland is known for his excellent novels and short fiction, as well as for his recent screenwriting on the magnificent Small Axe films, directed by Steve McQueen. There are many strengths to his writing – the sharp and natural dialogue, evocative descriptions and talent for creating memorable characters – and he’s forever adventurous in his storytelling, as this novel shows.
I recently read and loved With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, a gorgeous story about a teen mother in the US who is pursuing her passion for cooking. It’s a gentle, sweet and meaningful book full of loveable characters whose interactions made me smile, and it also provides poignant commentary on life as an Afro-Puerto Rican woman. The story was steady and quiet without much drama, leaving space for the main character to discover her place in the world and the things that were most important to her. I would have liked more of an emotional punch, but it was still heartwarming and powerful. And of course, the descriptions of the food she made were delightful, although they really made me miss going out to restaurants!
I’m also slowly making my way through the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas – YA fantasy at its best. I don’t read many long series, so it’s exciting to have the space for a really complex, fleshed out story and large cast of characters. As I near the end of the series, I’m seeing so many threads that were woven throughout the previous books finally coming together to reveal their full significance. It feels like such a treat to come back to this series in between the other books I’m reading.
I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction in March, partly inspired by Women’s History Month. Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name particularly affected me. In 2015, Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner – in what would become known as the ‘Stanford swimmer case’. Throughout the high profile trial she remained anonymous, but here she gives her unflinching account. It is both a remarkably vulnerable memoir and a powerful indictment of a patriarchal culture that is failing victims. Chanel Miller is a beautiful writer, she lays bare her pain and rage alongside humour and hope. It would be hard to overstate just how profoundly moving this book is.
The last novel that I finished was The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Set in modern day Seoul and told in three parts, it follows the fallout of a woman’s decision to stop eating meat. Coming in at under 200 pages, this novella does not waste a word. It’s sharply written and deeply uncomfortable, if not downright disturbing. On reading the last page I felt the urge to begin it again immediately, to try and unpick its layers of meaning. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that yet, but I’ll definitely be picking up another of Han Kang’s novels soon.
I have just finished Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. I sought it out because I loved his irreverent, laugh out loud Ma’am Darling about Princess Margaret last year. Unlike the Royals, I have always been interested in The Beatles’ story. When I was younger I went through a phase of intense Beatles reading. This has reawakened my fandom (and rekindled a childhood crush on Paul McCartney – in middle age I now recognise that he was obviously the coolest). Brown takes the form he used in Ma’am Darling – a series of stories, lists, bits of dialogue and sometimes surreal alternative histories. He is interested in the serendipity of the events that shape history. I loved his sideways takes on familiar Beatles stories like the poor old comedy duo making their TV debut straight after The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan show, or the drummer Jimmie Nichol who was a Beatle for ten days on a US tour while Ringo was ill. Brian Epstein emerges as a hero, the one who discovered them, and always had their backs. The telling of his demise in reverse at the end of the book is so poignant, we are left wondering what would have happened if Epstein hadn’t stepped into that dark, smelly Cavern Club in November 1961.
As winter lifts and spring arrives I’m celebrating by reading Sunburn by Laura Lippman this week. A book set firmly in summertime in small time America. It’s a contemporary noir about a woman, who is not all that she seems, who is pursued by a man who is being paid to find her and work out her secret. As yet to be revealed (I’ve not finished it yet) is a back story of prison, deserted children and other partners. Lippman’s writing is like a long cool drink on a hot day, not a word is wasted, her characterisation is precise and light to the touch. The novel is unrolling like a film. I’m finding it a wonderful imaginative escape – not least as the female lead has escaped her life. Maybe I could run away from my life and family and work in a bar and live in a simple room where nobody knows me? I think the reason that I like this novel so much is that it’s part Anne Tyler and part Lee Child, a heady, perfect mix.
What are you reading? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #NorthernBookshelf.