I read Still Life, Sarah Winman’s most recent book, last summer and adored it, so I was excited to get stuck into her 2017 novel Tin Man, which is this month’s choice for the Rockwater book group.
It’s a story about love but it’s far more than just a love story. It begins with two boys Ellis and Michael, who are inseparable. Then the boys become men, and then Annie walks into their lives, and it changes nothing and everything.
It’s a story bursting with colour – from the opening chapter set in 1950 where Dora wins a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a raffle to Provence’s lavender fields in the nineties to the greens of Oxford and the greys of Barts Aids ward, this is a novel you can smell, taste and see. Even the title has echoes of the yellow brick road, although the protaganists here, if anything, have too much heart.
It’s a story about grief and loss, about sexuality and masculinity, about the blurred lines between friendship and romantic love.
At just under 200 pages, this is a short novel but it packs a punch. Winman’s prose is beautiful sparse, with sentences I had to stop and read again and again. My favourite was this – I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.
I read the book over a course of a weekend – largely reading in cafes – and was frequently moved to tears. At the end I sobbed, for Ellis, for Michael, for Annie and for myself for finishing the book and not having the time (right now) to read it all over again. Five stars.
The Last List of Mabel Beaumont is one of those books you know you’re going to love from the very first page. Like Eleanor Oliphant (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) and Harold Fry (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), Mabel is an unusual protagonist – an 86-year-old introverted woman.
After Arthur, her husband of 62 years, dies at the start of the book, Mabel starts to fall apart. And, had it not been for Arthur’s forward-thinking, it might have been a very sad, and a very short, book. But Arthur knew Mabel perhaps better than she knew herself and, with the help of a carer he arranged before he died, Mabel starts to engage with the outside world.
Arthur was a lover of lists and his last half-finished list included ‘Find D’. That instruction inspires Mabel to find her long-lost friend Dot. Like Harold, the story is all about Mabel’s journey not about the destination. Along the way, she engages with the outside world in a way she hadn’t since her wedding day. Her new band of friends who help her, from carer Julie to supermarket worker Erin are beautifully drawn by author Laura Pearson. And the twist at the end of the book is subtly hinted at, and beautifully done.
I’ve read all of Laura’s previous books – we used to be published by the same publisher – and this is definitely her best yet.
The Last List of Mabel Beaumont is a joy from start to finish – although I did shed many tears along the way. It’s definitely one we’ll be stocking more of in Kemptown Bookshop and it deserves to be just as successful as Eleanor Oliphant and Harold Fry. A perfect feel-good uplifting read. Five stars.
I’m not a big memoir reader - I can find them too much of an ego trip without the necessary self-reflection - so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this month’s Kemptown Bookshop book club choice - Warren Ellis’s Nina Simone’s Gum. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This is a beautiful book exploring the impact our most treasured possessions have on us, and those around us. It centres on the piece of chewing gum that Dr Nina Simone took out of her mouth before she started performing her last concert in London in 1999. Australian musician and composer Warren Ellis was so overcome by the extraordinary concert, he jumped on stage after she’d finished and took the gum and the towel it was on. Both were soon transferred to a yellow Tower Records bag.
That bag was hidden away for more than 20 years until Ellis’s band mate and collaborator Nick Cave was looking for unusual objects for an exhibition he was hosting. The gum then transforms from personal, private object to an object on public display.
The book recounts that journey including the impact the gum had on those who came into contact with it. It becomes a divine object, imbued with greatness. The author justifiably makes a comparisons with Thomas Edison’s last breath.
Alongside Nina Simone’s gum, Ellis explores his life and music through some of his other precious objects - lost and found. His first violin. The lead weights hammered into car tyres he used to collect. His Beethoven statues. A cassette of Greek singer Arleta and a marble she gave him which he’s since kept in his washbag. Precious photos.
It’s an unusual book in that the pictures (of which there are many) are the narrative, the words like extended picture captions.
It’s a story about precious objects and artists’ creativity. About the impact of great music. But it’s also about how small actions have consequences - even years later. Taking Nina Simone’s gum changed Warren Ellis’s life. Reading his account of it might just change yours too.
In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.
For two weeks, the length of her father's vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie's father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.
The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?
A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the "primitive minds" of our ancestors.
I read the last 30 pages of this book with my heart pounding. Sarah Moss builds tension like no other author I know. Her prose is just exquisite in every way - like Claire Keegan she says so much with so little.
This is a beautiful but harrowing read that you can devour in one setting. Maggie O’Farrell’s cover testimonial urges you to put your life on hold while you finish it. I can’t think of better advice.
Set over a single day - but with reflections on the past - husband, wife and best friend Temi toe the lines of compromise and betrayal. The book is told in three parts - from the perspective of the nameless wife and husband and then Temi. Ore Agbaje-Williams successfully builds tension as the characters get drunker and their versions of themselves begin to unravel.
I enjoyed the structure of this book and also the experimental style. There are no quotation marks, no speech indicators, line or paragraph breaks. It took me a while to get into but I really enjoyed it once I had. It’s the sort of book you need to read in big chunks to really enjoy.
As someone who has often struggled with my friends’ choices of partner, the battle between husband, wife and best friend is a great topic and Agbaje-Williams does it justice.
At 180 pages, it’s the sort of book you can easily read in a day - a perfect summer read in my hammock!
Hannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is this month’s pick for the Rockwater Book Group - and I'm so glad it was recommended to me.
This is historical fiction at its absolute finest. Set against Iceland's brutal and stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master Natan in 1829, is sent to the isolated farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters to await her execution.
Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest requested by Agnes to be her spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realisation that all is not as they had assumed.
Based on actual events which are painstakingly researched by Kent, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we’re told. In searing prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, in which every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
Published in 2014, I can’t believe it’s taken me nine years to discover it. This was a five-star read for me.
This is a wonderfully light-hearted yet heartfelt look at queer women’s history. I laughed out loud throughout. Kirsty Loehr takes a look at lesbians from the dawn of time, exploring how history has been largely straightwashed with women clearly in lesbian relationships constantly being described as ‘just roommates’. We hear about some of history’s most fabulous lesbians from Hildegard of Bingen’s vulva drawings to US football captain Megan Rapinoe and everyone in between.
At one point Kirsty writes ‘if you don’t exist in history, nor see yourself in society, it can be difficult to envision yourself a place in the present.’ This book goes some way to setting the record, err, straight. Queer women have existed throughout history and Kirsty has done a fabulous job in bringing them to life.
If you’re looking for a heavy academic tome, then this is not for you. But there’s a good list of further reading at the back for those who want to read on. It’s a great introduction to a serious topic. I loved it.
This book has changed my life. I’ve loved many, many books but I can’t think of another that I’ve said has changed my life in the way that At Work in the Ruins has. It’s not the sort of book I would normally read but I was asked to sell it at a talk the author Dougald Hine was giving. Just listening to him speak about where the world is going made me sit up and listen. I bought the book and sat up reading it night after night,. It’s not an easy read – but it’s essential reading for all of us.
Dougald spent a lifetime talking about climate change until he realised he could talk about it no longer. In this book, he explains why. In eloquent, deeply-researched prose Dougald shows how an over-reliance on the single lens of science has blinded us to the nature of the crises around – and ahead of us – leading to solutions that only make the situation worse. He argues that climate change is a symptom of the problem of modernity, not a problem that can be ‘solved’ in isolation. We need to change the way we live, to ‘hospice’ modernity to quote one of his favourite authors. We need to follow the ‘small and branching path’ and not the big highway of climate change technology solutions. And that means substantially rethinking how and what we eat, work, travel and live in ways that we can’t even yet imagine. Despite the seriousness of the topic, At Work in the Ruins is ultimately a hopeful, optimistic book.
I can’t exaggerate how good – and important – this book is in these turbulent times. We should all read it.
f a seed falls from a vine in the tropics, travels across the ocean and arrives intact on the shores of the north-east Atlantic, it is known as a sea bean. They have been used as a magical charm for more than a thousand years.
Sally Huband’s search for a sea bean begins not long after she moves to the windswept archipelago of Shetland with her husband and young son. Struggling with the island’s remoteness and severe weather, together with unemployment and a chronic illness which challenges her own sense of identity – and gets worse with a second pregnancy – Sally is forced to slow down.
Feeling isolated by pain and parenthood, she gently explores the windswept beaches. Slowly she discovers not just a community of other beachcombers and the thrill of finding forgotten treasure and natural curiosities but a link to the rest of the world. For washed up on Shetland’s strandlines are lobster pot tags from Maine, cigarette lighters from Greenland and Iceland and goods from passing container ships. Pecking among these treasures are migrating birds on their journeys across the world.
Beachcombing opens Sally’s mind up to a world of ancient myths, the area’s fragile ecology and deep human history which takes her on a journey to the Orkney Islands, the Faroes, the Dutch island of Texel and, most importantly, back to herself.
Sea Bean is a love letter to island life, a lament to the dwindling numbers of birds, fish and insects in the environment and a reflection of the interconnection between the oceans, communities and ourselves. Part memoir, part nature journal, this book is a message in a bottle to the future.
Even if you’ve never read nature writing, then give this is go. It’s a delight from start to finish.
If you're choosing to read The Girl in the Maze in your book club, I'm more than happy to visit your book club in person in the UK, or join virtually if overseas. Contact me to discuss dates. Or check out my discussion questions about The Girl in the Maze here