Friday, 12 February 2021

A 2021 to-read list from AM

Too many books, so little time - we've all heard that before. Sometimes it's a good idea to prioritise. Here's a selection of books from my 'Want to Read' list for 2021.

Intimations by Zadie Smith: There are three types of pandemic readers: those who go all gung-ho science-y reading about genomes and epidemiology and frankly scare the rest of us with their daring; those who find themselves with reader's block and/or need short and easily digestible reads (fair enough); and those like me who don't stray too far from their usual reading material but are tempted to pick up some philosophical book in order to raise the ideas in conversation with friends and appear eminently more educated on the topic than they really are. Zadie Smith's Intimations ​is that philosophical book. Written from the UK in the first few months of lockdown, Smith's book promises to deliver the same piercing social/cultural criticism as her previous essay collections. This one is mostly pandemic-related. I've read a few essays from Feel Free as well most of her novels (of which I would recommend White Teeth the most), so I have high hopes for Intimations.

Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro: This is Ishiguro's latest offering, due to be released in March 2021. The blurb says it's about Klara, an Artificial Friend, who is sitting on the shelf waiting to be chosen. Sounds like perfect fodder for the kind of weird musings Ishiguro weaves through his novels: I read Never Let Me Go a few years ago and I think I've recovered enough from the bewilderment to try another one.

Severance by Ling Ma: One of those strangely prophetic books with plague as a central plot device (published in 2018, pre-COVID). According to our catalogue, it also contains "black humour" - one of my personal favourite ways to deal with the fact that I won't be reading it from beside the pool in some tropical beachy location. In all seriousness though, I've heard this is a good read and I've been meaning to read it for the last year.

 The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: Coming to the end of a medieval history paper, I'm feeling inspired to read more fictional accounts of the middle ages (which previously I shied away from). This translated historical novel has the added intrigue of murder mystery, and an apparently infinite number of symbolic levels discussing the Bible, middle ages and literary theory - what more could you ask for?

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Okay, I'll admit it: long books scare me. They require a level of commitment I'm never sure I can give. But I have never heard anyone say they didn't enjoy this book. Mantel follows the shady Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, throughout this trilogy (all up, about 1950 pages) which by all accounts is one of the most accomplished historical fiction series in existence, two of the books having been nominated for the Booker Prize (and Wolf Hall won it).

Tenth of December and Pastoralia by George Saunders: I won't pretend to be a huge short-story reader, but I read Saunders' short story 'The Falls' and it was so darkly funny that I've resolved to change my ways. I'm currently reading his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo​, which will likely be one of my favourite reads of 2021 and one I recommend to people a lot. Saunders masters the portrayal of the idiosyncrasies that make us human: there's also often a chuckle involved.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell: Yes, I'm one of the last remaining people on Earth not to have read Hamnet​. This book came out last year and was touted as a favourite for the Man Booker Prize longlist (which unfortunately it did not make). It's a fictional re-imagining of the short life of Shakespeare's son and apparently is quite dark in parts (not ideal for escapist readers).

Posted by AM

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Book Chat Summer Reading Highlights

Our first Book Chat for the year at Hastings Library brought out a great mix of must-read books that make you think as well as some exciting page-turners. 

Gallows Rock by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
The Gallows Rock of the title used to be a place of execution but is now a popular Reykjavik tourist attraction. When police find a murder victim here Detective Huldar is puzzled by what he finds at the man’s flat – a child whose parents are missing and some disturbing drawings. A well plotted, brilliantly written novel by this Icelandic author and fourth in the series featuring Detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe
This sharp and witty examination of British culture is the third in a series that follows the lives of several friends from school, beginning with The Rotters Club set in 1970s Birmingham. Several decades later we have Brexit on the table, England is changing and divisions are opening between generations and even within families. Recommended.

Birthday by Meredith Russo
A transgender novel from the YA collection, this Book Chat reader thought it was a book we should all read. Morgan and Eric were born on the same day and we visit them each day on their birthday from the age of thirteen. As they grow up they must each find their path in life. An unconventional love story that unfolds in a similar way to One Day by David Nicholls.

Red Comet: the short and blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark
This book resurrects Plath as a great poet and writer, rather than focusing on her mental illness and the tragedy of her short life. As the author says: “I hope to free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past 50 years and reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.” Weighing in at over 1000 pages, this scholarly book is full of factual detail not seen before in print; although it looks daunting it is well worth the effort.

Aué by Becky Manawatu
Another book we should probably all read. Becky Manawatu writes a story about a dysfunctional family where gang violence is the norm – a father who has died leaving a mother in hiding and a young vulnerable child. A brilliant, compassionate story with characters that will tear at your heart. This novel won the top prize at the 2020 Ockham Awards.

Moving by Jenny Éclair
After living in the same house for 50 years, Edwina decides to sell up, but walking through each room with the estate agent, her past comes flooding back to her. And so unfolds the story of a family, the secrets and lies, and the question of what has happened that has left Edwina so alone. A brilliant novel with a fascinating character at its heart.

The Poet by Michael Connelly
Crime reporter, Jack McEvoy investigates a string of apparent police suicides. But a pattern of coincidences suggests that a serial killer is at work. Coast-to-coast, Jack follows a trail of unusual suicide notes evoking the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe – creepier and creepier! Another terrific thriller from this best-selling author.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Eve was part of a network of spies that worked undercover in France during WWI, and is haunted by betrayal. Charlie is unmarried and pregnant when she’s sent to Europe by her family in 1947 to sort out "her problem". The two pair up unexpectedly on a mission to discover the truth from years ago and the novel describes the huge risks undertaken by women spies in France. It's a great read for historical fiction fans.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley
A wedding between two celebrities on a storm-battered island off the coast of Ireland, with a very select guest-list and no expense spared. Throw in some creepy folk stories, way too much alcohol and some seriously uptight characters and you have the makings for an edgy thriller. The author cleverly avoids not only revealing the killer before the ending, but the victim too which really keeps you guessing.

Posted by Hastings Library Book Chat

Thursday, 28 January 2021

The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

Elisabeth Gifford's new historical novel flips between 1920s St Kilda - a very remote group of Scottish Islands - and the war-torn France of 1940. Fred is a POW in appalling conditions, which has him dreaming about the girl he left behind a dozen years before. He's spent the intervening years working around the world as a geologist, but now it seems imperative for him to get back to Scotland to find Chrissie, the young woman he met on St Kilda where he spent a summer.

Chrissie belongs to one of the small number of families eking out a life on Hirta, the largest St Kilda island. While they have some crops and livestock, much of the inhabitants' livelihood comes from the seabirds that live on the cliffs. Island men daringly abseil from giddying heights - no safety harnesses here - to collect fulmar chicks for their oil and meat. Day trippers in the summer take the boat to visit "the last hunter-gatherers in Great Britain" and shop for island handcrafts.

Into this forgotten world Fred arrives to study rock formations with his friend, the dashingly handsome and trouble-making Archie Mcleod. Archie is the laird's son and fellow student who had caught the eye of Chrissie as a young girl. The story describes Fred's settling in and we discover the island through his eyes as well as the problem he has falling for someone from a completely different way of life.

Woven through this love-against-the-odds story is Fred's escape with a fellow soldier, their help from ordinary folk and the French Resistance, their nail-biting journey across the Pyrenees to Spain. It's an engrossing story with wonderful characters, tangled emotions set at a time of social and political upheaval. And while Fred's escape story had me on the edge of my seat, it was the descriptions of St Kilda that had me particularly captivated. Really and truly, this is a lost world.

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a terrific read. I had previously enjoyed other books by this author, particularly Secrets of the Sea House (set on the Isle of Skye), but I think this the best so far. She has a knack for creating memorable characters - ordinary people often in extraordinary situations. A great book for historical fiction fans.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Lost Lights of St Kilda

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Barbie Forever: Her Inspiration, History and Legacy by Robin Greer

I never had a Barbie doll growing up. Barbie was for GIRLS; I was a TOMBOY and I had TEDDY BEARS. I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s, surrounded by ‘Girls can do anything’ messaging – what did I want with a doll?!

But this book caught my eye – Barbie has been inspiring girls since 1959? She was 60? Not to mention the striking graphic on the cover. Now I’m a bit older, I was intrigued by what could have made her last so long.

And the history of how Barbie came to be is a great story of tenacity and self-belief. Ruth Handler first pitched Barbie to Mattel in the early 1950’s, and was rejected over and over by their marketers who believed that the toys that children wanted were burp guns and musical toys. (Side note – Ruth Handler was co-founder and executive vice president of Mattel, but still had to pitch her idea!). Girls had baby dolls – that’s all that was required. In the 1950’s, the idea of a doll with a woman’s figure was, well, a little crazy. Who would buy that?!

But Ruth believed in her idea of a doll that children could play grown up dress-ups with, and kept pitching, and in 1956, finally was given the go-ahead.

And from here, the book becomes an A+ marketer’s guide; how to develop an idea to fruition (it took nearly 3 years from go-ahead to launch), understanding that people would pay for quality, and not undermining this. Right from the start Barbie had her own fashion designer. The quality of the clothing was immaculate, yet robust enough for children to play with. Ruth also recognised the added value of accessories; the Dream house, the car; the boyfriend.

And as a role model for girls, who could be better than Barbie? Starting out as a teenage fashion model, she evolved over time to become the model for ‘girls can do anything’ – she was an astronaut in the 1960’s, well before the first female NASA astronaut; in the 1970’s she was a surgeon and also won an Olympic medal; In the 1980s’s, a vet and a rock star. In the 1990’s she was an Air Force fighter pilot and a palaeontologist (I’m a bit jealous of that one!); in 1992, 2004 and 2012, a Presidential candidate (blazing a trail for Hilary Clinton?). And Barbie keeps evolving, as a model for diversity and differing body shapes.

It’s a fascinating read, with beautiful images, that can be enjoyed by children or nostalgic adults… and should be essential reading for anyone looking to develop a marketing career!

Reviewed by LAC

Catalogue link: Barbie Forever

Thursday, 21 January 2021

What's New in Books for 2021

One exciting thing about a new year is discovering which of our favourite authors have something new in the pipeline to enthrall us with. Here are just a few of the titles on my radar as we launch into another fantastic year of reading.

New Books from Popular Authors

The Last Guests by J P Pomare: This Melbourne based Kiwi and Ngaio Marsh Award winner has a new thriller which may have you rethinking your eagerness to own a holiday rental. When the decision to rent out her family vacation home takes a deadly turn, Lina finds herself racing for answers. Set on gorgeous Lake Tarawera.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah: Elsa Martinelli is a farmer in Texas during the Great Depression. When crops fail due to a terrible drought and dust threatens to destroy their livelihoods for good, many are selling up and moving west to California. A stunning portrait of the American Dream, courage and sacrifice as told through the eyes of one determined woman.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara is an Artificial Friend watching and waiting for the customer who will choose her. A look at a changing, technology driven world through the eyes of an unforgettable heroine. A new book by the author of The Remains of the Day is always something to cheer about.

Series Favourites

Fallen by Linda Castillo: Painters Mill Chief of Police Kate Burkholder is back with the case of a young woman found murdered in a local motel - someone Kate once knew as a girl back when she was part of the Amish community. Long-buried secrets turn up as the killer strikes again. This book isn't released until June, but in the meantime Linda Castillo's publishers are releasing a collection of shorter Burkholder stories called A Simple Murder.

The Night Hawk by Elly Griffiths: Back at her old Norfolk university, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is caught up in a new murder inquiry when Bronze Age artefacts are discovered with a dead body by amateur archaeologists. More bodies, a ghostly dog that's the Harbinger of Death and we have a trademark Elly Griffiths page turner. 

The Night Gate by Peter May: Forensic scientist Enzo Macleod is back with another cold case - the murder of a famous art critic as well as a disinterred body killed 70 years before. At the heart of both deaths is da Vinci's Mona Lisa, while in the background we have Paris suddenly going into Covid lockdown. Plenty to keep Enzo busy and the reader guessing.

Causing Ripples

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins: This story takes place in Thornfield Estates - a plush, gated community in modern-day Alabama. Jane is an impoverished dog-walker who catches the eye of widower Eddie Rochester - the only problem is his late wife just won't stay buried. Sound familiar? A modern retelling of the classic Jane Eyre.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman: Four friends at a retirement village meet once a week to discuss unsolved murders. When an actual murder takes place on their doorstep, The Thursday Murder Club swing into action with a real crime to investigate. Maybe their combined talents are just what it takes to solve it. 

End of Summer by Anders de la Motte: This mystery concerns the 1983 disappearance of a small boy. Decades later we catch up with the boy's sister now a grief counsellor. When a young man joins her group and talks about the sadness he experienced after the boy's vanishing, questions arise about what happened and whether he might still be alive. A terrific new author for fans of Scandi Noir.

Posted by JAM

Monday, 18 January 2021

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

“She just wanted – had always wanted – a good book to read.”

I’m sure we can all relate to that! Put a book about a mysterious secret library in front of me and you can bet I am going to pick that book up and read it. Such a premise is irresistible to many readers I’m sure. If you love a bit of fantasy and adventure this series is for you. There are alternate worlds, dragons, fae, and a special language which librarians can use to manipulate things!

Irene is a junior librarian. Her job mainly consists of missions to alternate worlds to retrieve books, which are then stored in the Library to create links which help to keep the worlds in balance. The missions are often dangerous and there can be competition for the books they are attempting to acquire. The book dives in to a mission where Irene is in a world under cover as a boarding school cleaner. She acquires her target book and escapes the world back to the Library (after being chased by hellhounds). Irene is hoping to have some time for her own projects, but her seniors have other plans.

Irene is posted in an alternate London with a new apprentice, Kai - who’s kind of hot, btw, but Irene is much too professional to concern herself with that. She is his mentor after all! This London has Victorian kind of vibes, with added zeppelins and magic. They meet many challenges including fae interference, a giant mechanical centipede, and werewolves. They also meet Vale, London’s best detective. I’m very fond of Vale as a character, he’s a bit Sherlock-ish.

The Invisible Library caught my interest enough that I went on to read book two, The Masked City, then book three, The Burning Page, which I particularly liked, then book four, The Lost Plot. I’m truly hooked on the series. It is fast paced, fantasy, mystery, and filled with a love of books. It is also feeding a bit of wanderlust with our current inability to travel. I’m really enjoying the far flung places in various alternate worlds that Irene and Kai travel to. They could be off to a high chaos Venice, or a 1920s-esque New York with prohibition in full swing, and I think there is a good level of world building. It’s just enough to set the scene and create a good feeling for the different places without labouring over every little detail and slowing the story down. I’m looking forward to seeing where they head off to in book 5, The Mortal Word. There are seven books in this series so lots of magic and mystery to sink yourself into.

Posted by Lara

Catalogue link: The Invisible Library

Monday, 11 January 2021

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths won an Edgar Award for The Stranger Diaries which introduced us to DS Harbinder Kaur. Now Harbinder’s back with a new murder to solve – that of ninety-year-old Peggy Smith who lived in sheltered care. Because of her age, the doctor writes the death off as natural causes, but Natalka, the visiting caregiver, smells a rat. Peggy was still spritely and busy, and then there’s her business card: Mrs M Smith, Murder Consultant.

Peggy isn’t much missed by her money-grubbing son Nigel who has her cremated quickly and her flat boxed up, ready to sell. She is missed by her neighbour, eighty-year-old Edwin and Benedict, the former monk who runs the Coffee Shack on the waterfront below Peggy’s flat. The three of them used to meet over coffee to talk murder mysteries and solve cryptic crosswords. We soon learn that Peggy helped several well-known crime novelists with their murder plots, particularly Dex Challinor, who lives in a fancy part of town and is a best-selling author.

The story takes us into the world of publishing, book marketing and literary festivals as Natalka, Edwin and Benedict team up to solve Peggy’s murder. They are an unlikely set of allies: Natalka is from Ukraine and talks like a spy – she thinks she’s being followed too. Elderly, gay Edwin is refined and charming while Benedict swirls a heart pattern on Natalka’s cappuccinos, which she never seems to notice.

DS Kaur promises to look into the case, and a new murder that might be linked has the police on the job, but it’s getting hard to rein in Team Natalka. The three sleuths head to a literary festival in Aberdeen to talk to some of the authors who might have used Peggy’s services. As tension mounts, and the team assemble more facts and get to know each other, the story builds to a several showdowns and nail-biting moments.

There’s a ton of humour too – I found myself laughing out loud not only at the interactions of Natalka, Edwin and Benedict but also with Harbinder’s wry mutterings and ongoing stress over her parents and how to tell them she’s gay. You can tell that Griffiths – herself a best-selling author – has had a lot of fun sending up the hype around publishing and the ever ingenious gimmicks marketing departments come up with to sell books. This series is shaping up to be as welcome as Griffith’s hugely popular Nelson and Galloway series.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Postscript Murders