On Sunday night I went to a carol concert in my village. As I came out of the church from the back, the village was in darkness. A plume of grey chimney smoke from a small ivy-covered cottage was spreading into the fading stains of sunset and the stars hung in the sky like tiny chips of ice. My initial thought was “I wish I had my camera” but I know if I’d had it I would have taken a rubbish photo anyway, so I just had to settle for looking at it. I started wondering when I’d last done that: just ‘stood and stared’ as Ella Wheeler Wilcox exhorted us to. Nowadays we reach for our cameras or phones to record everything and nothing, to splash it across the internet or store and forget it forever on a memory card. Memories don’t last as long in our heads when they’re committed to pixels. You can’t capture the mouth-watering steam of the Christmas dinner, the bright smack of the Greek sun, or the cold anticipation of the winter dusk, anywhere apart from in your mind. One of my most precious memories is standing in my garden with my dog at night, awestruck by how the moon had tipped upside down and spilled silver everywhere. Each blade of grass looked like it had been dipped in mercury. If I hadn’t written in my diary about that brief moment of a lifetime I probably would have been convinced I’d dreamt it, but the memory is as fresh and bright as it was twenty years ago. I think if I’d tried to photograph it, it would have faded, and I’d have wound up with yet another disappointing picture and a vague memory of something nice that once happened.
November is always a month of memories for me: four anniversaries of friends dearly loved and sorely missed. I decided to inject some positivity into it and organised a reunion of people I had joined in Sri Lanka ten years ago to trek in aid of Born Free. It was like we had never been apart. I took photos from that. Not a lot, but some. Here is one of them, because a whole page of text can be pretty dreary unless it’s well written.
These are the latest additions to my mental library. Some titles will be archived, a few given to charity and one or two put out on the ‘recommended’ shelf for a long time to come. Check out anything you like – there’s no due by date. (But please don’t turn down the corners of the pages!)
Losing It by Lesley Glaister
Glaister is one of my unsung heroines. I love her simple, dark stories of suburbia and normal life which is anything but. This is the story of a marriage which seems quite happy until a new neighbour moves in and cracks start to show.
The Little Black Book by A. S. Byatt
A collection of odd, disturbing little stories – two of the things I like most in a book.
Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon by Linda Newberry
This story of a woman whose sister disappeared 20 years ago started off promisingly, but it dragged and after a bit I started getting very annoyed with it. The ending was a real let-down and reminded me of another book about a missing girl I’d read which had exactly the same effect on me. It’s such a shame that a promising premise fades away into something pedestrian. I felt frustrated when I put down the book, as if I had been cheated out of the good story it could have been.
Wolf Winter by Celia Erkind
This is my ‘pick of the post’. Reading this book is like drinking a glass of ice-cold water. The story and writing are astonishingly beautiful and chilling. The story, set in 17th century Sweden, is that of a splintered community who are forced to come together when one of their member dies in suspicious circumstances. It’s also about the supernatural clashing with everyday life, and the struggle of one woman to keep her family together and alive in cruel weather.
Not only do I want to read this book again, I also want to search out everything else by the author. Great stuff. You’ll have to put your heating up a notch whenever you open it though!
The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland
I really enjoy Maitland’s books and The Raven’s Head is another rollicking historical read. It doesn’t have the power of its predecessors A Company of Liars or the more recent Vanishing Witch but I recommend it nonetheless. A blackmail attempt leads a young man into unprecedented danger and an apothecary’s niece is flung into the mysterious, terrifying world of alchemy. Nearby, little boys live in fear of the friars supposed to protect them. The story doesn’t always hang well together, but it’s an enjoyable read and the author’s masterful historical research gives it a real edge. Maitland isn’t scared to kill off characters you assume will live happily ever after, or to throw in twists which alter the entire plot. I look forward to the next in her catalogue.
The Gift of Darkness by V M Giambanco
This could be the start of a good new crime/thriller series. A young female detective joins the hunt for a particularly sadistic killer and danger spreads like a virus. I like Alice’s character and I like the author who has a subtle touch despite her killer’s gore.
The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory
The Tudor series continues through the eyes of Margaret Pole, Henry VIII’s aunt. Philippa Gregory may take some liberties with her history, but you can’t deny she’s a great story-teller and this is such a fascinating period in our past that you just want to gobble up every detail you can get your hands on.
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
I have enjoyed Slaughter’s previous books, but I’m not totally convinced by her new characters, Kate and Maggie, female detectives in 1970s Atlanta. I admire their grit and strength of character, but this detective story was a bit stretched and I found I didn’t care who’d killed why.
Home Corner by Ruth Thomas
Luisa has failed her exams and is working as a TA in a primary school, wondering where her life. As things go downhill and Luisa loses every scrap of self-belief her grip on reality also begins to unravel. Thomas writes simply yet devastatingly and reminds me of Lesley Glaister which explains why I like her!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
This story of a POW on the Burma Death railway is hard enough to read in itself without the added trauma of a doomed love affair. It deservedly won the Man Booker Prize.
Daddy’s Rules by Rachel Sontag
This isn’t your average “true misery” story. Rachel Sontag’s father is a vicious, cruel control-freak and her mother hopelessly passive in response. Rachel’s struggle to disentangle herself from this nightmare family had me urging her on from page to page.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Plunged into poverty by the death of her feckless father, Frances and her mother are forced to take in lodgers. None of them could have foreseen the effect Leonard and Lilian Barber have on their prim, carefully-kept household. You know what you’re getting with Sarah Waters: another emotionally taut, historically detailed, passionate and fiercely original story.
The Devil’s Children by Loretta Loach
A fascinating and deeply disturbing look at child murder through the centuries, asking how far we have come in dealing with these particularly distressing crimes and looking at the idea of childhood, innocence and moral purity as a whole.
Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington
I really enjoyed this honest, forthright and fascinating memoir. Jean Trumpington has worked as a land girl, a code-cracker at Bletchley Park, in advertising, and then embarked on a political career. She’s interesting and witty.
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
A family tragedy forces an Irish priest to confront at the abuse committed by his friends and colleagues in the Church. Like The Narrow Road… I found this very difficult to read but it is a masterful study of what it is to be human and fallible.
The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart
Captured by the Japanese in WW2, Urquhart survived the Bridge over the Kwai and then was put on a prison ship which was promptly torpedoed. He then worked in a mine near Nagasaki, ten miles from where the bomb was then dropped. The guy has more lives than a cat and writes in a very matter-of-fact manner which makes his story ever the more incredible.
I hope some of these books give you vivid pictures which stay in your mind’s eye long after it’s closed.