Article published on April 14, 2017.
You might think, given we’re such a bookish crew, that being asked to supply 250 words once a quarter for What We Are Reading wouldn’t be too much of an imposition but of all the elements I pull together each issue this is the foot-dragger. A year ago we had the bright idea of giving the editorial team an issue off and asked our Community Voices to step up to the plate. And it was a delight! And yet again they have risen to the challenge.
Sheila A Grant
In AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD by Tracy Chevalier (Borough Press) the struggle of the pioneers who chased the ‘American Dream’ is at the heart of this fascinating and enjoyable read. James and Sadie Goodenough are forced to head west to set up home for their growing family, James is a quiet industrious husband and father obsessed with growing apples. Sadie is too fond of the alcoholic beverage made from the fruit. A couple constantly at war with a dysfunctional family due to the selfishness and sheer nastiness of Sadie.
Eventually finding land in the Black Swamp, a desolate and aptly named area, James toils to rid the desolate land of the existing trees before toiling to create his dream of an orchard using shoots brought from home.
The only person apart from herself that Sadie cares for is her eldest son Robert who after witnessing a horrific incident between his parents leaves home, travelling across the Midwest to California where the Gold rush is losing its impetus. He constantly wonders how things are at home, touchingly documented in the many letters he writes to his sister Molly, without ever receiving a reply.
A family saga with emotion, excitement and sentiment where despite a destructive and loveless family blood does flow thicker than water.
A most absorbing and thought provoking tale from a versatile writer.
Sheila A. Grant
The start of the year has been rather hit and miss for me when it comes to what I’ve been reading. I’ve been left disappointed by a number of books I had high hopes for (not naming any names), but have found four absolute stars in Catherine Bennetto’s How Not to Fall in Love Actually, JP Delaney’s The Girl Before, Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said and Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim, all of which I’d recommend with the highest regard.
I’ve just finished reading Nicola Moriarty’s The Fifth Letter and this was one of those in between books for me, a great premise and a novel narration let down by a lack of depth. So it seems as if the highs and lows are going to keep coming, but I have big hopes for a few titles that I’ve got lined up (although that’s probably the kiss of death): I was a huge fan of Amanda Prowse’s last novel, The Food of Love, a story about a family’s struggle with anorexia, and her next novel, The Idea of You, looks just as poignant. Then there’s Elen Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays and Adelia Saunders’ Indelible, both of which have wonderfully inventive concepts. Whilst from the world of YA, I’m looking forward to Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, and Perfect, the second instalment in Cecelia Ahern’s wonderful YA series. So hopefully a few more hits than misses by the time I get to summer.
Clearly, the only thing better than a cosy crime book in which a cat serves as the principal detective is a cosy crime book where the feline investigator is aided by the ghost of a fourteenth-century Scotsman; hence, I have been rereading A Wee Dose of Death by Fran Stewart. It features Peggy Winn, the proprietor of the ScotShop in Hamelin, Vermont, who stumbles upon murders more regularly than she folds tartan knitwear. I’m relatively new to the cosy crime genre, but I can’t seem to get enough of it. Saying that, this week I’ve moved on to Golden Age crime in the shape of Family Matters by Anthony Rolls. It’s another excellent rediscovery by Martin Edwards/the British Library, although it seems to be proceeding in a rather unusual fashion. No one has actually been murdered thus far, but nearly everyone seems to be a wannabe poisoner and an extremely likely murder victim. Since life can’t be all crime all the time, I’m also reading the graphic novel adaptation of Swann’s Way. It’s adapted and illustrated by Stéphane Heuet (and then translated by Arthur Goldhammer), and it’s proving to be a beautiful, evocative read. In fact, I could just fancy a madeleine right about now…
A Wee Dose of Death by Fran Stewart (Berkley Prime Crime, 9780425270325, pbk, Jan 2016)
Family Matters by Anthony Rolls (British Library Crime Classics, 9780712356695, pbk, Mar 2017)
In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (Graphic Novel) by Marcel Proust, Stéphane Heuet & Arthur Goldhammer (Gallic Books, 9781908313904, hbk, Feb 2016)
I have been plunged into rural nineteenth century Ireland and it has been a pretty muddy and occasionally quite grim experience. This has been because of two books The Wonder by Emma Donoghue where an eleven year old girl’s claim that she no longer needs to eat to live is seen by some villagers as proof of the miraculous and by others as a way of bringing in trade. Religious belief and superstition threatens rational thought in a totally engrossing way. The Good People by Hannah Kent brings in another factor, the importance of folklore to the community. This is reinforced when a toddler’s lack of development causes the locals to think he is a changeling – swapped by the fairies. It catalogues the community’s attempts “to put the fairy out of it”. Rational thought once again goes out of the window in a chilling read, based upon a true case. These two authors, one Irish-Canadian and one Australian, have really got the feel of this tough existence. Both novels are dripping with atmosphere.
Smoke, peat, mud and ritual are all conveyed so well together with the need to believe that something else, be it superstition, religion or magic dominates their everyday actions. Both would lend themselves to some highly spirited reading group discussions.
So what am I currently reading? What are my tastes? How do I arrive at my choices? I have to confess to being a trifle obsessive about subject matter usually. For example, I reviewed a book recently about a young Russian girl trapped in the siege of Leningrad. I have then gone on to request books from the library i.e. The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury, published 1969, or Leningrad by Anna Reid, published 2011. I find that by cross-referencing these books I can build a fuller picture to satisfy my own curiosity.
At the same time as reading these two rather thick books, I also have a quick read of A Twist of Lennon by Cynthia Lennon, published 1978, plus, the currently regular, fascinating review book The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, published 2017. I am about halfway through that particular tome, and it is astonishingly thorough in detail.
I favour biographies chiefly, or autobiographies. Historical biographies, in particular, are much like food to me – any period any subject. The Alison Weir books about Kings and Queens take up a considerable area of shelf space at home, plus the amusing books by the historian Mary Beard.
I love them all of course, but note that novels feature well below par for an avid reader like myself. I find many of them wanting in some way or other, but that is not to say that I do not enjoy a good one sometimes, just not very often. We are all different, and that is what makes the world tick in my humble estimation.
Another month, another longlist…
This time I am working my way through the non-fiction selection for the Wellcome Prize. I have just finished I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, which was excellent by the way, and I am now onto A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford. This is another well written, popular science book. Rutherford, with a combination of history, contemporary issues and science, takes us up and down our collective family trees via the spirals of our DNA.
I have learnt how our unique genetic makeup fits into the landscape of our ancestors, how our eye colours are defined, who will have red hair and who won’t, how they can still see traces of the Neanderthal in our DNA and even our earwax can tell scientists things about our genes!
Science books a decade ago were not so far removed from scientific papers that appeared in dusty journals. This book and all the others in the longlist, have been written with clarity and eloquence, and that has the advantage of making science writing more accessible to a wider audience.
Over recent months, I’ve been reading the magnificent work of Matt Taibbi, journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and author of Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus.
Journalism as partisan entertainment is probably one of the things that got us into this mess, but Taibbi’s turn of phrase is too lacerating, too acute, and too damned funny to miss. The only up side of watching the rise of Trump last year was Taibbi’s periodic gems dropping onto the pages of Rolling Stone.
Channelling Hunter Thompson’s maulings of Richard Nixon, Taibbi followed then-candidate Trump on the 2016 campaign trail as part of an increasingly despised press pack. Taibbi railed against all that is revolting and profane about the now leader of the free world; after the ‘grabbing’ tape Taibbi bemoaned the rise of a ‘bellicose pervert with too much time on his hands,’ and derided his seemingly doomed campaign as ‘adventure tourism for the idiot rich.’ In office, Trump enacted a travel ban whose ham-fisted implementation was ‘Keystone Kops meets Pinochet.’
Taibbi’s new book was published in January this year by WH Allen. President Trump is yet to Tweet about it.