The Goldfinch

Cambridgeshire is a wonderful place to live for many reasons one of which is that we frequently get the opportunity to meet some very talented authors and hear their work in their own words. Nearby in Ely there are the great events arranged by Toppings Book Shop and in Cambridge we have ‘Wordfest’ literary festival. Headlining Cambridge's Winter Wordfest 2013 was the enigmatic Donna Tartt author of one of the most anticipated books of the year, ‘The Goldfinch’. An extraordinary coup as this was her first tour in ten years and one of only two appearances in England. Ordinarily I don’t enjoy stories that begin in the middle, leaving the reader with a cliff-hanger that I rarely find satisfying in its conclusion. The books opens with the narrator, Theo Decker, holed up in a hotel, looking at newspapers written in Dutch, which he can't understand; trying to find his name in articles pertaining to a crime. Before any of this is explained, the story moves back 14 years to the day Theo's mother dies and Theo’s life is ripped-apart. 700 pages, many cups of coffee and little sleep later I’m left disappointed, not in the conclusion but at the realisation that this incredible work is complete. Tartt the author and the person are mesmerising, it was a privilege to hear her read her own words and to give a glimpse into her creative process. I highly recommend this book for an after lunch read, though be warned you won’t be able to put it down!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I am new to Neil Gaiman's writing so this was my first experience of his work. In Oceans he writes that “childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet,” “but they are never lost for good.” How appropriate that the first time I meet the author is in Ely Cathedral, the place where I spent my childhood. Being a border at the attached school this site holds mixed memories for me but on this day the memory is a magnificent one. Queues of Gaiman-ites snaked around the entire Cathedral, all amiably chatting, reading and tweeting. All waiting for Neil. It was a little daunting, like being swept up in a Tsunami of admiration. Neil promised to sign until his hand dropped off and he did. 1000+ fans laughed and cheered and got their moment to connect with their hero. Ocean begins when a man, the narrator, returns to his childhood home, where he once knew a girl named Lettie Hempstock. When he once wandered through her farm, trailing after her to the duck pond she called an ocean. Slowly he remembers “everything.” A weirdly wonderful tale much like the author himself. Be the adult that goes on an adventure instead of wandering a straight path, go read this book!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is an epic novel about the New Zealand gold rush, and winner of the Man Booker prize in Oct 2013. One of the delights of living in Cambridge is getting the chance to meet and hear from some of the greats in their field. Once again Cambridge Literary Festival managed to entice the most sought after author of the moment to our City, bringing the rather shy, and unexpectedly funny, Eleanor Catton to read from her new book and do a Q & A at the University of Cambridge’s Winstanley Lecture Hall. I found the book to be a bit intimidating when I first picked it up, its’ thickness indicative of the very long length, something that surprised Catton herself when she received the first printed copy, saying that she worked in electronic form and didn’t think about how many pages it was. When asked how she felt about the repeated references to the length (832 pages) she commented that it was ‘as long as it needed to be’ and that the critics of the books length would be taken more seriously by her if the comments were accompanied by ‘suggestions of what to cut’. Indeed every sentence of this fascinating tale is beautifully written and precisely researched, the consummate literary page-turner that left me wishing it was longer!

Lila – by Marilynne Robinson

This year, Pulitzer prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson takes us back to the fictional Midwestern town of Gilead. In her latest novel Robinson tells the story of Lila (2014), the young wife of preacher John Ames who we first met in Gilead (2004) and again in Home (2008). (Whilst reading the first two novels isn’t necessary, as these books co-exist rather than run in sequence, I think it does enrich the experience. If you want a refresher, a great summary can be found on 'We can read it for you wholesale'.) Lila is the ‘outsider’, a woman that was neglected as a child and who went on to lead a hard life. As we work our way through the novel Robinson takes us on a winding path, slowly revealing Lila’s story sometimes looking through Lila’s eyes, other times as a bystander. Slowly Lila allows herself to be loved and to love in return. Robinson’s Lila will leave you breathless in awe. It was such a privilege to be able to listen to Robinson read her words at Cambridge Literary Festival and to spend a moment in her company, softly spoken words that hold such strength.


Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I find myself drawn to Matt’s writing; it is often witty, tender and at times laugh out loud funny. In his latest book Matt chronicles his struggle with depression, aged 24. This memoir is an extraordinary little book; it is heart-breaking, thought provoking and up lifting. Matt retains his witty style but does not pull any punches either, completely baring his soul and letting the reader glimpse into the mind of a man at his lowest ebb. As a counsellor I work with people that are struggling with mental health issues and I am often frustrated by society’s lack of empathy. Talking helps! Words connect us and help us heal. Matt has shown incredible bravery by writing and sharing this memoir. Although every individual is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, having a gifted writer such as Matt share his experiences will undoubtedly save lives, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I for one am so grateful he didn’t take that 21st step. A must read for everyone, not just those suffering with depression.


The Signature of All Things

A wonderful after Sunday Lunch read. The adventure of Mark Twain, romance of Jane Austen and study of Charles Darwin all woven into an epic story in the unique voice of Liz Gilbert. Link to a well crafted review in the independent, written by Edel Coffey here: Link.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – by Eimear McBride

Eimear was born in Liverpool, aged 2 she & her family returned to Ireland where she stayed until she went to London to study acting at 17. She found that ultimately acting wasn’t for her, spending much of her twenties temping & travelling, reading voraciously to alleviate her boredom. On one train journey spent with James Joyce she was inspired to write in a very different style, from this moment her first book A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was born, though it took another 9 years before it would be published. Perseverance paid off & in 2014 the book won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Speaking about the unusual format Eimear says that she wanted to “take the author out of the book” & hoped that the reader would be carried with the stream of consciousness. More like knocked over by the tsunami! Ranting Catholic mother, dying brother & perverted uncle plus lots of other dark themes. Wave after wave of emotions assault the reader, taking us on an incredible journey. It isn’t an easy book but it is worth the effort.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

The only predictable thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it isn’t predictable. With ‘How to be both’ Smith has once again reinvented the novel, publishing two books in one volume that you can choose to read in whichever order you like, independent, yet one feeds the other. Themes of duality dominate the book, past/present, male/female… with a story that parallels narratives of a teenage girl & that of a 15th-century Renaissance artist. It is a powerful, unrelenting, unforgettable book, a bit like being hit with a literary two-by-four. Meeting the author had very much the same effect, dynamic, energetic & clearly passionate about her craft; Ali Smith is an incredible speaker & teacher. I am unsurprised that this book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, if you get the opportunity to hear Ali speak in person, take it.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, published (28 Jan 2016) by The Borough Press.

My Twitter timeline has been awash with praise for Joanna Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, so I had high expectations when I started reading, fortunately the book doesn't disappoint. It is funny, wonderfully entertaining & engaging, whilst also insightful, & at times, profound. There are no actual goats or sheep, (apparently Joanna found inspiration for the title watching her dog Seth playing with his toy), instead we have two charming 10 year olds, named Grace & Tilly, who decide to investigate their neighbour's mysterious disappearance. The story is set on an ordinary suburban street in England during the Summer of 1976. As the girls uncover what happened to Mrs Creasy the reader is treated not just to a well written whodunit but an astute observation of the inner turmoil of everyday life. Joanna's evocative descriptions drew me into Grace & Tilly's world, I became invested in the outcome & started to feel part of their community. The guileless observations of these perceptive children made me examine the almost casual prejudices of not only their 1970s world but that of today. A joyous read on many levels, I highly recommend it.

Credit: Photo of Seth pinched from Jo's Twitter feed

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Reading The Bone Clocks is a bit like taking a ride on a rollercoaster; one of those new fling you sideways, hang you upside-down, yank you up, then drop you vertically down, kind of rides. Radical shifts in time & person, stitched together with stream-of-conscious narration plus a hugely complex, genre defying, story line makes for difficult reading. Was it worth it? Well it was long listed for the Booker prize this year so the professionals think so. As for me, I would say yes too but not for the reasons I expected. It is entertaining but under the pyrotechnics there is a struggle with mortality that I found absorbing, Mitchell jokingly says “I've taken to calling this my midlife-crisis novel”. Having recently watched Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, with its unvarnished depiction of the indignities of old age, mortality crept to the forefront of my thoughts, this book makes me think on it again. It is an incredibly constructed tale with perhaps the prettiest book cover of the year. I’m proud to have it on the shelves of our lunchroom library. Go on, take the journey too.


The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

Don’t read this book on your commute to work because nobody looks good crying, snorting & laughing at the same time. That said, do read this beautiful companion novel to ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ which tells the story of the woman who Harold walked the length of England to try & save. Rachel said that after meeting & talking with fans whilst on tour, she decided that Queenie’s story should be about more than her illness & despite the fact that she was ‘happily writing another book’, Queenie (figuratively) turned up in her kitchen one day & wouldn’t go away. This book is set in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Queenie has just learnt that Harold is on his way to see her & writes a letter to him while she waits, in it we learn more about Queenie’s early life & how it intersects with Harold’s. I was hesitant to read a novel set in a hospice, Rachel commented that it was a fear she shared until she started researching the book, finding the nurses & residents that she crossed paths with to be extraordinary, brave & often very funny people (brilliant article by Rachel: ‘How my father's last days taught me hiding from death means hiding from life’). This is a book worth the half a box of Kleenex I went through, wonderfully written, thought provoking & sweet, I would definitely add it to your ‘must read’ pile.

Us by David Nicholls

The wait is over; as best-selling author of ‘One DayDavid Nicholls launches his new novel ‘Us’ this month (Hodder & Stoughton 30 Sep 2014). Speaking at the Ely Literary Festival Nicholls said that ‘One Day’ cast a “long shadow” and that he didn’t want to bring out a new novel unless he was completely happy with it – not that he’s been idly twiddling his thumbs, having adapted/written several screen plays including TV movie The 7.39 for the BBC & Far from the Madding Crowd starring Juno Temple out 2015. Now 47, married and a father, Nicholls said he wanted to tell the story of “fathers and sons” and reflects on the concerns of middle age & parenthood in ‘Us’. The book follows narrator, Douglas Petersen, as he tries to repair his marriage & reconnect with his teenage son on one last “Grand Tour” of Europe. What could go wrong right? Nicholls subjects the hapless Douglas to a series of indignities in this beautifully written & enjoyable romp. Nicholls says that he so precisely researched the itinerary because he wanted the reader to be able to take the same trip, down to the train times, “though hopefully having a bit more fun than Douglas.” 'Us' was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014.