It’s been some time since I shared a reading post on the blog, the result of a slowing-down of my motivation for putting finger to keyboard and sending words out into the blogosphere. In the background, I’ve been absorbing the words of other authors, and it’s rare for a day to pass without me picking up one of the well-thumbed books that sits in the towering pile aside my bed. My energy for words currently shifts between said pile and the words penned of my own book, the sequel to my novel Castles of Steel and Thunder. The energy for more seems to have evaded me, and after a highly creative year last year I sense I have drifted into a fallow season – a thought that would probably have concerned me more had I not read the first book on the agenda – Katherine May’s Wintering, a commendation of the power of rest and restoration in the winter-like seasons of our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed this read – a mixture of memoir and storytelling blended with historical and cultural perspectives on winter-time. The ‘winter’ element of the title refers less to seasonality than the challenging periods that now and again permeate our lives. May reminds us, in poetic voice, that these periods can also have a beauty mirrored in the colder elements of nature. Best read in a lamp-lit room, or next to a scented candle, Wintering is a testament to self-compassion and the power of quiet in difficult times.
Difficult times could well have been the tagline for my next read, Tamsin Calidas’s I Am An Island, the author’s account of moving from London to an unnamed Hebridean island that makes for often-uncomfortable reading. Calidas recounts (beautifully) the series of misfortunes that follow her escape to the ‘island idyll’, including the break-up of her marriage, failed IVF treatment, and not least, reports of mistreatment from locals that form a large element of the book. As much as I admired the author’s resilience and compassion – and had a huge amount of compassion for her – I also felt discomfort about this element of the story. The memoir has a strong ‘incomer’ theme, with locals portrayed as hostile, small-minded and threatening, leading to the impression of a unilaterally cruel community, with enlightened ideas only attributed to those who had gained them somewhere else. There are only fleeting glimpses of the kindness that – whatever else exists in small places – tends to permeate them, and I was left wondering about the author’s curiosity for the culture and community of the place she had chosen to inhabit. All that said, Calidas’s sense of connection with the island makes for a lyric portrayal of her experience, if not an endorsement of ‘escaping to the wilderness’ (for folk who live in such areas, generally a problematic narrative, but no doubt an attractive one for those in the publishing business). This review by Ryan Dziadowiec is an interesting one which touches on some of my own feelings about the book, as well as recognising the interplay with many of the wider issues facing the Highlands and Islands as a whole.
Curiosity abounds in True North, Gavin Francis’s recantation of his travels around the fringes of the Artic Circle. In a blend of travel writing, history and mythology, the author conveys his affinity for the landscapes he visits, while also observing the lives of the people he engages with on the way. His travels through places like Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard made me think a lot about the nature of ‘northness,’ framed by my more modest perspective of 58 degrees north here in Caithness. As with all the best travelogues, True North was as insightful of the people and communities who inhabit landscapes as the experience of visiting them. Beautiful, magical and engaging – a book that is, in fact, much like the north itself.
A strong sense of place also infused Delia Owen’s Where The Crawdads Sing, another of my bookish distractions over early summer. The book tells the story of Kya, a young woman dubbed the ‘Marsh Girl’ in her small community, thanks to the isolated life she lives on the edges of a North Carolina town. When two males enter into her life, she’s destined to become entwined in a murder-mystery/coming-of-age story that is both heartfelt and sensitive. I particularly enjoyed the evocation of Kya’s deep connection to the natural world around her, and of course the novel’s surprising – and satisfying – twist.
OTHER BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED LATELY……
Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell – O’ Farrell’s imagining of the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died in childhood, is masterful.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman – Osman’s tale of a group of pensioners trying to solve a local murder mystery is funny, engaging and downright sweet.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – Haig’s novel about a woman who gets the chance to try out other lives is absorbing and uplifting.
Salt on My Skin by Sarah Kennedy Norquoy – I loved Sarah’s account of her first year of wild swimming – a testament to the healing power of beloved activities in our lives.
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown – this observation of life in a small Orkney community rings with a sense of authenticity.
Bridgerton – The Duke & I by Julia Quinn – the Regency romance that inspired a Netflix sensation was a pure comfort read for me.
Lockdown by Peter May – May’s crime thriller set in a pandemic-hit London made for less comfortable reading, but remained thrilling.
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’ Farrell – an intricate portrayal of marriage across time – another appearance for O’Farrell in fine form.
How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price – a useful refresher on the perils of (over) phone use that’s encouraged me to take a partial step back from social media over the summer.
The Art of Sleeping by Rob Hobson – linked closely to the above, a useful guide on banishing insomnia from your life.
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman – a teenage boy-boy romance in graphic novel format that left my heart melting.
Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke – a powerful exploration of female ageing with a fresh, unapologetic outlook – fascinating, feminist and fierce.
A few of these appear in this summer library loan pile-up – I’ll tell you about the others next time.
See you again in the autumn for another eclectic mix of books!