All The Books I Read in 2017 – Part 2 (April – June)

Part 2 and I seem to have found yet another historical detective to start with…

April
Hue and Cry Shirley McKay
Huw Cullen hangs out in late Medieval St Andrews and solves crimes. I found this book (and the rest of the series, oh what joy, I love a series!) in the AROS centre near Portree on Skye. I had just finished the latest Thomas Hawkins novel and was on the lookout for something else, something Scottish. So perhaps it was serendipity, and not just the need for lunch, that led me to him. It’s a tale of mercantile and academic scheming, there are quite a few murders and there is a lot of sexual repression, what with the kirk being so powerful. Huw has returned from France where he’s been studying law and avoiding his Dad, he ends up taking up a place as a tutor at the University, where his friend Dr Locke the anatomist is an unpopular addition to the academic body (sorry). He has a slightly witchy sister (we would call her a herbalist and everything would be fine now, but it wasn’t then) to add to the mix. This is clearly a very well historically researched book, the only kind of historical novel in any genre worth reading has to have had an author prepared to put in the library hours. I was transported completely to stinky medieval St Andrews; the dyers cottage, the market, the university – as filled with intrigue as any modern one  – and the taverns. All are written so well you are THERE. The detective story itself is so well done, kept me guessing to the end.

The Power Naomi Alderman 
I have never read any other novel quite as ‘Atwoodian’ as this (Alderman acknowledges the amazing Margaret in the notes at the back, they know each other well). Yes, I’m sure Atwoodian is now a recognised genre. This is an absolutely excellent exploration of what may happen if women have the power, through having The Power. The Power is the ability to release electricity from your hand and in doing so become the dominant person in any encounter. Along with the novel there are excerpts of ‘academic papers’ and the story is bookended by letters from a writer to their agent. Right from the off we see the inversion in this relationship, the writer is male, slightly timid, a little obsequious; the agent is female, jokey, slightly patronising of the writer’s work. You’ll see what I mean.  This is a world turned upside down. So many themes are raised in it – the gendering of power, how that power is used (for good or ill), what happens if power is taken away, lost,  stolen or used for wicked ends,  how the media contributes to this. This is a novel packed with thought provoking stuff. An ‘alternative reality’ story enormously relevent to our current society. It’s a compelling read.

 

Meadowland John Lewis-Stempel
I read Lewis-Stempel’s ;The Running Hare’ last year during my summer Wainwright Prize binge. The previous year (2015) he’d won the prize with ‘Meadowland : The Private life of an English Field”. The two books follow the same format, a simple one in which the author narrates the events in the meadow over the course of a year, but this is no dry list of events. We join Lewis-Stemple watching badgers and foxes in the corner of the field from his hiding place in a triangular stand of trees left wild, out for a moonlit walk in winter we witness a moon-bow, see barn owls on the wing, and feel the freezing cold of a winter storm, the heat of the summer harvest brought in by hand with a scythe. I learned about a lot of new grass species, along with the flowers and animals. He has the gift of the nature writer who can bring you into the book, so you feel you’re sitting next to him in the field, seeing what he sees.  Lewis-Stempel clearly loves the land and animals his family have farmed for generations – the account of the death of his favourite cow is pretty heart breaking – and laments the losses to flora and fauna modern agri-business have brought (this is expanded upon in the subsequent book, but I don’t think it matters what order they’re read in). The text is interspersed with poetry by Blake and Clare amongst others, and each monthly chapter begins with a line drawing of a wild creature. Even apart from the writing it’s a beautifully put together book, and a welcome addition to my growing ‘wildlife memoir’ shelf. You might not want to cut your lawn for a bit either, once you’ve read it. The Running Hare is on the Wainwright Prize Longlist 2017

 

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar Chris Packham
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, other than –  having heard Chris Packham on Desert Island Discs a couple of years ago – it wouldn’t be your usual ‘celebrity’ memoir. Packham is ruthlessley honest about his difficult childhood. Always the outsider, he’s only truly happy when immersed the natural world around him (and this is a natural world familiar to all of us who didn’t grow up ‘in the country’; the local park, a little nearby wood, waste ground). He struggles to make friends at school –  if you’ve been in this position to any degree you’ll recognise it immediately. I did, and was immediately transported back to those awful playground hours with no-one to talk to. He captures the cruelty of children – and their awful insults – brilliantly (in the same way Margaret Attwood does in ‘Cat’s Eye’). The book is  often written in the third person, reinforcing his difficulty in connecting with other people, both from the point of view of the child and of the adult in the therapists chair. Animals are his obsession, from the tadpoles on his bedroom windowsill to the foxes he watches after sneaking out of his room at night. But the boy and the kestrel is the main relationship in this book It  is written about so movingly and in such detail, I can’t do it justice here except to say as a reader I was as invested in this relationship as much as in any romantic one in fiction – it drives the story in the same way. This is a brilliant book, difficult to read in parts but I’d urge you to do so, and I expect it’ll stay with you long after (it has with me). Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is on the the Wainwright Prize Longlist 2017

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