RAE’S READING ROUND-UP FOR… NOVEMBER 2020

Hello reading friends!

Here in northern Scotland, we’ve enjoyed some beautiful frosty days but it has also grown darker and so it felt right to spend time exploring the spookier/ supernatural side of fiction, reading The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Mercies, as well as the Dark Stories collection.

Since travel is still out for most of us, I enjoyed escaping to the Finnish coastline with A Winter Book, and to Japan with The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Both books are loosely based on fact.

And for a powerful, thought-provoking novel that stayed with me long after I had finished, checked out Home.

In December, I plan on indulging my love of festive reading and, given circumstances will be different this year, perhaps I will have more time than usual to relax with fantastic reads.

In the meantime, I hope you and yours stay safe and well.

Happy reading!

THE PHONE BOX AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by LAURA IMAI MESSINA

The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World by Laura Imai Messina is one of the most original love stories I’ve enjoyed. Set in Japan in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami, Yui has lost both her mother and young daughter and, like many others, finds it impossible to move on. Then she learns of the wind phone, where people lift the receiver and talk, enabling the wind to carry their words to those who have gone before. It is there she meets Takeshi and her journey of hope begins.

I found it fascinating that the novel was inspired by a real wind phone, situated in Bell Gardia, northern Japan, established and maintained by a couple who opened their garden to the bereaved and now receive visitors from around the globe. Naturally, there is sadness and loss in a novel about grief, but there is also friendship and strength, courage and love. Poignant snippets of the everyday lives of both the deceased and those who remain are intermingled with the main plot, offering an interesting glimpse into modern Japanese culture.

In short, The Phone Box at the Edge of the World is balm for the soul – an enlightening, gentle love story, beautifully told.

Home by Amanda Berriman is perhaps the most powerful novel I’ve read this year. Told in the voice of four-year-old Jesika, we learn of life with her mum and baby brother in accommodation where paper peels from the walls and the landlord is quick to increase the rent.

There are a number of heart-breaking themes including poverty and homelessness, and (without creating any spoilers) one particular theme that I found exceptionally difficult to read. Using a child narrator, which does take a little getting used too, is a genius way of the author developing an even greater sense of dread. This is a well-crafted novel and I don’t wish to give the impression that Home is a miserable book. Jesika is a wonderful little girl and a character I will definitely remember. The community spirit and kindness shown, by both local shopkeepers and the owner of the laundrette, are an uplifting counter-balance to the problems the family face. Jesika’s innocent optimism is a reminder of why all children should be offered the very best start in life…

THE MERMAID AND MRS HANCOCK by IMOGEN HERMES GOWAR

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar was a complete joy to listen to on audiobook. It is 1785 and Jonah Hancock finds himself a widower, despairing when a sea captain sells his ship for a mermaid.  However, London’s high society loves the quirky and curious, and soon the mermaid sweeps Mr Hancock to places he doesn’t usually frequent. Meanwhile, Angelica Neal is a courtesan conscious of the passage of time and anxious to find true love, before her beauty fades.

First off, as the story partially revolves around the goings-on in a house of dubious repute favoured by the city’s elite, it is a bit raunchy in places. However, it is also packed with fantastic wit and humour, like a fine soap opera. We are introduced to a wonderful cast of characters (think Dickensian in the way they leap off the page). As well as Jonah and Angelica Neal, we have Sukie (Mr Hancock’s reliable, resourceful niece), Mrs Chappell – the madame (whom I loved) and more.

The period detail is exquisite and brought the settings vividly alive – from the shipyards, to the coffee houses, the journeys by carriage, to the wild partying. I so want to give The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock five stars, but the plot did meander a little in places (although even then the descriptions were glorious, so I didn’t mind). If I could award it 4-and-three-quarter stars, then I would. A lively historical with a light touch of magical realism. Enjoy!

A WINTER BOOK by TOVE JANSSON

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson is a slightly odd, eclectic collection of short stories and snippets of correspondence. Better known as the Finnish author of the Moomins children’s book series, this is an adult collection.

Jansson appears to have led a warm but fairly isolated childhood, left to entertain herself whilst her artistic parents worked. (A little more digging told me that her family were extremely close and she had two younger brothers, who were artists too.) However, freedom seemed to suit her, as even as a child she appeared wary of others, happiest when surrounded by the sea and harsh coastal landscapes. Island life was her greatest inspiration. Jansson saw the world differently, and that is what makes A Winter Book so fascinating. She also appeared to drink a lot of madeira!

The first third of the book focuses on, who I assume to be, Jansson as a child. Whilst the final third follows a woman navigating old age. My favourite story was The Squirrel; her relationship with the animal was both funny and moving. The writing throughout is spare, almost simplistic, leaving her unusual perspective and calm wisdom to pull the reader in. In truth, A Winter Book isn’t particularly wintery, which was a slight disappointment. Rather, Jansson’s stories feel like a window into her mind, and the nosey part of me wanted to know more. I now wish to read The Summer Book.

THE MERCIES by KIRAN MILLWOOD HARGRAVE

Having been born and brought up in a Scottish fishing community, it was the premise for The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave that first attracted me to the audiobook. That, along with the fact that it is narrated by the extremely talented Jessie Buckley.

It is based around two historical facts. The first, a devastating storm that hit Finnmark on the Norwegian coast on Christmas Eve 1617, sweeping away 40 local fishermen from the tiny community of Vardø. As well as the influence of a Scot in directing King Christian in the horrific spate of witch trials of 1620.

I’m finding it hard to say more without with giving too much away, but I found it interesting that when the women first found themselves alone, they pulled together through necessity; completing jobs, like fishing, that their menfolk used to do. However, once outside influences were planted at the very heart of their community, the fragile solidarity they had built began to wither. From early on, there is a creeping sense of dread, that builds and builds and builds. But although the plot is truly shocking (particularly when we remember is it based on fact), I was just as fascinated by the way the women coped in such challenging circumstances, only to be swept up in a kind of group-think manic frenzy when a new leader appeared. It is said that we can learn from history, and although actual witch hunts no longer take place in Europe, perhaps, when at its worst, social media has become the modern-day witch hunter? The Mercies is a dark, fascinating read.

DARK STORIES by CAPITAL WRITERS

Dark Stories is a short collection of spooky tales by the quartet that is Capital Writers. As the title suggests all are atmospheric and are perfect to read as nights’ drawn in. Jennifer Young’s The Homecoming, Kate Blackadder’s Blaze of Glory and Anne Stenhouse’s The Cemetery House all contain a touch of the supernatural. Whilst Colour Blind by Jane Riddell is told from a child’s point of view and is more heart-warming than unnerving, but the Halloween setting continues the dark theme.

A anthology to be read in one sitting, with hot chocolate and the curtains shut tight, on a wintery evening.

Published by Rae Cowie

Check out my bookish chat at raecowie.com

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