Happy New Year to all! These are the dark months, perfect for curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book. I’ve made a selection of my December reading for you.
When compared to the complexity and size of Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s new book Slade House is a slim and accessible ghost story. This makes it an excellent introduction to the work of this skilled and many-facetted British author – one of the best of our day. There is something mysterious about the beautiful garden and home concealed between a high wall in a dilapidated town outside of London. Every nine years someone disappears at the end of October in the vicinity of this house. Don’t be surprised if you recognize characters from other works and other worlds of Mitchell. The master spins his web of storytelling craftily and draws us into his spheres of good and evil. Another masterpiece! A fan writes that is feels like “a board-game designed by M C Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”
The Strangler Vine was recommended to me by a bookseller from Daunt Books, a shop I haunt when I am in London. Miranda Carter, author of an award winning biography of Anthony Blunt and wife of the economic journalist and fiction writer John Lanchester, has launched herself into literary thriller writing with an adaventure in colonial India in the 19th century. The hapless young Ensign William Avery, always British, ever in uniform, is paired with the intelligence agent gone native, Jeremiah Blake, and sent off to track down a British author who has gone missing in a jungle where Kali-worshipping Thugs are undermining British rule. This is a romp of a read which includes a tiger hunt and high adventure. The sequel, Infidel Stain, reunites the detectives in Victorian London where a series of murders in Drury Lane requires investigation.
Many authors explore memory but Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is a brilliantly told story of an aging Russian woman now living in America who cannot hold on to the events of her present, such as the approaching wedding of a grandchild, but who relives her experiences working in The Hermitage Museum in Leningrad during the gruelling, three year long siege of that city in World War II. As the artworks are packed up and removed for safekeeping, Marina creates a memory palace of each painting as she wanders, starving, through the rooms of the museum, gazing at the empty frames left hanging on the walls. A lovely, moving work first published in 2006.
Lily King’s book Euphoria was one of the New York Times’ top ten for 2014. It is the feverish, scintillating tale of three anthropologists striving to come to grips with the culture and societies of various tribes in the bush of New Guinea. Loosely based on a 1933 field trip to the Sepik River made by Margaret Mead, her then husband, and her future husband, it is a taut tale of new ideas in understanding other cultures – and a love triangle. Mead was a highly emancipated thinker with a personalized approach to studying groups of people and King has written a brilliant novel about a part of her life.
The Hotel on Place Vendome is popular history at its best, impeccably researched and full of anecdotes about the people who colour our views of the past. Written by Tilar Mazzeo, a professor at Colby College in Maine, this is the history come to life of The Hotel Ritz in Paris. From its establishment in 1898 through the risqué 1920s to the war years when Joseph Goebbels declared that The Ritz would be the only luxury hotel in occupied France, it became the watering hole of royalty, glamorous film stars, the writers of the Lost Generation. French ministers, English leaders, Nazi officers, the crème de la crème of French fashion in the form of Coco Chanel who seems to have played on both sides of the war, spies and double spies, Ernest Hemingway who took over “his” hotel and in boorish fashion hauled the best wines out of the cellars to celebrate the Allied victory….. this is larger than life history, drawing on international sources.