Cox & Kings'... book club
By boat, by bike or even within the brain, escapism comes in many forms, and is a common subject of the season’s new releases. Reviewed here by our team, they’ll make great reading on your own diversions.
Woman at Sea by Catherine Poulain
Jonathan Cape • £14.99
To become a real fisherman, to lose herself in the rocking power of the sea, to work for days on no sleep, exhausting herself with the toughest work imaginable, where life is risked at every moment – that is all Lili, a young French woman, wants from life when she runs away to find work on the fishing fleet of Kodiak, Alaska. Despite her tiny build, total lack of experience and a tendency to catch the eye of the gnarly, hard-drinking seadogs who drift in and out of town, she demonstrates sufficient passion and strength to land a chance aboard the Rebel. In awe of its tough, skilful crew members, yet determined to become one herself, Lili embarks on a thrilling transformation. An undercurrent of sexual tension, occasional connections with the rough-living characters she meets, and a subtle love story carry the reader through gripping scenes of action at sea. Terrifying and gruelling such work may be, but Woman At Sea’s tautly written prose – informed by the author’s own years spent working in Alaska – makes you appreciate the addiction to it for those who, like Lili, can only bear life lived intensely, on the edge. A mind-blowing account that hooked me instantly.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury • £16.99
In The Song of Achilles, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012, Madeline Miller transformed the story of one of the acknowledged heroes of Greek mythology. In her new novel, she chooses an unlikely heroine – Circe, the witch famed for creating the sea monster Scylla and later turning Odysseus’s sailors into pigs. Certainly, she performs these and other supernatural acts, but Miller presents her as a fully rounded character with subtle motives and shifting emotions, so that the reader understands her even as she commits horrors. Scorned as inferior by the gods and nymphs, amongst whom she is born, she learns to use the power of earthly herbs and her own will to control those who cross her. She is mocked for her speaking voice, which is weak, as of a mortal, but the voice in which she narrates her story dazzles with dramatic energy, incisive wit and lyrical grace. Miller weaves a complex mesh of myths, expanding on those traditionally concerning Circe but also giving her a role in, for example, the birth of the Minotaur. The cast may be familiar, but through their relationships the author shows us very human emotions – sibling rivalry, sexual jealousy and fulfillment, the bond between parent and child. The reader is drawn into these relationships as they gradually mould Circe into a true heroine, a woman with the courage, even against men and gods, to be herself.
Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene
Bloomsbury • £13.49
Hollywood glamour and opulence contrast dramatically with 1940s austerity in Britain in this amusing and witty novel about a young civil servant sent to the United States as part of the war effort. Evelyn Murdoch is a talented linguist from a strict Methodist background, whose journey we follow as she tries to make sense of a very different culture. She is amazed at the lavish parties held at opulent mansions, complete with shag pile carpets, lobsters and martinis, and is mesmerized by the glitz and glamour of the lifestyles of the film moguls she encounters in Los Angeles. Some of the characters border on caricatures, with names like Otto Von Blick and Zandor Kiss, but this is just a reminder that we are reading to enjoy ourselves and to romp through the pages. There is surprising depth to others, such as the foul-mouthed Japanese gardener Yuki Hashimoto, whose insults only Evelyn can understand, and the precocious child star Dorinda (Rindy) McGee, who remains at the age of seven for a number of years so her film studio can continue to exploit her and win lucrative contracts. Memories and letters from her home back in Woking are interspersed with vivid descriptions of American clothes, food and people to emphasise Evelyn’s gradual acceptance of a very different way of life, and we share her unhappiness when the places and people she has grown to love are almost taken away from her.
Beyond the Wild River by Sarah Maine
Hodder & Stoughton • £14.99
Set in the 1890s, Beyond the Wild River tells the story of a wealthy philanthropist landowner and his daughter, Evelyn. Living in solitude on a Scottish estate, she befriends the stable hand, much to her father’s disdain. Her father invites her on an adventure to northern America and Canada, which opens her eyes to more than she bargained for. Canada is where the author grew up, and she writes about it beautifully, providing the reader with rich descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. After dangling important information at the start regarding the shooting of a poacher on the family estate, the book keeps the reader in suspense to slowly uncover the secret that has drawn a wedge between father and daughter, and been misconstrued by those around them.
Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan
Chatto & Windus • £16.99
There’s nothing more intriguing than the workings of the human brain, the most complex structure in the universe. Consultant neurologist and epilepsy expert Suzanne O’Sullivan‘s encounters with brains that do not conform to the norm make for remarkable reading. Her patients’ symptoms include seizures that make them shout out numbers or run, and brain injuries that leave them oblivious to everything on their left side (so they might shave only one half of their beard). Such cases can’t fail to fascinate, but this is no freak show. Brainstorm is a serious yet comprehensible look at how neurologists decipher and identify brain disorders, even when problems aren’t structural, but are on a chemical, microscopic or electrical level, which can be much more difficult to fathom.
Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson
Frances Lincoln • £14.99
Everyone knows about Hay-on-Wye, and possibly the Scottish equivalent, Wigtown, too, but beyond our own feted enclaves of the printed word are dozens of other conurbations around the world that can validly be considered ‘book towns’. Journalist Alex Johnson musters 45 of them in this engaging and well-presented tome, amassing details of their histories, best bookshops and literary events. Australia has Clunes, an old Gold Rush town where its the annual book festival that now draws the crowds instead; in Torup, Denmark there are mini bookshops in garages, huts, stables and churches; while in India, Bhilar has 25 libraries along one street. Johnson has created the ultimate bucket-list bible for bookworms.
Talking Books: a round-up of the best new audio titles
The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse, narrated by Hattie Morahan
Macmillan Digital Audio • £28.99 • May
A powerhouse in historical fiction, Kate Mosse, most famously the author of international bestsellers Labyrinth and Sepulchre, has returned to form with the colossal The Burning Chambers. The book is to be the first in a new series, which spans 300 years of history. Mosse’s own adopted home of Languedoc, and Carcassonne, is again the setting for much of the meticulously researched sequence of tales, in which ordinary people struggle to make and maintain personal connections under a society riven by religion and war. Their lives are full of mystery and intrigue, and the book is highly informative about the Huguenot ‘wars of religion’.
The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus, narrated by Jenna Lamia
Macmillan Audio • £26.29
It’s always interesting to experience the literary version behind a smash hit movie, but in this case the two artistic forms, book and film, were developed together, as one story interpreted by two artists. The film was awarded Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, hence the book version has become a must-read, and is now available as an audiobook. Whether you agree with the Academy Award judges about the moving quality of the romantic flick about a mute woman who falls for an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon and kept in a Baltimore research centre, or you thought it drivel, both versions are worthy of contemplation.
Mind of a Survivor: What the wild has taught me about survival and success written and narrated by Megan Hine
Audible • £24.99
Megan Hine is an extraordinary woman, seeking adventure and wilderness from an early age, and recently consulting on and running survival scenarios for TV adventure shows, most notably for Bear Grylls. In the guise of a survival narrative of her own experiences, she shares her thoughts on what constitutes the mind of a survivor, delving into themes of fear, curiosity and how the mind operates under extreme life and death survival situations. I enjoyed Megan’s down to- earth approach and her anecdotes regarding survival techniques, from waterproofing matches using lipstick to starting a fire with tampons. An interesting memoir for the armchair survivalist.