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CHRISTMAS AT COLD COMFORT FARM

CHRISTMAS AT COLD COMFORT FARM

'Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm' is collection of short stories by author and journalist, Stella Gibbons, made famous for her popular novel of the same name (‘Cold Comfort Farm’) which is a pitch perfect parody of rural melodrama in middle-class suburbia during the late 1930s. Filled with wonderful period detail this is brimming with Gibbon’s humour of another era.

Perfect for busy holiday season, this is a charming compendium of short stories, a form of popular fiction, that was originally published in 1940 headlining with two endearing festive stories, one being set at Cold Comfort Farm and featuring the much loved Starkadders. The rest of the book is made up of other short stories that were featured in magazines around this time including 'The Lady' and 'Good Housekeeping'. As well as presenting a peak into another era without TV (and the internet!) it gives book clubs and readers the chance to indulge and appreciate the short story.

The Den enjoyed Gibbon’s wry humour and energetic attack on domestic life in Middle England, the snobbery of class through Gibbon’s characterisations as well as general people watching. As a collection the reader has the opportunity to appreciate the growing unrest of the housewife in which women were trying to walk out on their husbands (then having a change of heart!), the lack of opportunities for spinsters who were pitied and the general desire for emancipation not only for women but the individual who wanted to escape their own position. At the same time the stories reflect an appreciation of traditional values and the family unit holding loves ones closer such as in ‘The Walled Garden’ whilst hanging out for romance for the singleton as in ‘The Little Christmas Tree’.

We also have the opportunity to imagine life in which the pace was slower and entertainment limited. Lead by the author, closer inspection is given on behaviours, gossiping circles in parlours and street corners before the internet gave us whatsApp groups. There is social commentary on the mundane and insightful observations on the entrapment of the everyday. With this there is plenty to consider and discuss in book club and whilst the world has moved on to fewer words on twitter feeds and pictures on Instagram and SnapChat there is still a place for the short story, in which human nature comes under the microscope and historical context becomes an interesting aside.

Great book to dip into 'on the move' or between last minute sprees. One definitely to go under the tree.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

'The Lincoln Highway' by Amor Towles is a road trip you won't want to leave and like all good journeys there are plenty of memorable tales, twists and U-turns that are beautifully crafted and ingeniously pieced together to create a wonderful book club read. It's over five years since book clubs enjoyed Amor Towles's bestselling novel 'A Gentleman in Moscow'. Once again Towles effortlessly transports his audience to a new moment in time, on this occasion it's 1954 Nebraska and readers join four young 'band of brothers' in an epic and imaginative adventure, that you will willingly want to be part of. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road in the USA starting in Times Square, NYC and finishing in San Francisco. But don't try to predict where this journey starts and ends. This is a mesmerising story with brave, complex and (some) loveable characters that you won't want to leave.

The novel starts nearly 10 years after WW2 and shortly after the Korean War so communities in the States were affected and the scars still felt even amongst the younger generation who were looking towards adulthood and starting a future. At first glance it appears to be Emmett's story. Emmett Watson is eighteen and just released from a young offenders work camp in Selina. He is on his way home to close up his family home following his father's death, take charge of his younger brother, Billy, now aged eight and head off to California to start a new life. But Emmett is not alone thanks to two of his camp friends who have stowed themselves away in the trunk of the Warden's car. Woolly and Duchess have very different plans for Emmett and Billy taking the four of them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction to New York. In the background there is also some love interest with Sally who makes an appearance joining the journey midway and this is definitely a nod to a sweetheart and Emmett's future.

The novel counts down in 10 chapters or rather 10 days of lively adventure in which the reader is swept away into the episodes described by the four main characters as well as other figures in the story, with each one taking turns to voice their version of events. As each day passes we become closer to knowing the boys, appreciating their perspective and their actions and although their journey is fraught with dangerous and dark encounters these moments in time serve to test their integrity and loyalty as well as teach the boys to adapt to their environment and survive. And ultimately shape their characters.

With the lure of a $150,000 cash held in a safe the drama to make the journey is heightened. The Den enjoyed the pace and the sensational moments that kept readers on their toes. Towles has certainly proven his ability to re-tool his craft and mix up story-telling, but it is reassuringly as good as 'A Gentleman in Moscow', but oh so different. Definitely a novel you will lovingly want to read again and share amongst good friends and book clubbers.

SALT TO THE SEA

SALT TO THE SEA

It’s 1945, the depths of winter, and thousands of refugees are scrambling to Wilhelm Gustloff, one of the German evacuation ships based in Gotenhafen, a seaport on the Baltic Sea coast, to save themselves from the advancing Red Army. Based on the true historical events of this maritime escape, ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys is a raw fictional story of four individuals from different countries coming together to make this hazardous and life changing journey.

The story is narrated by each of the four characters. Joana is a nurse from Lithuania, Florian is a Prussian art restorer, Emilia is a young pregnant Polish girl – all three are escaping trauma back in their homelands and rushing to escape the approaching Russian army. The fourth, Alfred is aged 17 from Heidelberg, who is defiantly serving his motherland of Germany. His unwavering commitment to the Führer is revealed through imaginary letters to his girlfriend where he sees himself as the hero. Joana, Florian and Emilia meet and ultimately end up travelling in a group of 15 refugees trying to reach Gotenhafen to secure transit across the Baltic Sea in one of the large cruise ships - in this case the Wilhelm Gustloff. Florian has betrayed his homeland by stealing the key to the Amber Room, a chamber of amber and jewels which the Nazis stole from the Catherine Palace in Pushkin in 1941. (The Amber Room disappeared during the war and to this day no one knows what happened to it.) As Stalin’s army closes in, so the numbers of desperate refugees at the port grows. With this comes the doomed inevitability to the piling of thousands of civilians onto ships only built for some 1,400 passengers.

The narrative between the characters switches every couple of pages meaning the pace is quick and continuous. This works particularly well for those in the Den who listened to the audio book. It also means we see the effects of war through the eyes of young people from different countries who all have their own backstory of heartache and loss, yet are united in their determination to flee.

Many of us in the Den are ashamed to say we didn’t know much about this World War II tragedy and so not only has Sepetys brought an unimaginable tragedy to life, she has given the event a place in history. All of us went on to research this maritime disaster so she has succeeded in her aim that “when the survivors are gone, we must not let the truth disappear with them.’ This is a poignant and beautifully told story about a little known historical tragedy.

Den tip – try the audio version – the four different voices add an emotive and powerful weight to the story.

LONDON, BURNING

LONDON, BURNING

If you grew up in the late ‘70s and remember the national strikes, the political tensions and demos, the news of frequent bomb and incensory devices then there will be plenty of reasons to indulge in Quinn’s latest crime thriller, ‘London, Calling’. From the master of storytelling, this novel is a blast of a read and a book that unwittingly chimes with 2021!

The novel opens with Vicky Tress, a young ambitious police officer, who becomes involved in a dangerous police corruption racket. Then in another part of the capital we are introduced to Callum, a struggling Irish academic and author, teaching in London, enjoying his music collection made up of ‘Bowie’ and the early punk rock band ‘The Clash’. By contrast, the reader then meets music and theatre impresario Freddie Selves, who finds himself caught up in his own political and personal mire and in need of some positive PR. Finally over to Hannah Strode a feisty journalist who has built a reputation writing newspaper profile features, not always complimentary, who skilfully gains access to the rich, the powerful and the movers and shakers in the city. The plot revolves around these characters each caught up in a slice of their own London life in which they become inadvertently linked.

Set against the historical turmoil of Callaghan’s fire-fighting government and the prospect of another under the first female PM, Margaret Thatcher, the reader knows where this is heading but still feels the tension and the desperation for a new era.

The clock is ticking. A nation divided against itself, a government trembling on the verge of collapse, a city fearful of what is to come and people bitterly suspicious of one another. Sound familiar? This story is elegantly crafted a wonderful book club read capturing the turbulent period.

‘London, Calling’ follows Quinn’s popular trilogy ‘Curtain Call’, ‘Freya’ and ‘Eureka’.

TALKING TO STRANGERS

TALKING TO STRANGERS

If you are an armchair psychologist and interested in an alternative book club read, ‘Talking To Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell investigates the darker side of human nature where strangers' motives and actions come to light. Renowned for his intelligent and forensic study of human behaviour this makes a timely read as we endeavour to get back to social interaction with friends and colleagues as well meeting and ‘talking with strangers’.

Gladwell seamlessly re-presents a series of famous historical events and unpicks how and why the experts, the authorities and the public were duped. Why couldn’t the CIA detect Fidel Castro’s double agent spy in their midst? Why were the police and the public so convinced that ‘Foxy Knoxy’ was involved in the murder of her room-mate? Was Sylvia Plath's suicide avoidable? More often than not, the case studies are tragic stories, but the author’s exploration of misunderstanding and mis-reading, that were made by human error, is fascinating for the reader and challenges how we approach what we comprehend in behaviours.

As well as the famous case studies Gladwell weaves in classroom experiments and scenarios to prove his points about how we read each other to detect lies. ‘Friends’ fans will enjoy his exploration of the ‘The One when Ross catches Chandler hitting on his sister’. Plus there are plenty of other tales and transcripts from interviews that makes this all the more addictive.

The audio version is also a brilliant way to appreciate Gladwell’s insights especially as it includes the original interviews which add colour and credible insights. Perfect for podcast fans who enjoy listening on the move! And a read that will set your book club debating whether you agree with Gladwell or not.

From the best selling author of 'Outlier', 'Blink' and 'The Tipping Point'.

BETTY

BETTY

A coming of age story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished, Tiffany McDaniel’s portrayal of Betty, a young girl growing up in rural Ohio comes straight from the soul.

Betty Carpenter arrives quickly into the world in 1954. The third daughter and fourth child of a family of six, her mother Alka is white and her father Landon is Cherokee. Landon is at one with nature and when the family are unexpectedly offered a home in the small community town of Breathed in rural Ohio, a run-down house which locals believe is cursed, Landon and his family move in. Unlike her siblings, Betty seems to have inherited all of her father’s heritage. Whilst her siblings blend in at school, Betty is bullied for her Cherokee appearance. Yet her family is tight knit and at the heart of it all, she has a deep-seated love and connection with her father. Landon teaches his children the power of medicinal healing using their natural surroundings and it is this mystic trait which sees them through poverty and hardship and which Betty and her siblings embrace.

McDaniel blends her love of nature and pride in her Cherokee history into the story and when the inevitable heartbreak strikes, it is always nature and their Cherokee traditions which allow Betty and her family to survive. Betty channels her difficult experiences by writing them down and if they are bad encounters she buries them in the land. Her closest siblings also find their own outlets to hardship: her elder sister Flossie dreams of being a movie star, her younger brother Trustin draws and Lint, the last baby who suffers demons, finds solace in wildlife like their father.

There is lots to discuss for your book club from the weight of family guilt and secrets through to inbred racism, generational abuse, sexism, mental health and the ever-present patriarchy and disregard for women’s dreams. This may sound overwhelming but the beautiful prose and the Appalachian mountains backdrop make for a wonderfully absorbing read. And most importantly, at the heart of the story is a young woman coming to terms with her heritage and seeking the freedom to choose her path in life. As Betty writes at the end:

‘I knew what my father did not know when he was alive. That he was more than a filler. He was a lifetime of wildflower fields. I feel like the grasses will always tell stories of him.’

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Whilst Anthony Doerr fans have eagerly awaited his new novel ('Cloud Cuckoo Land' out this Autumn), the Den has picked out his Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ (2015) as the ideal Missed Opportunity read for October. A powerful and epic war novel, this is a stand out read for book clubbers.

Set in France and Germany before and during WW2, the novel follows two young people, Marie-Laure and Werner, on the opposite sides of war whose lives converge in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo in Brittany. As well as following their journey to Saint-Malo, we learn how they survive the devastation of war and against all odds discover ways to survive and be kind to one another.

The novel moves effortlessly back and forth between the two main characters and and their journeys provide a strong sense of adventure and increasing urgency as the book progresses.

Blind since the age of six, Marie-Laure has been guided by her father who built a miniature model of Paris so she can navigate her way home. Her father works at the natural history museum as an important key keeper as well as the guardian of its most valuable diamond. When the Nazis reach Paris, father and daughter leave the city to take refuge and hide the diamond. The parallel story is that of Werner, a young German orphan boy whose fascination with radios brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. He becomes a successful radio tracker on the hunt for the Resistance and their hidden treasures.

Although an epic story in length this is a mesmerising bittersweet tale that will stay with you and one you will be happy to recommend to friends and book clubs.

THE VANISHING HALF

THE VANISHING HALF

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett is one of the Short Listed Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 that provides historical escapism and topical ‘of the moment’ discussion for book clubs this autumn. With the winner announced this month, and plenty of praise for Bennett’s work, the Den picked this one out as a worthwhile read - opening minds and opinion on racial prejudices and identity.

‘The Vanishing Half’ revolves around a fictional small town, Mallard in Louisiana, which we quickly learn was a community set up by a freed slave Alphonse Decuir in the late 19th century. Fast forward to 1969 and the novel opens with return of one of ‘The Lost Twins’ Desiree Vignes who scandalously left the tight-knit community at sixteen with her sister Stella.

Desiree returns not with her now estranged twin but with her daughter, a ‘Blueback’, ‘like she flown direct from Africa’. This immediately stirs up the town and the reader and whilst Desiree is keen to find her twin sister, Stella has moved on, preferring to pass as ‘white’ amongst her new family and friends in California. But fate brings them back together whether they want it or not.

On the surface ‘The Vanishing Half’ presents the historical prejudices of race and colour in the black communities of America. But as the story unfolds the reader discovers the novel is more about identity and human instinct and the natural desire to be free spirits outside of the family unit and the communities into which we are born. ‘The Vanishing Half’ is a page turner that is pacy with plenty of unexpected and imaginative twists provoking and challenging opinion.

This is a story of race, gender and identity so there is plenty to unpick and share - and with an HBO deal already secured this is a novel you will want to read in your book club.

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer was first published in 2005 telling the story of 9/11 from the perspective of a child who loses his father in the World Trade Centre.

It’s now twenty years since the terror attack on the Twin Towers and whilst there have been plenty of accounts and narratives surrounding the tragic attack on New York this international bestseller makes a timely read or re-read in your book club. A Missed Opportunity that is bound to ignite discussion around the anniversary this September.

The novel begins a couple of years after the 9/11 attack and a young boy Oskar, who having lost his father in the Twin Towers catastrophe, discovers a mysterious locker key in a vase in his father’s wardrobe. Oskar is an unusually intelligent and imaginative inventor, a letter writer and amateur detective and the discovery of a key sets him off on a journey finding new friends, family as well as an adventure around the boroughs, homes and lives of New Yorkers.

The Den enjoyed the layers of stories within the quest and indulged in Oskar’s adventures around New York City and its suburbs. For those with strong connections to 9/11 this is a sensitively observed novel which deliberately is evasive of the event itself - focusing rather on the themes of coping with tragedy, family secrets and isolation, all part of the melting pot that is formed in disasters of this scale. 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'' is intelligent, poignant and sad. A book to mark a chilling moment in our history.

SELECTED STORIES

SELECTED STORIES

What better recommendation than hearing this month’s wild card choice was the book Maggie O’Farrell would take to her desert island (Desert Island Discs, 2021). 'Selected Stories' by Alice Monro (winner of the Man Booker International Prize) is a treasure chest of literary treats, each story exquisitely serving up a slice of life - portraying intimate moments and unexpected twists.

With Canada as the backdrop, we are transported from rural wilderness to Toronto city life, whether it be a lonely salesman, seasonal labourers, academics and of course family relationships. As a reader we can only delight in these windows of precious moments, whether it be pants being held together by a pin in The Ottowa Valley; afternoon tea being left out too long so the sandwiches curl in ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ or working on a turkey farm in ‘The Turkey Season’. Monro’s jewel like portraits are nuanced to perfection - ‘Notice about Herb – he always walks like he had a boat moving underneath him’.

As we peek into failed relationships, life-changing moments, love, and the totally expected, the Den cherished every story. We all had our own favourites and each story can be savoured in one sitting – perhaps a story a night or a story a commute! A worthy vintage classic from an outstanding writer.

IF IN DOUBT, WASH YOUR HAIR 
A manual for Life

IF IN DOUBT, WASH YOUR HAIR
A manual for Life

Whether you are starting out in life with dreams and passions or looking back on it and taking stock, ‘If in Doubt Wash, Your Hair’ – A Manual for Life’ by Anya Hindmarch is a refreshing and personal account that will ignite your raison dêtre and provide comfort to all women (not just the fashionistas and embracers of style). Written in lockdown our Wild Card read is filled with inspiring ideas and practical advice for life.

Famous for her exquisite handbags and her imaginative and memorable campaigns such as ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ (2007) and ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ (2020), in this book we discover the Anya behind the mother of five, a successful entrepreneur and a globally renowned businesswoman.

At the right side of fifty, with over 30 years as a working woman, Anya shares her story of family life as a young ambitious mother juggling a career, marrying a widow with three young children (and then having two of her own) and setting out in life with ‘doubts’ and insecurities. We discover her roots and coping strategies – some definitely worth pinching such as ‘beat the clock’ and ‘the Christmas contract’. It may not work for you but her enthusiasm for embracing fear and being ‘true to yourself’ is infectious and a comfort.

The title, ‘If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair’ may appear curious, flippant and even trivial, but at the heart is Anya’s story. Her story of doubt, presented with a raw honesty, connects with the reader and with this she invites you to join her journey to designing and building ‘fashion with purpose’.

The book delights the reader on many levels. We have a taste of her creative process and mind, we find out what really gives her the biggest buzz at work (is it the love of craft and workmanship in her products or is it the journey to bring her designs to life?). We also find out what really makes her happy and what drives success – ambitions that we all aspire to.

Her honest appraisal of self, which she assesses and reassesses in the recent year of lockdown, is enlightening. As readers we are reassured that it is okay to doubt, okay to fail (sometimes this is a good thing) and then guided through Anya’s own worries to work out what the pursuit of true happiness is for us all.

In the Den we loved her for her kindness, baring all and finding new truths as well giving us time to appreciate ourselves. As one book clubber in the Den shared – ‘Anya saved me in quarantine – a blessing at 2am last night, good to be a girl, am treasuring every moment, and enjoying the now!’.

A LADDER TO THE SKY

A LADDER TO THE SKY

You’ve heard the old proverb… about setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy’.

Not this story, though…

'A Ladder to the Sky’ is a wonderful summer tonic about the darker side of ambition and the lengths that might be taken to acquire and exploit them. Written by the talented and wonderful storyteller, John Boyne, this is an addictive and intoxicating page turner that will help book clubbers find their reading mojo!

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ starts in Berlin, 1988, just before the wall comes down. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel opens up an opportunity for the young English man, Maurice Swift, who at this time, is an ambitious writer waiting on tables to get by. The strikingly handsome Maurice attracts the distinguished author, Erich Ackerman’s attention, who offers him a job as an assistant on his planned book tour around Europe in exchange for Maurice's company. Erich is an award winning author but is lonely and happy to help Maurice with literary introductions and insights into his own career and how to find a good story. His advice includes ‘Everyone has secrets….There’s something in all our pasts that we wouldn’t want to be revealed.’.

Unfortunately for Erich, he confides his darkest secret with Maurice who identifies this as the ‘story’, ‘the secret’ that he will tell the world in his debut novel.

In true Boyne style, his story-telling is effortless. The reader is guided back to Erich’s younger days as a teenager and then forwards to Maurice’s own literary encounters with Gore Vidal in the Italian Riviera and later chapters in his own life in London and New York where he hunts down his next prey.

From the author of ‘The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas’ and ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ this is another heart racing Missed Opportunity read (2018) welcomed by Boyne fans with a bounty of talking points for your book club about the literary world, the coveted awards and the origins of a good story. Summer is the perfect time to catch up on favourite reads from this imaginative writer and there are plenty to choose from. 8 and 9s from the Den this time around.

If you are ahead of your club consider Boyne's new novel ‘The Echo Chamber’ (August 2021).