High Heel (2019): Summer Brennan

★★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

What do you think of when you think of high heels? For me, there’s a divide between high heels ‘in the wild’ and my own experience. High heels in general are elegant: they’re worn by women who are smart, professional and probably wealthy enough to jump in a taxi rather than risk getting their stiletto wedged in a Tube station escalator. A woman of this type would probably not get her heel trapped in a grille on a staircase, and has to grimly hunker down, one shoe on, one shoe off, to winkle it out. (That was me.) Heels have a mythos of their own, provoking envy, longing and pride in otherwise quite reasonable women, and transforming their designers into household names; but why should this be? Exactly what is it that makes the high heel such an enduring object of obsession? The Bloomsbury Object Lessons series is always engaging, but Summer Brennan’s investigation of the heel is a particular favourite so far. Embracing Greek myth, fairy tales, history, fashion and biology, she sets out on a quest to understand exactly why this most uncomfortable of shoes has become the most ubiquitous. Fierce, feminist and fascinating.

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Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen (2019): Dexter Palmer

★★★½

Once heard, Mary Toft’s story can’t be forgotten. I first encountered it at university, in a class which focused not on the kings and politicians of our core courses, but the stories of ordinary people, gleaned from archives, pamphlets and early journalism. Later, I became aware of Emma Donoghue’s short story about the case (the eponymous story in The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits), but I haven’t got round to reading that yet. Dexter Palmer’s lush and troubling novel is my first fictional take on this bizarre morsel of history. The curtain rises in 1726 on the small town of Godalming in Surrey, where the local surgeon John Howard and his young assistant Zachary are called to assist at a birth. Nothing new in that, but the experience shakes Howard to the core, challenging him to rethink everything he thought he knew. With his very own eyes, and his own hands, he witnesses Mary Toft deliver not a child but the dismembered parts of a rabbit. A couple of days later, it happens again. And, as Mary Toft begins to produce rabbits on a regular basis, the bewildered Howard decides to call in support from his eminent medical colleagues in London. This is a story about trickery, but also about belief – our desire to witness the extraordinary – and our willingness to be complicit in our own delusions.

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The Feast (1950): Margaret Kennedy

★★★★

It’s the summer of 1947 and a small community has been shaken to its core (literally). Pendizack Manor Hotel has just been obliterated in a landslide, buried beneath the cliffs that once loomed over it. Reverend Bott, who has the unenviable task of writing a funeral sermon for the unrecovered victims, thinks back over what he has heard from the survivors. Through their stories, we revisit the week leading up to the disaster, day by day, watching as the various characters arrive and get to know one another. To some extent, this is the same kind of awkward cheek-by-jowl holiday community of strangers that we see in works such as The Fortnight in September (though that puts a much more positive spin on the experience). Romances blossom; old grudges linger; and plots are hatched, both malicious and benign. But this isn’t just the story of a Cornish summer holiday gone horribly wrong. Kennedy is, in fact, doing something much cleverer and more sophisticated – offering us the chance to solve a very unusual kind of mystery.

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The Midnight Library (2020): Matt Haig

★★★★

Imagine a space between life and death, where we have the chance to confront our regrets. For Nora Seed, in the aftermath of an overdose, this liminal space takes the shape of a library, staffed by her beloved school librarian Mrs Elm. The shelves, tightly stacked with books, are infinite, and each of these books offers Nora the chance to visit an alternate universe: a life where, at one point or another, she made a different choice. Riddled with regret, she’s spoiled for choice; but will these other-lives engender new regrets of their own? All she can do is step bravely forward, and find out. Before I proceed, I should say that Matt Haig‘s books haven’t always won me over – I wasn’t keen on How To Stop Time – and I felt a bit resigned when my book club chose The Midnight Library as our next read. However, I must give credit where it’s due. The book may be mawkish; it may play brazenly on emotions; its message may be as subtle as an express train hurtling through a station; but, almost in spite of myself, I actually rather liked it.

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Wendy, Darling (2021): A.C. Wise

★★★★

I tend to avoid novels which retell or continue classic stories (why do so many people want to rewrite Pride and Prejudice?), but something about A.C. Wise’s Wendy, Darling caught my attention. Peter Pan is already a book that speaks to children and adults in different ways: reading it, as a grown-up, provokes a sense of discomfort that simmers beneath the sheer joy of its nostalgic anarchy. Wise has grasped that sense of ‘somehow wrong-ness’ and anchored it at the heart of her book, a fierce story of female autonomy, courage and memory. It begins, of course, on a dark night in London, in a nursery, where a small girl sleeps in a bed. A slight, lean shape appears at the nursery window: it’s Peter, come to carry Wendy back to Neverland. But Peter has left it too long. The child in the bed is not Wendy. It’s 1931 and Wendy, now a married woman, is in her room when she feels the warning sense of danger. She runs to the nursery, but she’s too late: Peter has spirited away her daughter, Jane. Outraged by the theft, Wendy can do only one thing: she must gather her courage and go to bring her daughter home.

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All Systems Red (2017): Martha Wells

★★★★

The Murderbot Diaries: Book 1

On an isolated planet, a survey team carries out assessments to determine if it’s worth making a bid for this world’s resources. They are a small group, living cheek by jowl in a temporary habitat alongside their SecUnit – a humanoid AI formed from both mechanical and organic components, which has been programmed to protect them. However, the scientists are blissfully unaware that their SecUnit has hacked its governing module and is now a rogue agent. In many sci-fi stories, the alarm bells would already ringing. Before you know it, we’d be on a one-way path to ‘Rotate the pod, please, HAL’, and Daisy, Daisy. But Martha Wells’s grumpy and antisocial AI has absolutely no interest in sabotage. All it wants is to be left alone: it has 35,000 hours of media content downloaded and just wants to find out what happens next on Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. Unfortunately for SecUnit – or Murderbot, as it has christened itself – terrifying events are about to occur, which threaten the mission’s success, its humans’ lives and, depressingly, its longed-for isolation. All Systems Red raises the curtain on one of sci-fi’s most unexpected heroes.

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Wicked By Design (2019): Katy Moran

★★★★

Hester & Crow: Book 2

At the sprawling Cornish manor house of Nansmorrow, key members of the British Cabinet gather to discuss their country’s future. It is 1819 and the French forces which have occupied Britain since Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo have finally been driven out; but what kind of government should take their place? Despite the polite veneer, suspicion simmers between the Prime Minister, Lord Castlereagh, and his host, the enigmatic Lord Lamorna (Jack ‘Crow’ Crowlas). Crow has committed the crime of becoming too popular: disaffected Cornishmen rally to his name and threaten the integrity of the new Britain. English troops roam the Cornish lanes, waiting for an excuse to strike. And, when duplicitous and ambitious Lord Castlereagh gives the signal, Crow is torn away from his beloved wife Hester and their young daughter Morwenna. As Hester and the child flee, Crow is offered a mission he can’t refuse. His destination is Russia, where Tsar Alexander dilly-dallies over his allegiances, Napoleon nibbles at the borders, and Crow must – if he wishes to live – find the hidden heir to the British throne.

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All Creatures Great & Small (1970-72): James Herriot

★★★★★

My late grandfather spent many years as a farmer, the proud manager of a prizewinning herd of cows. Having spent most of his life outdoors, he wasn’t a great one for reading, but he did have one entire series of books: James Herriot’s (aka James Alfred Wight’s) fictionalised memoirs of his work as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. These were the 1970s paperback editions, with covers by Norman Thelwell (a childhood favourite of mine, thanks to his pony cartoons). I don’t remember whether I read Granddad’s James Herriot books piecemeal during visits, or whether I borrowed them, but I definitely got through several of the series. Twenty years have passed and I didn’t remember the finer details of the stories, only a general sense that Herriot spent most of his time with his arm up the rear end of a cow. Now I’ve come back to these warm, cosy stories in an omnibus edition, reading them alongside the 2020 TV adaptation (which is wonderful). While cows’ rear ends do feature in abundance, All Creatures Great & Small is also full of wonderful characters, from Siegfried Farnon to Tricki Woo; and yet they aren’t its main appeal. That lies in Herriot’s evocation of the Yorkshire landscape, and his loving record of a world that was, even then, beginning to disappear. Magical, comforting fare.

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The Angel Maker (2005): Stefan Brijs

★★★½

The tiny Belgian village of Wolfheim is galvanised when Victor Hoppe, son of the late GP, returns home from his medical studies in Bonn. Why has the prodigal suddenly returned to his father’s old house? Does he mean to take up his father’s mantle as the local doctor? Why is he so standoffish with the locals? And, most curious of all, what is the story behind the three motherless infant children he brings with him, each with an identical severe cleft palate? In this disturbing modern morality tale, Stefan Brijs tells the story of a modern Prometheus: a brilliant man fatally undermined by his own lack of empathy. By chance, I came to this soon after reading John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which gave it an even stranger flavour: it felt, at times, like a cross between Frankenstein and The Midwich Cuckoos. But Stefan Brijs’s novel is more disturbing than either of these because it is so plausible, and because there is such an ironic contrast between the godlike dreams of its protagonist and the sheltered world in which he tries to bring them about.

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Akin (2019): Emma Donoghue

★★★½

When those we love are gone, how do we find out who they really were? Retired scientist Noah Selvaggio has decided to celebrate his eightieth birthday with a trip to Nice, the hometown that he last saw at the age of four, when his mother saw him off on a ship to America. He imagines a comfortable holiday full of good food, art and beautiful views, but his plans are rattled by two intrusions into his orderly life. The first is a pack of strange photographs found among his late sister’s papers: an apparently inconsequential group of images taken by his mother in Nice before she followed Noah and his father to America. What do they mean? And the second intrusion? The arrival of eleven-year-old Michael, Noah’s suspicious and isolated great-nephew, for whom he must act as temporary guardian. This is, at least partly, a heart-warming tale of two people learning to connect, but it’s also a story about connections to the past and how, with only a few shifts of focus, the same pieces of evidence can come to mean very different things.

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