The Shadow King

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Read 18/04/2021-04/05/2021

Rating 4 stars

Hirut, a woman with a long scar “that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace”, waits in Addis Ababa station for a man she hasn’t seen in almost 40 years. They are connected by a secret, one from history, involving Mussolini and Emperor Haile Selassie. Continue reading

Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop

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Read 05/04/2021-18/04/2021

Rating 3 stars

Hit Factories is a curious and eclectic book. The title and the flyleaf blurb suggest a social history of pop in industrial cities – how the industrial landscape influenced the music and vice versa. It’s not that, though. It’s more personal, built around an attempt by author Karl Whitney, a Dubliner transplanted to the North East of England, to understand Britain differently.

Whitney has drawn on a travel writing approach of exploring the relationship between landscape and community, finding the out of the ordinary and drawing on the voices of those involved in the story. The book examines why certain industrial cities developed, or didn’t, distinctive music scenes and represents the condensed musical histories of 11 cities across just over 300 pages. Continue reading

The Life of Rebecca Jones

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Read 28/03/2021-30/03/2021

Rating 5 stars

Angharad Price’s novel The Life of Rebecca Jones is a fictionalised memoir born of family documents and photographs, some of which appear in the text. It’s a clever and affecting book that paints a picture of farming life in the Maesglasau valley in Merioneth across the 20th century. Written in Welsh, the original novel has the title O! Tyn y Gorchudd, which can be translated as O! Pull Aside the Veil. I read Lloyd Jones’s excellent translation into English. Continue reading

Notebook

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Read 27/02/2021-28/02/202

Rating 5 stars

I was all set to start a different book when Tom Cox’s Notebook arrived in the post. This is a book I’ve been waiting for, delayed by the pandemic, pledged for in 2019. Cox is an author who does his own thing, publishing through Unbound since 2017, and a writer whose work fits the contours of my brain so perfectly that I don’t think twice about pledging for his books.

Before I even opened the cover, an extract on the back sleeve made me laugh.

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The Anarchy: the Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Read 08/02/2021-14/02/2021

Rating 3 stars

For my next read, I travelled from the 17th century and Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England fighting to control trade across East Asia, as fictionalised in Shōgun, to the 18th century and the rise of a trading corporation with violence in its constitution. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is a boiled down history of the East India Company and its violent occupation and control of the Indian subcontinent that laid the foundations of the British Raj.

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Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to How to be Both

The first Saturday of January came too soon for me. 2021 started slowly and I’m only gradually emerging from the brain hibernation I’ve been experiencing for the past couple of weeks. But here I am for Six Degrees of Separation. Can I sustain a chain a month for the meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best for another year? This month, we’re starting with a book I read last year, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

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Between Beirut and the Moon

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Read 07/12/2020-16/12/2020

Rating 5 stars

Between Beirut and the Moon is Naji Bakhti’s debut novel. Set in Beirut roughly a decade after the civil war, it follows Adam Najjar and his dream of becoming the first Arab astronaut and the first Arab to walk on the moon. Bakhti is a wry observer of the universal oddness of family and the extra complexity that comes with a Lebanese adolescence. Continue reading

Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast

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Read 23/11/2020-06/12/2020

Rating 5 stars

Ghosts on the Shore is a travel book partly inspired by family history. Paul Scraton is a British writer who has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. His wife grew up in the GDR and spent her early years on the Baltic Coast. Scraton became fascinated by this part of Germany, in part thanks to his wife Katrin’s family photographs and her childhood memories, but also because of the Baltic Coast’s place in the wider history and mythology of Germany. And so he decided to take a trip. Continue reading

Stasiland

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Read 15/11/2020-23/11/2020

Rating 5 stars

Stasiland has the subtitle Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. In it, Anna Funder shares the experiences of a number of East Germans to build a picture of life under an oppressive regime. Her interviewees range from people who tried to escape, people separated arbitrarily from family overnight, and people who worked for the Stasi. There are amazing people between these pages who survived unimaginable horrors, and there are also the people who supported the use of those horrors. I found it a very moving book. Continue reading