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Antarctic misadventures, one 'horrible old lady being locked up by another horrible old lady', and fourteen book recommendations that neatly matches the number of this week's newsletter

Lean, Fall, Stand by Jon McGregor

After a long run of books by women it felt like something of a novelty to pick up a book by a man. I hadn’t read anything by Jon McGregor since If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which we did many years ago for my book club. I liked it, but not enough to seek out his next, Reservoir 13. But I was intrigued that he had spent time in Antarctica as part of the Writers and Artists programme there and that this latest novel was the result. Plus it has what to me is one of the stand-out covers of the year - enough to get me to add it to the pile the last time I bought books. (In fact this one was as a result of a trip to Waterstones with my children where I usually end up spending money on books for them and have a ‘and something for me’ policy that cheers me up about the whole thing.) 

It tells the story of three men who are based at an isolated Antarctic research station. Two are there to update the map data for that section of coastline, the other, Robert 'Doc' Wright, is an older man, veteran of many Antarctic seasons who is there as technical support. The opening is incredibly atmospheric as a sudden storm separates the trio and I thought the way McGregor handled the shifts from one perspective to another was brilliant. I also loved his descriptive language, it felt like I was there.

I was a little surprised then, when there is a shift in focus in the middle third of the book and Anna, Doc’s wife, takes over the story. I actually felt more than a little frustrated at this point, it felt like a completely different novel and I wasn’t sure I liked it. I was half expecting it to shift again for the final third but in fact it doesn’t, we stay with the same characters and perspectives and to my surprise my feelings about the book changed. I suppose I let go of my expectations of where I thought the story was going and just enjoyed where it had ended up. I’m being vague, I know, but for me the magic of this book was the journey that it took me on, and the skill of the author who kept me engaged with characters I didn’t necessarily all that much. It ended up being something very unexpected about love, about tenderness, about the bonds between people and about the different ways we can help heal one another. It made me think of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and when I turned to the back and saw a quote from her I thought ‘yes’ - these are definitely two writers who sit side-by-side. Perhaps there's something about telling a very difficult story and yet finding something beautiful in it that they both have in common.

I think it would be brilliant for book club precisely because I don’t think it is for everybody – and I’ve already had one chat with somebody who did not enjoy it in the way that I did. I thought the pacing was really interesting too, it goes from something fast and compulsive into something slow and reflective where change is measured in tiny increments and I thought it was beautifully done. But others may not agree so a good one for book club for sure. Also just to return to that cover, before I read the book I liked it. After I finished I was in awe, such an incredible visual rendering of the fragmented nature of one man’s experience, it’s genius.

Further reading: For tales of Victorian men with beards who went to the White Continent to see how dead they could get, there is no finer book than Terra Incognita, journalist Sara Wheeler's brilliantly entertaining account of the seven months she spent there. Weaving in histories of explorers like Shackleton and Apsley Cherry-Garrard with her own present-day encounters with welcoming Americans and New Zealanders, and depressingly sexist Brits, this is one of my favourite books of all time, funny, fascinating and wise. A Woman in the Polar Night is Christiane Ritter's memoir of the year she spent with her husband living in an isolated hunter's hut in the far north of Svaalbard. She was there for an arctic winter and her account of surviving this and the sense of rebirth with the return of spring makes for rewarding reading that may lead you, too, to look at the world with new eyes. Otherwise, at the frivolous (but enjoyable) end of the scale read Maria Semple's comedy Where d'You Go Bernadette to find out why Antarctica seems a logical space for her heroine to escape to in order to avoid the PTA. I've considered it myself.

The Last of the Duchess by Caroline Blackwood

I was keen to read something else by Caroline Blackwood, whose novel Great Granny Webster I read recently and loved. There are lots of books to choose from, many now out of print, but the trusty London Library has them all (that place really comes into its own when you suddenly get interested in a forgotten author and want to read all their books). So I ordered this one up and happily plunged in, delighted to be immersed once again in Blackwood’s sharp and darkly comic sentences.

The Last of the Duchess is a memoir of Blackwood's time attempting to gain access to the Duchess of Windsor in her last years. Left alone after the death of the Duke in 1972 the Duchess had become a recluse, inaccessible to everyone who once knew her. Lord Snowdon had the idea to try to photograph her, and The Times commissioned Blackwood to write an article to accompany the images. What Blackwood soon discovered, however, was that access to the Duchess was impossible, forbidden by her lawyer, a fearsome women in her eighties by the name of Maître Blum. Maître Blum had sole power of attorney over the Duchess’s estate and Blackwood makes a persuasive case that she deliberately prolonged the Duchess’s life in order to stay in such a position of power and proximity to the woman who could once have been queen. Knowing from Great Granny Webster Blackwood’s previous form in depicting terrible old ladies I was not disappointed in her descriptions of Maïtre Blum: 'I had been warned that Maïtre Blum was a frightening old woman and now I was starting to understand why she intimidated the friends of the Duchess. Despite her age, she managed to give the impression that she might be physically dangerous. There was something ruthless and demented in her glinting, paranoid eyes. She was seething with such rage there seemed a danger she suddenly might be unable to control it, that she might spring at me like a prehistoric beast and claw me with her yellow nails.'

It’s a disquieting book because while it’s a story about Blackwood’s research, and a mini biography of Wallis Windsor’s life, it’s also a poignant story about ageing and a woman who had upset many in the British establishment, and who was left with no protection once her husband died. Blackwood discovers that The Duchess, once arguably the most glamorous, most-photographed woman in the world, renowned for her lavish hospitality and the exquisite environments she created for herself and her guests, has become reduced to a shrivelled and blackened husk of a woman, denied any visitors or human contact, kept alive by tubes and surgeries. Many of the aristocratic women Blackwood interviews, Lady Diana Mosley, Countess Mountbatten, Lady Diana Cooper among others, are also elderly and lamenting the vicissitudes of time and old age. One of the most poignant interviews is with Lady Monckton, once married to the Duke of Windsor's barrister Walter Monckton (who helped the Duke write his abdication speech), now living in a nursing home. She seems to derive genuine pleasure from reliving her memories of the Duchess looking through photos in the book that Blackwood has brought, but after a short time the visit is cut short by a nurse. 'I wished I could take her with me, she looked so desolate and deserted,' writes Blackwood. 'She seemed to be on the verge of tears. I wished I could drive her to the airport where she could get on a jet and fly to Paris to join the young Duchess and her dead husband. I wished she could have a glamorous dinner with the Duchess, that all the flowers on the table could be sprayed with Diorissimo. But none of these wishes were realistic. Lady Monckton was never going to see her best friend again. Even if she were to find the strength to get to Paris, Maïtre Blum would never allow her to visit the Duchess. It was much too late for that.'

As with Granny Webster, I love the way Blackwood ostensibly writes about one thing but ends up weaving in something else. This seemingly lighthearted memoir is in fact a meditation on fading glamour and power and the vulnerability of women who marry powerful men. I recommend it highly and am now quite a bit obsessed by the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, flawed human beings that they were.

Further reading: As a non-Crown watcher I might have been more at sea with the various aristocrats who feature in the book, or the ins and outs of the royal family but luckily I had read Ma'am Darling, Craig Brown's hugely entertaining portrait of Princess Margaret, which is a clever compilation of articles, extracts from memoirs and reminiscences from people who encountered her. It's not a subject I would have considered myself remotely interested in, but this book is a joy and I lapped it up. Casting about, I can't find many other books about the British Royals in my mental library except for Red, White and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, a thoroughly lighthearted and entertaining romp that takes as its central premise the fact that the younger of the two Royal princes is gay, and falls in love with the son of the President of the United States. It's somewhat ridiculous, but a lot of fun.

Three to Try


Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Sarah K of the Bookcast Club podcast recommended this in such a way that it is now jumping up and down begging to be added to my TBR pile. 'They’re not pets. Not ghosts or robots. These are kentukis, and they are in your home. They’re everywhere. They’re watching you…They've infiltrated apartments in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Sierra Leone, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana. Anonymous and untraceable, these seemingly cute cuddly toys reveal the beauty of connection between far-flung souls – but they also expose the ugly truth of our interconnected society. Samanta Schweblin's wildly imaginative new novel pulls us into a dark and complex world of unexpected love, playful encounters and marvellous adventures. But beneath the cuddly exterior, kentukis conceal a truth that is unsettlingly familiar and exhilaratingly real. This is our present and we’re living it – we just don’t know it yet.' According to Sarah it's a quick, powerfully compulsive read that she thinks everyone will interpret differently, so perfect for book club.

Unquiet by Linn Ullmann

From this week's Daunt Books newsletter, this one caught my eye: He is a renowned Swedish filmmaker and has a plan for everything. She is his daughter, by the actress he directed and once loved. Each summer of her childhood, the daughter visits the father at his remote Faro island home on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Now that she's grown up - a writer, with children of her own - and he's in his eighties, they envision writing a book together, about old age, language, memory and loss. She will ask the questions. He will answer them. The tape recorder will record. But it's winter now and old age has caught up with him in ways neither could have foreseen. And when the father is gone, only memories, images and words -- both remembered and recorded - remain. And from these the daughter begins to write her own story, in the pages which become this book. Heart-breaking and spell-binding, Unquiet is a seamless blend of fiction and memoir in pursuit of elemental truths about how we live, love, lose and age. Rachel Cusk says of it: 'Linn Ullmann has written something of beauty and solace and truth. I don't know how she managed to sail across such dangerous waters' 

Reeducated by Lucy Kellaway 

I've always been really interested in ex-FT journalist Lucy Kellaway's Now Teach project. Kellaway overturned her career as a successful journalist and left her comfortable marriage and home to retrain as a teacher. Not only that she launched a charity that would help other people who had enjoyed successful careers in other fields to do the same. Re-educated tells the story of her life and her successes and failures as she attempts to remake it. Rosie Kinchen in The Sunday Times said it reminded her of a wiser, smarter Bridget Jones 'as Kellaway describes the erosion of her marriage, battles with PowerPoint and entering the treacherous waters of online dating.' I'm fascinated by Kellaway's motivations and bravery in tearing up her comfortable and successful life and like the idea that it's possible to start a completely new chapter at any age, so I'm quite curious to read more.

What to Listen To

If you haven't listened already don't miss our Women's Prize shortlist show that was a huge amount of fun to make but also a ton of work so I'm keen to keep on nagging people about listening to it. Hear what Laura and I, plus our two guests Elizabeth Morris and Sarah Oliver, thought of all six shortlisted books, what we loved and what we didn't, and which one we think should win. The prize is now announced in September so there's plenty of time to read the books. We worked hard to keep the spoilers out, so you might listen to the show and then dive in to the one that sounds like the best fit for you.

On the same theme I enjoyed the most recent Women's Prize podcast in which all six of the shortlisted authors were interviewed. Having thought so much about the books it was interesting to hear more on the inspiration and thought processes behind them.

A couple of other enjoyable listens for me this week – The Bookcast Club's latest show features Sarah K and Sarah T running through their best books of 2021 so far. I loved hearing about their favourites and have added several to my 'want to read' list. 

And proving that my book club have firm ideas of their own when it comes to choosing our next read they've picked something I would probably never have read in a million years. It's called Darkness Falls from the Air by British author Nigel Balchin who was a household name in his day but is now forgotten by all but a few. I was happy to discover there is a Backlisted Podcast episode on the book and enjoyed listening to it enormously. Catch up with it here if you're curious to hear more about a minor British masterpiece.

What Kate is reading:

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason which is just as good as everyone says. Compulsive, laugh-out-loud funny and also devastatingly sad. I can't put it down. But when I do, on the phone scroll I've got Lore by Alexandra Bracken which is meeting my need for a good dose of YA fantasy escapism.

What Laura is reading

Laura survived the West Coast heat wave this past week on the bucolic Bowen Island. She finished two books in one week, a feat not accomplished since the arrival of her daughter almost two years ago. The first was The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri, a bestselling Italian author who writes of the night three 30-somethings return to their hometown in Puglia for an annual reunion to find their Art has disappeared. In their quest to find him, they tangle with the local mafia, stumble through the heat-baked countryside, and get drawn into dark magic (maybe). An undemanding pageturner that keeps you guessing, it was just the ticket for Laura’s first break of the summer. The second book? More on that next week.

Browse our bookshop. We've had fun putting together a shop window of this week's recommendations. If you're thinking of investing in any of them, buying through supports independent bookshops and you'll also be supporting us at the pod.

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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