A Siege of Herons – 17 September 2023

A new heron has flown through to grace our shop window. Ophelia, another stunning creation by artist Emily Stevens, is flying South, book in claw. So one can only appreciate that Baskerville chose this same week to release the new Mick Her(r)on, The Secret Hours. If you’re a Jackson Lamb aficionado then you will be delighted to read this prequel to the Slow Horses series and if you’ve yet to discover him and his group of inept secret agents then you are in for a treat: an adventure-filled, pacy, acerbic treat.

Given that this week also saw the publication of Beasts of England by Adam Biles, an anarchic sequel to Animal Farm, there appears to be a theme to recent book releases. Add to that the new books from Katherine Rundell, Impossible Creatures, and from Julia Donaldson, Dormouse Has A Cold, and it’s looking like a conspiracy. I’ll get Jackson Lamb and Ophelia Heron to investigate. And, yes, I think that’s the only time you’ll see a board book in which Doctor Stoat dispenses medical advice in rhyme, a baby-griffin-featuring adventure to rival Tolkien and Pullman, and a savage indictment of populist politics set in a petting zoo all in the same paragraph. Truly something for everyone.

From Orwellian fable to first-hand account, from satire to straightforward statement, Politics on the Edge will destroy any remaining faith you may have had in the government. Yet it’s also enjoyably readable, perhaps because Rory Stewart is frank about his own shortcomings as well as everyone else’s. There’s a link here too to Mick Herron’s characters but, this newsletter having a wide reach and readership, I ran it past the lawyers and was told not to make claims involving the word ‘spook’ and ‘Rory Stewart’ in the same sentence.

If this excoriating account of our political systems leaves you with Burning Questions, Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays – on the end of the end of history, on authoritarianism, on the climate crisis and on how to define granola – is the answer. And if you think that it’s left some of us feeling Hysterical then you need to read Pragya Agarwal’s book exploring how we interpret emotions and destroying the myths that led to such gendered interpretations.

“Escaping” into history may be the thing after all that and thus I must mention The Fraud by Zadie Smith. Despite her protestations that she did not want to write historical fiction, Smith has woven her latest novel around a real 1873 legal case in which a man claimed to be the missing heir to a baronetcy despite all evidence to the contrary. Duplicity, hypocrisy, and alternative truths abound. Maybe not such an escape.

Perhaps try going a little further back, accompanied by Cat Jarman, to discover the secrets hidden in chests stored in Winchester Cathedral for over a thousand years. They contained the bones of the people who saw the creation of England. Unfortunately some of the chests’ contents were used as missiles during the Civil War but there are enough left for Jarman to uncover their extraordinary story in The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons.

Perhaps it all comes back to identity, to cultural history and present, to who we are and how we live. Certainly that’s the impression I get from reading Indiom by Daljit Nagra, a prose poem/play about Indic-heritage poets meeting to perform and to muse on the future of poetry. Under the beady eye of Ophelia, I’ve been enjoying a lesson in how a great writer can come at these subjects sideways and make you laugh while saying something solemn.  

I hope your weekend has been or will be filled with the delights of an impossible creature in one form or another. Ophelia will be delighted to meet you if you have not yet made her acquaintance.

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