Autumn Reading

Is it still Autumn..? Or has winter crept in already? I suspect the latter but it’s a sunny day and still just about November, so here’s 6 books for late autumn and there will be more reviews to come in the dead of winter. Brrr. Sit by an open fire and enjoy…

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

I loved Iona Grey’s debut novel, Letters to the Lost, and once again, with The Glittering Hour, Iona does not disappoint.

The story is written in a dual timeline narrative using the device of letters from Selina to her daughter Alice and a ‘treasure-hunt’ which Alice must follow, as a way in which to switch seamlessly from one time to another (ten years earlier).

Alice has been sent to stay with her cold stern grandparents at Blackwood whilst her parents are abroad, and she misses her mother terribly, though her relationship with her father has always been distant. Her mother’s letters though, bring her some comfort and enable her to explore Blackwood and her mother’s past, while the reader follows first-hand the story of Selina Lennox, one of the renowned ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s, as she meets Lawrence Weston, a struggling young artist.

The book explores the mother and daughter relationship beautifully and evokes the glamour and charm of the 1920s following the losses and pain of the first world war with authenticity. It also shows the reader how pain and grief can lead to bad decision-making which can impact on the rest of one’s life. But at the heart of The Glittering Hour, behind the cocktails and the partying is the vulnerability of a tender and touching love story, beautifully written. Highly recommended.


The Cleaner of Chartres by Sally Vickers

The main narrator of this novel, the quiet, reflective and mysterious Agnès Morel is a foundling raised by nuns, who has spent time in a psychiatric hospital following events in her teenage years and who now in her forties, works as the cathedral’s cleaner. Many people in Chartres have come to appreciate her – the knowledgeable Alain who tells her stories revealed through the architecture and stained glass of the beautiful cathedral, the Abbé Paul who first found Agnes homeless and sheltering in the porch, the artist Robert, the local professor and more. Not everyone however is so well-disposed towards her – most especially Madame Beck who finds out about Agnes’s past through a visit from one of the sisters at the convent and takes pleasure in spreading malicious rumours about her.

Absence and loss dominate Agnès’s life and we learn her history as the past narrative is taken up in sections throughout the present story, interwoven with skill and delicacy. Sally Vickers dwells with love on the descriptive story of Chartres cathedral and has a light but highly observant touch when it comes to the more unpleasant side of human nature. A gentle and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.


After the End by Clare Mackintosh

I was inspired to read this book after listening to an interview on BBC Woman’s Hour with the author, about how Clare Mackintosh’s own traumatic life experience led her to write this work of fiction. In her afterword, the author explains why she explored the issues and emotions in the way she did.

Two year-old Dylan, son of Pip and Max is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Even with surgery it cannot be wholly removed, meaning Pip and Max must make an agonising decision – whether to follow hospital advice and let their boy go or whether to fight for his life, knowing that the life that lies ahead for him will be short, painful and hard. This story is about what happens after the couple each make their decision.

The story is told from three viewpoints – that of Pip, Max and the doctor dealing with Dylan’s case. It is a heart-rending and difficult read and the author was undoubtedly brave to undertake it. As well as dealing with the emotions of all concerned, Clare Mackintosh also questions the ability and right of individuals, society and hospitals to make decisions about another life. What will the future bring? We can answer that question at some point in the future but we can’t answer it in present time, because no one knows and yet sometimes we have to make judgements regardless. While I understand why the author chose to structure the second part of the book in the way she has, I found this and the ending confusing and unsatisfying. However, perhaps there was no other way. Whilst I recommend this extremely thought-provoking book, be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster.


The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

I enjoy reading Philippa Gregory novels – she is thorough in her research and a great story-teller.

However, the Last Tudor isn’t one of my favourites, perhaps because the three Tudor princesses – Jane Grey and her sisters Katherine and Mary are all imprisoned, which means that so much of the book is written from the viewpoint of ‘a prisoner’ (there are three parts, one for each perspective) and this makes the narrative feel a little repetitive at times. Elizabeth I fascinates me as a character but much of the time her actions are necessarily viewed through hearsay and gossip. This book lacks the colour and life of her court that one might expect of the period, even though the emotions of the women are brilliantly invoked.

Each character though is thoughtfully developed and explored and each character is believable and interesting. The love affairs are reconstructed with passion and emotion and the writing is as excellent as ever.

Perhaps then it is the subject matter that let this story down for me. A Gregory historical is always a great read and I always learn a lot about our history too.


The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

It’s a source of considerable excitement for me when one of my favourite authors brings out a new book and let me tell you – this one did not disappoint. As fast-paced and hauntingly original as ever… I was gripped from Page 1.

And what a page one. Abbie emerges from what appears to be a coma in what seems to be a hospital bed. But it wasn’t a coma and she isn’t in hospital. Memories are gradually coming back to her and her much-loved husband Tim, a high flying technophobe is by her side. But what happened to her? Did she have a terrible accident? Did she almost die? Well, yes and no. Because this Abbie is actually a sentient A.I, built by Tim to provide a near-living replica of the dead wife he adored. Is this hard for the reader to believe? Well, no – because A. I. Abbie’s viewpoint is used so cleverly within the pages.

However, as with all this author’s books it does become harder as you read on, to know quite what or who to believe, just as it is hard to guess who the ‘other’ narrator might be. Someone else working at Tim’s company? Someone who calls themselves ‘a friend’ who is not a friend? All will become clear eventually. Simply suspend your disbelief, jump in for the ride and you will enjoy every spooky, disturbing, amazing second of this book, just as I did. Highly recommended.


The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris

This book is pure joy. I love the writing style and it is very much the ‘up-lit’ type genre to be found in successful books recently published such as ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman.

Grace Atherton is a musician who is unable to play to an audience due to a trauma she suffered when at music college. Now, aged 40, she is a violin, viola and cello maker living in Kent and playing alone. She lives alone too, though she has a charming boyfriend David who she meets regularly in Paris, a young shop assistant Nadia – also a talented musician but with problems at home – and Mr Williams, a valued customer who has become a friend. When Grace’s world falls apart, it is Nadia and Mr Williams who help her through.

The novel is set in Paris, Italy and Kent. I especially loved the Paris sections; Paris is a character in its own right in this story. The novel is written entirely from Grace’s point of view and the contemporary story is woven in with the story of her trauma in the past and the progression of her relationship with David. Ultimately, it is a novel about facing up to both the past and the truth and about loss and friendship. It is sad but hopeful and brilliantly written. Very highly recommended and marginally my favourite of the Autumn bunch.


© Rosanna Ley
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