Top Winter Titles

I should have posted this a couple of months ago! However – all these winter warmers are among the best books I’ve read in the past few years – every one is a winner.

Child of the Ruins by Kate Furnival ****

I really enjoyed this sweeping and dramatic story. The setting is post-war Berlin and Kate Furnival captures the atmosphere perfectly – the sense of a divided city in ruins, the place, the pain, the suffering and the poverty.

In this world, Anna is searching for a long-lost child – Felix – and we feel her desperation as she imagines she sees his features, his colouring, his gestures, in every child she encounters. She is also feeling betrayed by her lover, a Russian soldier who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, Anna tries to find work, procure food, and look after her mother – who gave Felix away when Anna was sick with fever.

When Anna first meets Ingrid, she is not sure whether she is friend and foe. But in this world, it seems that Ingrid can be both. Everyone is trying to survive and everyone does what they have to do for survival and for love. Anna and Ingrid are both strong and complex characters and the story is told mainly from their perspectives.

It is a harsh world. But there are also a few beautiful and perfect moments, and more than one intense love story. Can Anna and Timur find their way back to one another against all the odds? Can Ingrid and Otto find a way through? And can Anna ever forgive her mother for what she has done?  This is an emotionally powerful and compelling story and I was immersed from beginning to end. Highly recommended.


End of Story by Louise Swanson ***

This is a cleverly constructed and well-written book with an ingenious twist at the end – but no spoilers here…

Fern Dolstoy (now Dalrymple) is a best-selling author living in a dystopian world where all fiction books have been banned and children are no longer allowed to listen to bedtime stories. Her only social interactions are with neighbour Laura and ‘Fine-Fayre’ the tea-man. Her dearest friends, two other authors, have disappeared, her husband Cal is dead and Fern works as a hospital cleaner. Periodically, she is monitored by ‘the tall man and the short man’ who are there to ensure she isn’t writing.

But Fern is writing – a diary of her days. One day, she receives a message and is introduced to ‘Bedtime Stories,’ a group of rebels who are taking calls from children and reading them stories. Fern joins the group and befriends Hunter, an eight-year-old boy who wants to be read to. But the group is in danger, Fern is scared her notebook will be discovered and she may have her fingers cut off or be removed to a ‘re-education centre’. Things are happening in this world which are scarily similar to things she wrote of in her best-selling ‘Technological Amazingness’.

The viewpoint is Fern’s throughout and as readers, we feel her sadness and pain. This dystopian world feels believable. But if it is – how can Fern Dolstoy come to terms with it and survive?


Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan ****

This is a great collaboration between two talented writers.

Olivia is a bee-keeper who lives with her son Asher in Adams. She left her husband Braden because of his escalating violence towards her and because of her fear that Asher would learn, inherit or suffer from similar behaviour.

Lily is a student in the same year as Asher, also living with a single mother, who has experienced significant trauma during her childhood and young adult life. Asher and Lily fall madly in love, but the secrets they keep make their relationship a volatile affair rather than a trusting one.

This book tackles thought-provoking and controversial issues of our time with intelligence and sensitivity. It is told from the viewpoints of Lily and Olivia and through them we learn a lot. Lily is a fountain of trivia and general knowledge and Olivia is wise and an expert on bee behaviour, a fascinating thread cleverly woven through the novel.

Can there be any happy ending? There are plenty of shocks and twists along the way in this compelling and absorbing story. Very highly recommended.


Bad Men by Julie Mae Cohen ****

Saffy became a killer at a young age – she murdered her step-father in order to save her beloved sister Susie from the abuse that she herself was forced to suffer. It is an abuse which has understandably made her dislike ‘bad men’ – those who cheat on or abuse their partners – and so she continues her hobby of killing them in order to help save other innocent women too.

Saffy is rich, independent and in control… at least, until she meets crime journalist Jon and becomes wildly attracted to him. Attracted enough to kill in order to capture his attention? Perhaps not. But certainly attracted enough to stage a meeting…

But will he ever feel the same towards her? When Jon becomes embroiled in a crime drama of his own, Saffy may have to show her cards – or is she clever enough to avoid this too?

I loved the character of Saffy and the book is written with Julie Cohen’s usual wit, humour and perception. It’s a mix of crime thriller, comic romance and yet it’s thought-provoking too. Pure joy.


The Close by Jane Casey ***

This is the first Jane Casey book that I have read and it did not disappoint. The book is the latest in the series featuring DC Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent and they are suitably classy and interesting detectives who (predictably?) have the hots for one another as well as being close friends.

The latest case involves a surveillance team of two (who else?) posing as a couple dog-sitting in a house in the seemingly innocent Jellicoe Close where nothing is as innocent as it seems and pretty much everyone is under suspicion for something. Soon, they are embroiled, not only in surveillance but also in the increasing intensity of their personal relationship, plus other cases of stalking, assault and murder, no less.

It all hums along satisfactorily with plenty of clues, red herrings, sexual tension and suspense with a high page-turnability factor… until the final twist and denouement. Hugely enjoyable.


The Last House on the Street by Diane Chamberlain ***

This story has two timelines and two narrators.

In 1965, Ellie tells the story of when she became involved with SCOPE, an organisation aiming to make it easier for people of colour to vote – in what should be a basic American right. Ellie is a rich, white girl of twenty, living in North Carolina and no one in her home town understands why she is doing this – most of the white townsfolk are more than happy for their current lifestyle and those of the black people they live alongside, to remain exactly as it is. Ellie however, is fired up to pursue Civil Rights and continues her fight, even while alienating all of her family and friends in the process. But when she is seen with Win, a young black man who also works in the SCOPE group, their disapproval turns to something much nastier, something which will affect everyone in the town, even forty-five years later.

In 2010, Kayla, a widow, is moving to Shadow Ridge near Ellie’s old home with her three year-old daughter Ranie. But she is half-scared of her brand new beautifully architect-designed home and the woods that surround it. She hears that something bad once happened here and her husband died here too. Is someone trying to scare her away and if so, what should she do about it?

Ellie moves back temporarily in 2010 to take care of her mother and brother and the two women meet and discover their shared history. But can they also discover the truth surrounding the forty-five year-old mystery that so changed Ellie’s life?

This is a dark and thought-provoking story, told with Chamberlain’s usual skill and sensitivity. Highly recommended.


Autumn Leaves

There are some real crackers in my selection this autumn. Settle down and enjoy… 

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait ****

Sister, mothers, daughters… this novel plunges the reader into the world of dysfunctional families with wisdom, humour and poignancy.

Growing up isn’t easy for Alice and Hanna. Their parents divorce and their mother is needy, confrontational, bad at communicating, no good at apologising (hence the title) and obsessed with her own childhood experience of being both ‘unloved and unlovely’. The two sisters try to cope, each in their own way, but trouble and trauma is never far from home and both have to make an emotional journey in order to repair the damage to themselves and their relationship.

Rebecca Wait is fair to their mother Celia though. Through flashback chapters, we learn about her childhood experiences, and knowledge can lead to understanding…

Men feature too. But they take the shape of Michael their disapproving elder brother who has plenty of his own problems to face and their absent father, who is mostly hopeless.

Alice and Hanna though, are both warm and engaging characters and the dialogue in the book – not to mention the set pieces – is hilarious. Highly recommended.

In Little Stars by Linda Green ***

This is a topical novel, based on real-life events, as Linda Green states in her acknowledgements, at least as a starting point for the fiction.

The story features two families: one predominantly Moslem, although the mother, Sylvie is of French origin. Her husband Bilal is a successful consultant and traditionalist – he wants to bring up their teenagers Rachid and Amina in the faith.

The second family are working-class Northerners. The father Neil has been brought up by a (carelessly racist) father and Neil’s wife Donna struggles with many of his views, especially when their son Sam appears to be adopting similar principles. Their teenage daughter Jodie, however, takes the opposite stance. She is fierce in her anti-Brexit opinions and unshaking belief in equality.

When Rachid and Jodie meet on the train to college, they are immediately attracted to one another and soon start a relationship and fall in love. But how can they tell their families? And what will they do when circumstances spin out of their control?

The narrative is written from the perspectives of the two mothers Sylvie and Donna with text messages between Rachid and Jodie and sections in their viewpoints too. It is a shocking and powerful story. Linda Green does not hold back and in consequence this is an authentic and thought-provoking read.

Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent ****

When Sally’s beloved father died, she did what he told her to do and put him out with the bins – to be incinerated. She doesn’t understand why that’s so odd and that’s our first glimpse into the strange and sheltered life of Sally Diamond. Her father Tom (a psychiatrist) and mother Jean adopted Sally with full knowledge of her childhood trauma. But although they loved her, Tom was also interested in his daughter as a case study and he firmly believed that allowing her to be isolated was the best way forward.

But now, as the story begins, Sally becomes the centre of attention from the media, the police and a sinister voice from a past she has no memory of. Her father’s notes enable her to discover the horrors of her childhood, but she must also undergo therapy to enable her to find independence, make friends and learn to control her anger. When a stranger appears in her life (a stranger who has his own narrative voice in this novel) Sally has to decide whether or not to trust him, whether she can let him in.

Sally’s perspective is believable and interesting and I enjoyed the questions thrown up by this novel. Can someone truly escape from a trauma of their childhood or will they be scarred and influenced for ever?

I found it dark, heart-breaking and chillingly compelling…

The Flames by Sophie Haydock ****

Vally (his long-term lover and model), Gertrude (his sister), Edith (his wife) and Adele (his sister-in-law) are the four women who surround the Austrian artist Egon Schiele during his short lifetime.

They all loved him and they all modelled for him and the author has taken the few facts known about their lives and crafted them into a highly readable fictional account of Egon and his ‘flames’.

The story is split into sections, taking the viewpoints of each woman in turn, along with their portrait, interspersed with the perspectives of Adele (as an old woman) and Eva (who meets her when she knocks her over with her bicycle). The story concludes with the view of the artist himself and is also informed by his remarkable paintings.

I became highly involved with each perspective one by one. Each woman is a fascinating individual, the character deftly drawn, and each is given a voice which is both authentic and highly interesting. Events may have taken a different course in reality – who knows? – but the author bases her story on certain intriguing pieces of evidence that cannot be ignored. The greatest evidence though, is in the faces and poses of the women themselves. A gorgeous novel. I loved it.

Foster by Claire Keegan ***

In rural Ireland, a young girl is taken by her father to stay with some unknown relatives. Her mother is about to have another baby and there are too many children in the family to manage. At first, the girl is anxious, but during that summer with the Kinsellas, she grows up; she blooms.

Keegan writes about the landscape, about loss and belonging and character emotions in subtle and spare prose that cuts with precision to the heart of things. The story is short and has a simple structure, but the layering of characters, dialogue and actions is highly complex. Keegan plunges us into the perspective of the young protagonist, and as readers, we learn as she does. There are moments of tension, of foreshadowing and of pure poignancy. Much to be admired.

Tell me How This Ends by Jo Leevers ****

I loved this story about grief and loss that turned into a bit of a murder mystery.

The eccentric and lonely Henrietta gets a new job at the Grief Centre – her brief: to interview the terminally ill and create a Life Story for them and their relatives. There is a strict protocol to follow, but when Henrietta starts talking to Annie Doyle, it becomes impossible to stick to the script. Annie – who will not survive past Christmas – lost her sister in a drowning accident many years ago when Kath was only eighteen and she also lost her husband Terry to a motorway accident three years ago.

But there is a mystery behind the drowning which intrigues Henrietta and she starts to investigate further. To her surprise, she finds herself wanting to confide her own story to Annie and as she delves deeper, Annie becomes a friend.

There is a wonderful sense of character journey in this novel. The characters of Annie and Henrietta – who take alternate viewpoints for most of the story – are interesting and appealing, but despite lovely touches of humour, there is a huge sadness and a sense of a life wasted. However, this story about loss and grief is also about putting the past to rest and even about second chances, so there is also a reassuring sense of hope. Highly recommended.


Summer Pages

House of Correction by Nicci French ****

Tabitha has returned to the remote coastal village where she grew up but it seems that this was a mistake. She didn’t fit in then, and very little has changed – apart from the fact that (crucially) she is being accused of murdering her old schoolteacher Stuart Rees. The question is – did Tabitha do it? It seems that she had the motive, and his dead body was certainly found in her shed. But Tabitha is suffering from severe bouts of depression and she can’t remember the events of that day. It’s a blur. She doesn’t think she is capable of murder – but who else could be responsible?

As Tabitha is in prison awaiting trial, she rejects her defence lawyer’s suggestion to plead guilty to manslaughter and decides to represent herself. She trawls through hours of CCTV footage and piles of paperwork in an effort to discover the truth, fighting, against all odds, to clear her name and claim her freedom.

In this twisty tale, Nicci French tackles themes of prejudice, loneliness and the fighting spirit, producing, as always, an excellent and compelling read.


The Elopement by Tracy Rees ****

It is 1897 and society beauty Rowena Blythe is feeling the pressure. She is expected to marry well and soon… but she is restless. Surely there is more to life than what she is experiencing right now?

It turns out there is much more. Rowena falls in love with the romantic and bohemian artist’s apprentice who is helping to paint her portrait and for Rowena, things will never be the same again.

The other main protagonists in this warm and engaging story are Pansy, servant girl at the Blythes’ but with other and bigger ambitions and Olive Westallen, a woman with a fortune equal to that of the Blythes’ but with a very different attitude towards what she should do with it. Olive was my favourite character in the book – she has such a refreshing attitude to life and she embraces the unconventional; she seems untouched by the hypocrisies and narrowness of late Victorian times; in contrast, she has set up a foundation which attempts to help those without means, without a voice and without money, so that they can learn to make their own way in life. Through Olive, Tracy Rees questions high-handed patriarchy and misogyny as well as the unfairness of the class system of the time.

This author has a gift for story-telling and for creating warm, lively and individual characters who spring from the page and to show us what late-Victorian life was like for some – in the most delightful and entertaining way.


Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan ***

It is 1985 in a small Irish town where life is hard for many people. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces his busiest season and at least has a house and enough to eat. He loves his family, but he is restless. Is this all that life holds, he wonders? This endless struggle to make ends meet? His wife Eileen is of the opinion that it’s better not to think too deeply about things, but it’s not like that for Bill. He sees his future stretching in front of him – an endless routine of work and identical Sundays ruled by the Church. He always has worries on his mind. But lately, he has started imagining something different…

Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him to confront both his past and the complicit silences of a town controlled by the Church. He is a good man, his own upbringing was dependent on the kindness and goodwill of others towards his un-married mother and now, he wrestles with his conscience. Can he live himself if he ignores what he has discovered? Or can he find the courage to show true Christian compassion in the face of the anger of the Church?

This book is a short read and it feels under-developed in terms of the ending, but it is hard-hitting and thought-provoking and will stay with you for much longer. Highly recommended.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout ***

Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her and this unexpected and often moving visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters.

Lucy is an observant and fluent narrator and I enjoyed the quips and comments about human behaviour, memories and the way we all manoeuvre our passage through the world. The structure of the book is interesting – we flip back and forward in narrative time continually, but it is always clear when and where we are. And the writing style is direct, conversational, almost poetic at times in the use of repetition, which works well to create tension too.

As a writer, I enjoyed some of the writerly bits, for example when the narrative voice is confused with the author’s voice by a reader, and some of the comments about how writers have to be, and there were some powerful touches throughout. Above all in this book, the mother and daughter relationship is key. Highly recommended.


Free Love by Tessa Hadley ***

Set in London in the 1960s, this novel captures the vibe of the time; the sense of sexual and intellectual awakening for women. The Fischer family seem at first to belong to a different world of suburbia and conventions. Phyllis is the domestic goddess – or at least a homemaker who is fortunate enough to have a cleaner and home help – but she is expert at playing the part expected of her. She has had a sheltered upbringing and little sexual experience before meeting her husband Roger, and she seems content to flirt meaninglessly at parties and to focus on making the house look beautiful. Roger is a devoted father with a career in the Foreign Office; their marriage is considerate and affable, but clearly not passionate nor based even on a strong love and affection. Their children are Colette, a bookish but wanting to be rebellious teenager, who is trying to fit in, make friends at school and find a way of being herself at the same time and Hugh, the golden boy, adored by his mother.

Everything changes for this family when the twenty-something son of an old friend pays the Fischers a visit one hot summer evening, and kisses Phyllis in the dark garden after dinner. Something in her catches fire. Newly awake to the world, Phyllis makes a choice that defies all expectations of her as a wife and a mother.

It turns out that nothing in these ordinary lives is so ordinary after all, as the family’s upheaval mirrors the dramatic transformation of the society around them. Tessa Hadley is expert at exploring her characters’ inner worlds, laying bare their fears and longings.

My one criticism of this book is that the ending felt rushed. I felt that I wanted more development of the main characters at key moments in the later stages, whilst in fact we were whisked rapidly through narrative time in these sections. However, I still loved the book and it was a hugely enjoyable read.


Tell Me How to Be Me by Neel Patel ****

Akash is a struggling songwriter who is also struggling to come out to his family and overcome his unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Added to this, his father Ashok has recently died.

Akash’s mother Renu was pressurised into an arranged marriage to Ashok but has always loved another man, a Muslim, and found it hard to relate to her younger son.

I was quickly drawn into this story of complex relationships, and I appreciated the rapid and snappy viewpoint sections moving to and fro between Akash and Renu. It is a style which enables the characters and situations to be developed and explored in an intense and revealing way. Most of this narrative is addressed to the 2nd person ‘you’ (there are two ‘you’s) and this adds a touch of mystery and narrative tension to the early stages of the novel. Do these romantic relationships exist only in the mind? Only time will tell.

But the novel works so well because not only does it address big personal, sexual and cultural issues as well as family drama, but it is harrowing and also (at times) hilariously funny. That’s my kind of combination and I loved it.


© Rosanna Ley
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