Here’s some late Autumn reading to warm your cockles…
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell ****
Maggie O’Farrell is a favourite author of mine and in this novel, in which she used the life of Shakespeare and specifically the death of his son Hamnet as her starting point, she is at her most poetic and compelling.
The novel does not pretend to be the story of Hamnet’s death – there is not enough information available for this to be even possible – rather, it is an imaginative re-creation of what could have happened, how a family at that time in England might have felt on losing a precious child, what this might have done to a marriage. Shakespeare himself is often not present. He is away working in Stratford or London with his players, immersing himself in the world of writing, having left his family behind in a place where he was being gradually destroyed by the expectations and influence of his father. Rather, it is his wife Agnes, who we get to know. O’Farrell has portrayed her as a mystical, spiritual woman, a healer, an eccentric who will never forgive herself for being unable to save her son.
The book then isn’t about narrative tension – we already know what is going to happen. It’s about the relationships, the characters, the psychology, the context. And the repercussions of grief. It’s about chance too. O’Farrell switches seamlessly between the wisdom of the omniscient narrator and the emotive power of character viewpoint and internal dialogue, while the type of story it is, allows the author to indulge her love of going off on fascinating, descriptive tangents. But she always takes her reader along for the ride. Highly recommended.
The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans ***
When we first meet Catherine, a successful barrister, in May 2018, she is clearly troubled by shadows from her past, and it is no surprise when she vanishes from a train station on the eve of her wedding anniversary. The past in question centres around the mysterious West Country manor house of Vanes and the events of 1989 when a young girl Janey Lestrange arrived to stay with the Hunter family. Janey is grieving the death of her beloved father and she becomes involved with the twins Joss and Kitty Hunter as the long hot summer gradually draws them all towards the ancient ceremony of ‘The Collecting’ of the bees’ honey from the Hive in the abandoned Chapel, where Janey, along with Kitty, play the role of ‘The Beloved Girls’.
The narrative switches between Catherine and Janey and between 1989 and 2018, and has just the right amount of mystery to keep the reader guessing. The description of that 1989 summer at Vanes is evocative and atmospheric and the female voices are strong and compelling. This is a book about friendship and feminism and I very much enjoyed immersing myself in it.
The Flight by Julie Clark ****
Claire Cook seems to have a perfect life. But behind closed doors, we discover that her husband, a highly successful and ambitious politician, is both controlling and abusive. Unsurprisingly, Claire would love to disappear… Enter Eva, brought up in a foster home who has become embroiled with some unsavoury characters and who is now in trouble and needs to disappear. What better way then than to make a switch at the airport and board each other’s flight?
There’s plenty of danger ahead though, for both women – it’s a bit of a roller-coaster ride. And gradually we learn about their pasts and how they came to this point in their lives – the detail is filled in seamlessly without holding up the action.
This is a fast-paced psychological thriller which was right up my street. The dual plot lines worked well and both stories were compelling. The characters were well-developed and there were enough twists and turns to keep this reader happy. A high level of suspense makes for a gripping read and the plot turned out to have even more complexity than I thought at first. Highly recommended.
The New Girl by Harriet Evans ****
There’s more than one new girl in this story written primarily from the viewpoints of Margot, Maggie and Winnie. Maggie is the first newbie to enter the story when she takes over Margot’s highly desirable job of fashion editor at the prestigious Haute magazine during her maternity leave and becomes ‘the new girl’ in the office. It is hard for her to find a way to step into the successful shoes of the glamorous Margot but soon Maggie is doing her dream job so effectively that Margot worries she might have lost the position forever.
Meanwhile, Margot’s best friend Winnie who is also pregnant, tragically loses her baby soon after his birth. She promptly cuts Margot out of her life, bringing back memories of the time she did this once before – the worst time of Margot’s life – when Helen, another ‘new girl’ at school destroyed their closeness. As Margot’s anxieties increase, fuelled by the hate messages she is receiving on social media from ‘Helenknows’ we realise that the shadows of the past have had far-reaching consequences and that Margot has secrets that she needs to hide. When Margot’s daughter Lila (the third new girl) is born, Margot is consumed by the thought that she might lose her just as Winnie lost Jack. Margot begins to unravel – she just can’t work out who is on her side.
The first third of the story is fairly slow but interesting as the characters develop and the story is set up. In the second third, the pace quickens and in the third there are enough twists and turns to keep most readers guessing. I really enjoyed this book with its background of the world of fashion, while the themes of loss, female friendship and rivalry and anxiety were compelling. I didn’t fully warm to any of the characters and I found the ending slightly disappointing, but nevertheless this was a gripping read and I would highly recommend.
Grandmothers by Sally Vickers *****
The story weaves between three main narrators – Nan, Blanche and Minna, all grandmothers in their way. Nan is grandmother to Billy; while her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law can be tricky, she shares with Billy a love of humour, adventure and exploration and it falls to her to teach him about some of the more difficult aspects of life – such as lying and death (!)
A row with her son means Blanche is separated from her beloved granddaughter Kitty, but after a period of going off the rails (during which time, she meets Nan) she manages to see her granddaughter all the same and discovers a new life for herself too along the way.
Minna is no relation to the sensitive and imaginative Rose, but plays the role of grandmother by caring for her, and sharing both her world of childish imagination in toys that come alive and her pleasure in children’s literature. But when family problems threaten to move Rose’s family to Glasgow and away from Minna, Minna finds new strength and purpose. Even she is powerless to help Rose when Rose is thrust into an adult world that shocks her, but by then, Rose and Minna have met Nan and Billy and together they find a way through.
The stories of the three women and their grandchildren are absorbing enough, but it is the complexities of the relationships, the subtle nuances, the clever twists and turns that make this book such an excellent read. The three female protagonists are very far from perfect, but Sally Vickers grants them ways in which to find insight, and the results are both thought-provoking and fascinating. Highly recommended and my book of the season.
Circe by Madeleine Miller ****
Miller takes the Ancient Greek tale of the Goddess Circe, she of the mystical powers, and spins it into a captivating story of her own.
Circe, the narrator, is shown here to be a fascinating creature – both flawed and wise, growing on her life’s journey and finding a way forward in her immortality just as human characters do. We see her as a child, spurned by her family for her lack of beauty and her ‘thin’ mortal voice, adoring her father Helios, God of the Sun and falling in love with a mortal, which unhappy experience leads to her discovery of her powers of transformation. Instead of being glorified for this however, Circe is exiled to a deserted island and here she lives alone, except for those – like Odysseus – who visit her. Circe develops her powers, growing first bitter and eventually strong.
The story is a compelling one. The Ancient Greek Gods have long been an interesting subject, but here, it is the author’s imagination that takes the story to a higher and more emotive level. As readers, we feel for Circe when she is badly treated and we share her joy when she eventually finds the happiness she deserves. I was already waiting for that final twist, but it didn’t spoil the ending for me. Highly recommended.
It has been a strange eighteen months to say the least. Many people have suffered – physically, mentally, with the loss of a loved one and more. And what of writing?
Writers are a mixed bag and so it seems are their reactions to the pandemic. Some have cherished their increased ‘me-time’; time in which to write, reflect, enjoy a quieter time in their environment. Others have found themselves stuttering to a temporary halt, creatively speaking. It is not always easy to immerse oneself in another world when the world we are living in seems to be suffering so very much.
For myself, the pandemic has come at a time when I had already planned to take longer to write my next book. I feel fortunate. There have been times when I have gained huge inspiration from a natural landscape that has often seemed so much more peaceful than usual. And there have been other times when I have felt simply unable to write, due to various pressures or anxieties, and then, I have been able to take a break, without too much concern.
From a more practical standpoint, my next research trip to southern Italy was postponed three times in 2020 and 2021… This has made it impossible to write scenes in situ and I’ve been forced to write the story with huge gaps – to be filled in later.
But I’m pleased to report that I have now visited Puglia, done all my research and am well on the way with the book at last. It was wonderful to go back to Italy and to see all the places that I wanted to write about up close and personal.
The working title for the book is ‘The Lost Garden’ and here are a few research photos from my trip.
I’ve been busy writing my new WIP and promoting ‘The Orange Grove’ this spring and early summer but here are a few summer reads that I’ve enjoyed – starting with my Book of the Season, ‘Playing Nice’ by JP Delaney . Happy Summer Reading…
Playing Nice by JP Delaney *****
JPD happens to be one of my favourite authors. He has this way of drawing you in from the first page and he will not let you go. This book is no exception.
Peter Riley has just dropped his rather difficult two year-old Theo off at nursery when two men come round to the house. And guess what? One of them is an older version of his son Theo… We want to talk to you about your son, they say. Uh huh. This is the kind of opening I’m talking about.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers but let’s just say there has been a mix-up (!) and two sets of parents have ended up with the wrong baby. What should they do? They could be polite and civilised and find a way of dealing with this without too much upheaval and distress by ‘playing nice’. But what if that doesn’t work? Then I suppose it’s time to ‘play dirty’.
The main characters are all complex, flawed and believable, just as you would expect from a JPD novel. The plot is delightfully twisty and unexpected. There are some thought-provoking issues such as the relevance of nature versus nurture and the strength of blood ties. And as usual, the author delves into the psychology of the situation with wit, realism and empathy.
There is a bit of a plot contrivance which should stop me giving this book 5 stars, but I enjoyed it so much that I’m letting it go. Very highly recommended. The best psychological thriller writer around IMO. And my Book of the Season.
Unbreak Your Heart by Katie Marsh ****
I was fortunate enough to be sent an advance copy of Katie’s new book which I devoured in just a few sittings. It’s that kind of book – emotive and warm, it kind of wraps its arms around you and envelops you in a warm hug. Right now, that feels very welcome.
Seven-year-old Jake has a serious heart condition which he has learnt to live with. But he knows that the further operation – which he must have in order to lead an active life – doesn’t come without risks. Jake could die and while this is scary in itself, he also doesn’t want to leave his dad, Simon, on his own. Simon has been managing alone since Jake’s mother Tamsin left, and Simon has been grieving for the loss of the love of his life ever since, while struggling to earn a living at the same time as caring for his son. But is she really the woman he thinks she is and how would he feel if Tamsin came back into their lives? Simon is about to find out.
Beth, Simon and Jake’s new next-door neighbour, has come to the small village in the Lake District, determined to forget the past and the mistakes she made while working in the US as a critical care nurse, which continue to haunt her. She becomes drawn to the man and boy next door and the consequent friendship changes each one of their lives forever.
There aren’t any great surprises in this book. But it doesn’t matter, because what there is, is a whole lot of heart. Katie Marsh writes with great insight and sensitivity, her characters are well-drawn and the story just zings with emotion and warmth. A feel-great story. Highly recommended.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams ***
Queenie is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London and working as a journalist. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie is looking for comfort – but not always in the right places. After various disasters that only serve to increase her lack of self-worth, Queenie begins to suffer from anxiety and depression and the book becomes darker as the author explores online dating, anxiety and racism, mixing up serious issues with humour and the value of friendship and love.
The book has been compared to ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ – a comparison that probably relates to the journalistic style of the writing as well as the humour; it is natural, fresh and uncensored, with a strong sense of personal voice and lots of showing rather than telling. I liked this aspect of the book. But be aware that the humour sometimes sits uncomfortably with the dark places to which the narrator goes. Bridget Jones is dippy and embarrassing; Queenie is a far more complex character.
When I started reading, I wasn’t sure how much I liked this book. It seemed so ‘in your face’ that it was almost too much. However, as the story developed and the complexities emerged, I was completely gripped by Queenie’s story.
The Sight of You by Holly Miller **
Mascara warning for this one – it’s not just romantic, it’s the epitome of romantic and will appeal to all the non-cynics out there who believe in true love, soul mates and the power of love…
It’s written from the two points of view of Joel and Callie, two appealing characters who meet in a coffee shop. Their relationship isn’t straightforward though because Callie is grieving following the death of her best friend Grace and Joel has a good reason for not falling in love. He has a secret – he dreams about the people he loves, and those dreams always come true. It’s torturing him. He has had to give up the job which was his life and he has become a caffeine addicted insomniac – dreading what he might dream about next. Nevertheless, he is drawn to Callie and eventually gives in to the power of love…
But one night, Joel has the dream about Callie that he’s been most fearing and they must both decide: can they stay together and live with the knowledge of what is to come or must they let each other go and find happiness elsewhere?
I have to admit that I found it hard to suspend disbelief at times. The story is well-written (if a little over-written at times) with a fresh style and it’s certainly emotive and immersive, but sometimes it’s almost too much. Perhaps I’m too cynical after all? Judging by the reviews, I’m certainly in the minority when it comes to this book. I couldn’t quite believe in the completeness of Joel’s dreaming, characters that were almost too good to be true nor that two people so much in love would let each other go. I love a good romance but this was just too romantic for me…
The Mothers by Sarah J Naughton ***
This is an intriguing psychological thriller about five mothers (only one isn’t a mother): Chrissy, Bella, Skye, Electra and Jen who formed a friendship when they met at their antenatal group. Now, several years later they are still friends and see each other regularly. But one of their husbands has gone missing…
When we first meet them – sometimes from their viewpoint and sometimes from that of the main investigating officer who pits her powers of problem-solving against that of a certain ‘master-criminal’ – they seem to have little in common apart from motherhood. How close are they really? This question runs through the book and the author cleverly reveals the information we need to answer it, bit by bit within a series of well-structured twists and turns.
At the heart of the story is the disappearance of Bella’s husband – but who dunnit and why? The book explores the themes of friendships, motherhood and secrets, of post-natal depression and stillbirth, marital relationships gone right and wrong and lots more besides. It’s packed with drama and is an entertaining read.
The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman ***
The paths of five strangers cross in a London café one morning when an apparently crazed gunman runs in and holds them hostage. The novel is multi-viewpoint so we get to know all the characters one by one and gradually learn that they all have secrets which are somehow addressed through this terrifying situation. which enable them to cope with the situation and also relate to Sam the gunman who has plenty of secrets of his own. Meanwhile the police negotiator Eliza is there to listen to Sam’s story for the benefit of all the characters and readers too.
I found this story to be well-written and gripping, with good tension and characterisation. I believed in the characters to a great extent; it was the way they all got on so well (including the situation) and the feeling that a character had been selected from every possible walk of life that made it hard to suspend disbelief. Sam’s story being told to Eliza in full also seemed rather a contrivance and there was a sentimental slant that spoilt the drama for me.
However, I liked the way that the ‘hostage situation’ was upended, the blurred line between right and wrong that was presented and the fact that as readers we probably ended up feeling sorry for those we might not expect to feel sorry for. There was a lot of nice emotion and sense of character journey and complexity, and the beginning in particular was dramatic and exciting. A very entertaining and compelling read.
Someone Like You by Tracy Corbett
This is a rather delicious romance just perfect for reading in the summer sun, preferably in a sun-lounger with a glass of something cool and fizzy to hand. Lileth Monroe has not had an easy time of it. She has spent most of her young life caring for her elderly grandparents and when her grandfather dies she is desolate. She has ambitions to be a costume designer, but real life and her shy personality have kept her working at a patterns factory where she is underpaid and under-appreciated.
Enter the Caribbean. While on holiday, Lileth decides to re-invent herself as Lily. She already is funny and clumsy but she will now become quirky and confident too – a plan that doesn’t always work out but which does throw her into the arms (literally) of our hero, Will, who is still mourning the death of his wife and has work problems too.
There are plenty of obstacles along the way to stop these two getting together, and although this is a simple and romantic tale, there are some thought-provoking issues being addressed, such as grief and the problems of being a single parent. As always, Tracy Corbett writes with warmth and humour about characters who are both flawed and lovable and as always this is a hugely entertaining read.
- It’s getting colder – time for some late Autumn goodies…
- Writing and Researching during a Pandemic
- Summer Sizzlers – my summer reading
- The Seville Orange and Almond Cake
- The Writing Walk
- Winter Reading Hotties
- Returning to Belle-ile-en-mer
- The Creation of a New World (to Everyone who Does It)
- Autumn Warmers
- Research in the Walled Gardens
- Late Summer Reading…
- Writing Cinematically
- June News
- Spring Reading (In Lockdown…)
- Returning to Mandalay
- Writing at the Finca in February
- Winter Reading
- Oranges in Seville
- Autumn Reading
- Portishead Visit
- An Italian Supper
- Spirit of Place
- Writing at Finca el Cerrillo – seven reasons for a group leader to host a Writing Holiday
- Summer Reading – 8 books to add to your summer tbr pile
- Self-Promotion – how ready are you to shout about it?
- Featuring The Lemon Tree Hotel
- On the Scent of a Storyline
- Location for The Lemon Tree Hotel
- Spring Reading 2019
- March Madness
- The Books I Read this Winter (so far…)
- The Books I Read this Summer…
- My Summer
- Sense of Place
- Winter Reading 2017
- Planning or Pantsing…
- Summer Reading 2017
- Another Little Theatre by the Sea
- Give Bosa a Hug From Me
- Spring Reading 2017
- How Bosa became Deriu
- Whose Point of View? (Most of what matters…)
- Winter Book Reviews 2016
- The Flavour of the Place
- Summer Book Reviews
- Everybody’s Going to Havana
- American Classic Cars in Havana
- Spring Book Reviews 2016
- First Sighting of ‘Last Dance’.
- Rosanna’s Winter Book Reviews 2015/6