What books did you enjoy reading over this lovely summer? Here is my list:
The Almost Wife by Jade Beer
I was lucky enough to have a preview of this heart-warming story back in the spring and I really enjoyed it. It’s all about the weddings of three brides to be – Jessie, Emily and Dolly – and also Helen, the owner of the bridal boutique from whom they are all getting the dresses of their dreams. So far, so romantic… But the title gives you a clue of the emotional content of this novel and the fact that the book holds a few surprises. One young woman does make it up the aisle – but learns an important lesson along the way – one doesn’t make it at all and one becomes an ‘almost-wife’ – you’ll have to read the book to find out why…
I’ve heard that the latest bookselling trend is towards uplifting novels with humour and heart and if so, this novel fits the bill. It is written with great fluency, warmth and good pace; the characters are well drawn and their voices are convincing. This story has plenty of fizz and sparkle – it will draw you in and keep you hooked. It will appeal to those who love fashion and glamour and romance, but it is thought-provoking too. Behind every wedding-dress is a personal story. And as the shout-line says: Sometimes, love just isn’t enough.
The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings
This story – most of which takes place in 1986 – is crammed with suspense and drama. It concerns two families who couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, we have a Cornish, working-class family struggling to make ends meet – the mother Angie, Granfer and Angie’s two teenagers Tamsyn and Jago. Their father Rob, a volunteer for the RNLA, tragically dies at sea while performing a rescue. This loss has affected the family deeply. Jago feels crushingly aware that he has not fulfilled his promise to look after his mother and sister, Angie is desperately lonely as she struggles to cope and Tamsyn has become obsessed with the Cliff House – the place she used to visit in secret with her father.
The other family are the Davenports from Holland Park, for whom the Cliff House is a holiday retreat. Tamsyn likes to spy on them. They are wealthy, stylish and appear to have it all. But naturally they are not as perfect as they seem. Max is a parent who shuts himself up in his study to write rather than deal with his family’s issues, his wife Eleanor is deeply troubled and alcohol dependent and their daughter Edie is rebellious, bored, disillusioned and vulnerable. Tamsyn befriends Edie, her mother works at the Cliff House as a cleaner and pretty soon the two families are enmeshed in a compelling drama. The story of 1986 is framed by an initially obscure present-day timeline which ultimately reveals what happened next.
I loved the descriptions of the Cornish coastline – the author’s passion for this landscape shines through. The relationships are subtly developed, the characters well-drawn and every voice (the story is told from the viewpoints of Tamsyn, Edie, Jago and Angie) is individual and convincing. Best of all is the unrelenting drama of the storyline – the pace is fast, the tension palpable. The Cliff House is a gripping read. Highly recommended.
Darling Blue by Tracy Rees
When you start reading a Tracy Rees novel you know you are going to be wrapped in warmth and come out smiling the other side! It is like the best kind of comforting hug – delicious to all the senses… So it is with Darling Blue.
The story takes place in the glorious 1920s – one of my favourite periods – and the Camberwell family are fortunate enough to live in a ritzy house in Richmond. There are no money worries. What’s more they all love one another – so what could possibly go wrong..?
At Blue Camberwell’s twenty-first birthday party the troubles begin when her father Kenneth rashly offers her hand in marriage to whoever can capture his daughter’s imagination in a letter. Blue is outraged. What century is her father living in? She is a thoroughly modern young woman with ambitions to be a writer – she has neither the time nor the inclination for romance. Or does she?
Meanwhile, we discover that another member of the family is deeply troubled by a tragedy that has occurred. What could it be? Can she recover from the trauma – or will it somehow once more rear its head and rip this perfect family apart?
Enter Delphine, a young woman of a quite different class who is trying to escape her violent husband. The family take her in (of course) but it may not be possible for Delphine to escape her past quite so easily.
I loved this book. Tracy Rees writes with such a natural fluency and this story is full of warm and wonderful characters who will stay in her readers’ hearts. Darling Blue has a charming fairy-tale quality – it is magical and yet it deals with subjects and troubles of the real world. Delightful!
The Man I Think I Know by Mike Gayle
This story is about what you find when you think you have lost everything – and it turns out to be quite a lot. It is also about second chances and friendship. James and Danny are from very different backgrounds but they are both very clever, both have attended one of the most prestigious schools in the UK and both were up for the biggest prize of all – though only one of them can win it… This is the point at which the prologue begins and ends.
We cut to James and then Danny – the book is written in dual viewpoint – at a later point in their lives. One has suffered ABI – acquired brain injury and is very different from the young man he once was, the other has suffered a deep personal tragedy. Against the odds, they become friends and this book is about that friendship.
Mike Gayle is expert at writing about relationships – and he writes about male friendship with his usual skill and sense of authenticity. His writing is full of humour with a conversational and accessible style, but the content is powerful and moving. Writing about a character with ABI could have become mushy but there’s no chance of that. Gayle must have done some good research – because this character is completely convincing and his life and problems are both detailed and insightful.
If you are looking for a book that is realistic and bitter-sweet, uplifting, romantic and poignant, look no further. Highly recommended.
Our house by Louise Candlish
Louise Candlish is one of my favourite authors and I’m delighted to say that ‘Our House’ is another joy. The house in question is special. But who does it actually belong to?
Fi Lawson lives in a desirable suburb of London with her two sons. She and her husband Bram have come to a co-parenting agreement which means that they continue to share the house and also a nearby flat when the other parent is in residence with the boys. This modern arrangement seems to be working out – until Fi comes home one day to find someone else moving into her home. It could be anyone’s worst nightmare. Her own things (and those of her family) have disappeared and the couple moving in are filling the house with their own possessions. What’s going on? Is this for real? Is it a crime? Or is she just going crazy?
All these things and more go through her head and provide the narrative tension that propels the story forward. It’s a wonderful premis. The plot gradually unfolds via a document written by Bram – wherever he may be – presented in parallel with Fi’s own ‘story’ of being a victim of house fraud. I didn’t much like either of the main characters and Fi’s new romance always felt rather staged and unreal, but this didn’t matter as there were so many twists and turns in the story I didn’t have time to worry about it. Well-written and as impossible to put down as any of Louise Candlish’s novels, the story fizzes with psychological drama and intrigue – right up to the final and shocking denouement. Highly recommended.
What Lies Within by Annabelle Thorpe
Annabelle Thorpe’s second novel is set in Marrakech and she captures the colours, scents, flavours and moods of Morocco brilliantly in this story of ex-pats making a new life in what is almost another world.
It’s not just a question of culture shock. Freya, Paul and Hamad are three close friends who met in Cambridge. It matters not that Hamad’s wealthy lifestyle is so different from theirs. Their friendship goes much deeper – or so they all thought.
Hamad comes up with a plan designed to delight his stylish French girlfriend Racine, whilst simultaneously helping Paul and Freya get their marriage back on track. He purchases three neighbouring houses that form a run down but glorious riad owned by an old and important Moroccan family, impervious to the bad feeling this will create in the community. He presents these to Racine. Paul will be the architect for the new project while Freya will write a biography of Hamad’s eccentric grandmother Dame Edith who also lives in the city.
But things do not turn out quite as he expected. Paul and Freya’s marriage – already fragile – seems to be in a worse state than ever, while the spirits of the riad (jinns) are increasingly unhappy about what is going on within. Someone has a secret. Someone is lying. Someone is being betrayed.
The story is fast-paced with a good balance of description and action. The characters are flawed and authentic. Morocco is depicted as it is – a maze of unknown pathways to be negotiated, a feast to delight the senses, a land of kindness, fascination, deception and intrigue. Holiday noir indeed. Highly recommended.
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
It is not her most recent novel, but Gentlemen and Players is very cleverly structured and is a good example of why Joanne Harris is one of our most successful novelists writing today.
The story is set in and around a traditional boys’ public school where Latin is still taught by a master wearing a dusty black gown whose authority is unchallenged. The master in question is Roy Straitley, who provides one of the two narrative voices in the book. St Oswald’s is his life. His study at home is crammed with framed photographs of ‘his boys’ over the years and he is simply unable to imagine his life at the school ever coming to an end. But he is coming up to retirement age and changes are on their way. With the beginning of a new school year comes an extended Modern Languages Department which threatens to take over Straitley’s domain, a new head and some new teachers – one of whom is determined to destroy St Oswald’s.
This mystery character provides the other viewpoint of the novel. Through a child’s eyes we see a past where St Oswald’s was forbidden and yet highly desirable territory. We see the development of an obsession. We see a youthful tragedy and we hear the story of what happened next – with plenty of surprises along the way. But who will win this battle – which Harris describes and structures like a game of chess? Who will triumph? You will have to read this fascinating novel to find out.
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