Here are my winter reading recommendations for this year… Curl up by a roaring fire and enjoy!
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This is the story of two young people, Marianne and Connor, the relationship between them and their attempts to fit in (or not) with society as they attempt to make sense of the world around them. So, it’s kind of the story of their relationship to each other and the world. And a fascinating and insightful story it proves to be…
We meet Marianne and Connor when they are both seventeen and at school. Marianne comes from a privileged background that lacks love and Connor from a working-class background, brought up by a single working mother (who happens to clean for Marianne’s family) with love in abundance. Connor fits in at school, Marianne doesn’t. As time goes by, their relationship develops and changes, and by the time they go to college, their social positioning has reversed. They both find it hard to be ‘normal people.’ But do we have to be? Can we be unconventional and weird and yet also be not lonely or disturbed. And what or who is ‘normal’ anyway?
Sally Rooney explores these interesting questions with wit and emotion. Her writing is compact and precise and I felt completely drawn in to the world of her characters; their stories, their lives, their love. According to reviews, this is a ‘Marmite’ book. I found it compelling, highly charged, vivid and fascinating. Yes, Reader, I loved it.
One Moment by Linda Green
Linda Green’s new novel is rather different from those she has written in the past. Linda is known for her twisty and psychological domestic noirs. Although there is some suspense in this story, in One Moment, she is exploring something rather different.
Finn is a boy who is also ‘different’. He doesn’t like football or rugby, he has ginger hair and is unusual, or ‘good-weird’ as his mother puts it. He is bullied at school, and a bad situation is escalating. Kaz is a woman in her fifties who has spent her life caring for her brother Terry who has mental health issues. The book is written from these two viewpoints. They meet once and then a second time. Everything before the second time is titled ‘before’; everything after the second time is ‘after’. We know right from the beginning that something traumatic occurred at the second meeting, and we know part of the ‘what’, but we don’t know exactly how until almost the end of the book.
What we are presented with throughout the novel are the consequences of the second meeting/ traumatic event for both Kaz and Finn, who go on to form an unlikely but enriching friendship which helps both characters cope with what has happened.
Linda Green tells this story with a great deal of emotion and her usual fast pace. It is warm and emotive, heart-rending in places and really makes you think about what some people have to deal with. Good on you, Linda, for writing something that was important to you and for being brave enough to step outside of your usual genre and therefore confront reader expectation.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
LJ does it again. Brilliantly plotted, full of twists, menace and emotion, this is one of her best, in my opinion.
Our first narrator (identity unknown to begin with) takes us through what happened in the big family house of his childhood in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in the 1960s when some people moved in and gradually took control of both house and occupants. At the start of the story, three of these occupants are found dead, apparently in some suicide pact, alongside a healthy baby.
Our second narrator (Lucy) is living in poverty in France with her two children. She too has a connection with Cheyne Walk. But can she get back there to see ‘the baby’? The third narrator is ‘the baby’ herself, Libby who was adopted and who inherits the house on her 25th birthday. She decides to try and solve the mystery of what happened twenty-five years ago and of course she finds out much more than she’d bargained for.
Riveting. Unputdownable. Thought-provoking. Spooky. Highly recommended.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This is the story of Nuri and Afra, two refugees, who are forced to leave their troubled, war-torn homeland of Syria to make the long and difficult journey to the United Kingdom.
Nuri is a beekeeper in Aleppo and with his friend and cousin Mustafa he has created a meaningful and fulfilling life for himself which is centred around his bees, his wife Afra and their son Sami. But when this life is threatened, the Syrians are forced to contemplate escape, despite terrible personal tragedy. After his wife and daughter have already done so, Mustafa leaves and eventually makes it to England; it is his voice through email messages that reaches Nuri and Afra and urges them on, however bad things may be, to stay strong and to find a way to a new place, a place where once again they can work with bees and build a new life together.
Christy Lefteri creates a delicate balance in her portrayal of the relationship between Nuri and Afra which moves from light into darkness and back again as both characters try to come to terms with traumatic events and circumstances and find a way forward together. And yet, despite the subject matter, this is a story of hope and resilience; an important story which gives voice and a personal narrative to people who are too often classed together as one i.e. as ‘refugees’. Lefteri reminds us that everyone has a personal story and that every escape is deeply traumatic and hard-won. A compelling and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.
The Confession by Jessie Burton
I very much enjoyed this exploration of some of the complexities of women’s lives told via a dual timeline narrative. In the 1980s, the young, beautiful and naive Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden on Hampstead Heath. She soon comes under the spell of the older, more confident and charismatic Constance, a writer whose novel is being turned into a big Hollywood movie. They begin an intimate relationship and go together to Los Angeles. Whilst Constance enjoys the glamour and Hollywood façade of LA, Elise finds herself out of her depth and their relationship begins to fall apart.
In the contemporary story, Rose, mid 30s, is going through a life crisis and is full of uncertainty when her father gives her some information, the catalyst which sends her on a search to find out her mother’s story. She meets Constance and under false pretences, begins to work for her. This relationship becomes critical to Rose’s development and journey as Constance too, faces up to events of the past. I was however, slightly disappointed by the ending of the novel, which felt too inconclusive to be satisfying.
Jessie Burton is a brilliant writer and her characterisation of Elise, Constance and Rose is thorough, authentic and compelling. The contrasting locations are well-evoked and the novel positively shimmers with emotion. I very much enjoyed this novel about motherhood, friendship, love and search for identity. Highly recommended.
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
It is very brave, I feel, to write a novel solely from the POV of someone with senile dementia/ Alzheimers. By definition, this must become a fragmented, perhaps repetitive narrative. This said, Emma Healey minimises the repetition and adds humour which works well.
Maud, in her eighties and with worsening dementia, is the sole narrator. Her long-suffering daughter Helen looks after her and the relationship between the two of them is poignant, well-expressed with bitter-sweet emotion. So, this is a story about the effects of dementia. But it is also a story of two mysteries: one concerns Elizabeth – is she missing? The other concerns Maud’s sister Sukey who went missing back in the late 1940s.
Maud’s wandering mind and her difficulty in snatching fragments of memory and piecing them accurately together provides a useful device through which the author can keep returning to the events of 1947 to give us clues about Sukey’s disappearance, though I found the lack of variety in the catalyst slightly irritating. However, it is this story which really sparks the reader’s imagination since Maud’s perspective is naturally so much clearer back then, the characters of Frank and Douglas add interest to the story and the mystery seems real (while the mystery of Elizabeth exists mainly in Maud’s mind).
The writing is excellent, the use of language is vivid, and up to a point, the story is engaging. My main gripe with the novel is the fact that for a long time we do not hear through dialogue where Elizabeth actually is. Whilst I appreciate that we are in Maud’s viewpoint, we do hear lots of other dialogue, so this is slightly inconsistent, I feel. However, that said, this is a fascinating story of dementia, held together and made engaging by a mystery; a strong cross-genre book of literary/ crime that is definitely worth a read.
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