Publisher: Orenda 10th June 2021. ISBN: 978-1913193614
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss. When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results. Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
I can’t wait to read this because I’ve experienced pregnancy loss and I know how hard it is to make sense of the overwhelming grief. People throw platitudes at you when they don’t know what to say, so I can understand how Rachel latches on to this one and can’t let go. Any reason, even the improbable, is often better than the bottomless pit of unknowing. How could this much loss and grief have no real reason? People queued up to tell me that I was young and would have lots more chances to have a child – as if the one I’d lost was merely a doll replaceable by a new purchase. I also blamed myself, because I’d been working as a counsellor at an MS charity, and had volunteered to help them price up and place stock in their new charity shop. I’d been moving boxes and bending up and down. I was convinced for months that I’d caused the loss of my baby. I always bond with a character when there’s a common experience at the heart of things. I just know I’ll be reading this with the tissues handy.
When pushed to come up with one definitive favourite of the year, it would have to be Hamnet. This is a literary masterpiece from Maggie O’Farrell and is deservedly winning accolades from critics and award judges alike. This is the story of Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes (as recorded in historical records) based around the tragic death of their only son Hamnet. In an incredible piece of storytelling O’Farrell weaves the tale of their courtship, marriage and their family unit with a world affected by plague and even the voyage of the offending plague fleas via some Murano glass beads shipped to Stratford from Venice. Agnes is an extraordinary woman, with her birds of prey, apothecary garden and healing business. This terrible death has driven them apart in their grief, will they be able to find to find a way back to each other?
2. A Girl Made of Air by NydiaHetherington
Nydia Hetherington is a sorceress. She has conjured up this box of terrors and delights from the depths of her imagination and it is incredible. We follow Mouse as she crawls, peeps, stumbles and walks around the incredible show that is a circus. Billed as a tale about the Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived I was expecting glitz and glamour, the front of house show. However, the author cleverly goes deeper than that, far behind the curtain. Incredible descriptive passages draw us in to Mouse’s world from the smell near the big cats enclosure, the feel of a llama’s fur against your skin, the cramped but colourful quarters of the circus folk and the volatile relationship between her mother Marina and father Manu – so focused on each other they seem barely aware of her existence. Her freedom gives us access to every part of this wondrous world, but freedom has its dark side and for Mouse this is really a tale of parental neglect. She is brought up by the circus, mainly by Serendipity Wilson, the flame haired high wire artiste who takes Mouse under her wing. Under her tuition Mouse becomes an incredible tightrope walker, able to take her place under the spotlight like her parents. Bookending these tales of circus life is an interview undertaken with a grown-up Mouse, haunted by her part in the story of another child lost from the circus and saddened by the truth of why her mother never loved her. This is part wondrous circus tale, but mostly a meditation on what it is to be human. Truly wonderful.
3. The Museum of Broken Promises by ElizabethBuchan
The Museum of Broken Promises is situated in Paris and run by Laure, all of its exhibits are donated by the owner and each one represents a different promise broken. The most innocuous object could represent a life utterly changed. Each contributor is interviewed by Laure and she makes the decision to exhibit or not. Laure secretly displays items from her past, including a Czechoslovakian train ticket. She is tight lipped about her past, and her stylish clothes and tiny apartment are unobtrusive and indistinctive. However, two things seem to be encroaching on her anonymity. The first is a tiny feral cat she finds on the street and second is a persistent freelance journalist called May who wants to write a piece on the museum. Laure soon finds that May is ruthless, despite assurances to the contrary, as she starts to ask questions about Laure’s past. A past that Laure would rather remained buried. This involves a summer job in the Czech Republic, as nanny to a family whose father is a member of the Commmunist Party. When she meets Tomasz, lead singer in a subversive band and open critic of the regime, Laure’s two worlds will collide in ways that change her life forever. The author creates a haunting sense of Prague with its ghosts, but also an incredible museum in Paris. Powerful human emotions are contained within the objects and their curator is struggling to come to terms with her own incredible story of promises broken.
4. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor
It’s true to say I fell instantly in love with Evie Epworth, an intelligent and spirited girl enjoying the summer between her O and A’ Levels. Evie had planned to pass the summer reading, enjoying her crush on Adam Faith, baking with her neighbour and delivering the milk produced on her Dad’s farm. However, she didn’t bank on Dad’s new girlfriend Chrissie. Evie and her Dad have lived alone at the farm since the death of Evie’s mother and have been muddling along just fine, but then he met Chrissie – much younger barmaid from the local pub. She has gradually moved into the farm and is now proposing changes, like ripping out the dirty old Aga and replacing it with a new electric cooker. In fact, in Chrissie words, it’s time the whole kitchen was replaced for something melamine and easy to clean, a real 1960s update. She also aims to change Evie’s plans, pushing her towards getting a job and standing on her own two feet. Will Chrissie get her feet permanently under the table, or will Evie come up with a plan to expose exactly what Chrissie is truly like with the help of her new friend and mentor Caroline? This is a true slice of Yorkshire, forthright and funny with real human emotions underneath. It was reminiscent of Sue Townsend at her best and who could forget that comical cow car crash scene? The funniest book of the year by a long way.
5. WhenI Come Home Again by Caroline Scott
Where to start with this emotional piece of historical fiction? This is a stunning exploration of post WW1 Britain, through the story of ‘Adam’ – – a soldier found sitting in Durham Cathedral with no idea who he is or how he got there. He is placed in the care of Dr James Haworth, who takes him to Fellside for psychological rehabilitation. James is also a casualty of war, but feels he can help Adam through talking therapy and other psychological techniques, but nothing works. In desperation, he decides that someone must recognise him and places a photograph of Adam in a national newspaper. What he didn’t bank on was three different women coming forward, each claiming they recognise Adam and he is theirs. Through these women we see the impact of the war on those left behind and as a reader you are torn between them, hoping he belongs to different women at different places in the narrative. I loved how the book questions the very nature of selfhood – do we have a fixed single self or is it fluid, and ever changing? The author cleverly and with great emotional depth, shines a light on a turbulent period of history where everyone is trying to adjust and move on from the horror of war.
6. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
The central characters in this novel are the Eastwood sisters – Agnes Amaranth (the mill girl), Beatrice Belladonna (the librarian and researcher) and finally James Jupiter, the youngest sister with a wild streak and fierce loyalty to her sisters. This is New Salem, 1893, and since the burnings there haven’t been witches in this part of the world. However, snippets of the words and ways of witchcraft remain, hiding in plain sight. In the lullaby a mother uses to soothe her child, in the rhyme from a children’s game and even in recipe books. These are women’s spaces, and this old wisdom is accessible to anyone, once you realise it is there. The power lies dormant at a time when women are fighting more than ever to have a share in power at the ballot box. When the three sisters join the suffragettes of New Salem, they start to realise some of the power that Bella has been researching and wield it against those shadowy figures who would rather not see a witch live, let alone vote. The villain is an aspiring politician who hates witches and possibly women too. He wants to use the ballot box for legitimacy, but his actions are those of a dictator. It is Jupiter who sees what he truly is in a horrifying scene in the ‘Deeps’ – a basement prison that fills with water. Like the sisters he appears to have a ‘glamour’, a way of appearing to other people that masks the true face. Harrow doesn’t hold back on the horror of how witches have been treated historically and their nemesis here is particularly cruel. Their final confrontation isn’t just heart rending, it’s heart stopping and this Harrow’s incredible skill, she creates a world of magic, but then connects the reader to her characters so strongly that they feel their pain and their triumphs. I loved spending time in this incredible world.
7. If I Could Say Goodbye by Emma Cooper
What an incredibly emotional read this was for me. I found myself having a good old cry at 4am over Jen and her family’s story. It begins when Jennifer is adopted by a childless couple and four years later gets an unexpected little sister. Kerry is a determined, mischievous and curious little girl and the pair are incredibly close. In adulthood, the two are still inseparable. Jen now has husband Ed and two children while Kerry has a long term partner in Nessa, who she is hoping to propose to. When a terrible accident happens while the sisters are on a shopping trip, Kerry is killed. Now Jen needs to find a way to carry on living, but the survivor’s guilt and grief are very strong. As Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, it becomes clear that Jen can’t let Kerry go. Yet, by keeping hold of her sister, will she end up losing her own family? Ed has noticed that Jen doesn’t seem as organised as usual and is often staring off into space. Then at other times she is almost over-excited, even reckless. He doesn’t know what we know. Jen can still see Kerry and talk to her. For Jen, Kerry is as real as Ed and the children, what will he do when this starts to affect them? Jen has a heartbreaking dilemma. Does she follow medical advice and take pills that might make Kerry disappear forever? She feels like she’s killing her sister again. The psychiatrist who sees Jen and diagnoses complicated grief understands what she’s feeling. This is survivor’s guilt. Jen wonders why she survived and Kerry didn’t. Kerry saved her life by pushing her away from the oncoming vehicle. In Jen’s mind she’s already killed her once, but is she willing to give up her family to keep her. This was heartbreaking and mending in equal measure.
8. Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman
Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic shows the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their powers and their very human need to be loved. Maria is abandoned and has the mark of a blood witch, as well as a familiar in the form of a crow. She is taken in by Hannah Owens, who teaches her the old ways, cultivating a herb garden and making potions for women from town. When Hannah is burned, Maria flees and sets in motion a chain of events that all Owens women face. Can the reconcile their mystical powers with their human need to be loved. Maria travels to the tropical island of Curaçao, to Massachusetts and then Brooklyn. I felt emotional as She saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, as she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and as she lost Cadin her loyal companion. Whilst all the time the man who truly loves her is there showing loyalty and nobility, but will she ever trust his offer of lifelong companionship? This novel saw the series coming full circle, to the formation of that belief that love can’t be trusted. It shapes Jet’s journey and sees Gillian constantly pick the wrong man in the later books. This was the perfect addition to one of my favourite literary series.
9. The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon by Sarah Steele
I thoroughly enjoyed this dual time frame travelogue through Europe, triggered when Flo’s grandmother dies and she finds a box full of sewing patterns in the back of her wardrobe. Each pattern has a postcard or photograph slipped inside, and the first shows a stylish woman at a train station being waved off by Flo’s gran and her close knit group of friends. Yet, Flo has never met the women and never heard her grandmother talk about Nancy. Inspired to make the first dress, Flo decides to make the whole holiday wardrobe and trace Nancy’s steps through Europe to find out who this woman was and what she meant to her family. We follow Nancy on the original journey as she’s hired by a family to be companion to their teenage daughter on the trip. However, as always there are secrets within this family and Nancy starts to uncover them. Flo hopes the trip will give her the space to think about her separation from her husband Seamus and the grief that tore them apart. The places are beautifully brought to life, the clothes are gorgeous 1950s/60s fashion and when the mystery of Nancy is uncovered it is such a satisfying conclusion for both her and Flo. This was a sunny, escapist, gem of a book.
10. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.
I love Rachel Joyce’s work, and this is her best novel to date. I felt completely immersed in New Caledonia and the women’s expedition. Joyce brought to life the heat, the lush greenery, the sheer volume of different species and the changeable weather. Margery is on a quest to find a mysterious golden beetle that her father taught her about. So she sets off to the only island in the world where they exist, with a very questionable assistant called Edith. Margery is single minded in her quest, whereas Edith is resourceful but distracted by attractive men. I was so desperate for these very different women to be successful and find this magical beetle. I won’t reveal the ending, but it was a perfect moment that brought a tear to my eye. Tension builds, as a strange man stalks them and Edith’s methods for finding equipment cross the line into criminal behaviour. There is also the matter of Edith’s increasingly obvious pregnancy and the much publicised hunt for a British woman who killed her partner. The friendship these women build is incredible and I wanted them to plot their escape together, even if it had to be a Thelma and Louise style ending. The book teaches us that it’s okay to be different and that once you live authentically, you will find your people. If we choose to live within societies constraints we might always feel like a misfit; not fitting in can feel painful, but it always feels like freedom. Margery learns that the joy comes not in realising your dreams, but in continuing to pursue them. This is a strongly feminist piece of work that spoke to me deeply about fulfilling my purpose and the importance of my female Friends
11. The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone
How have I come this far in my reading life without reading Doug Johnstone? The Skelfs are the family I didn’t even know I was missing. This is the second novel in this series and set within the city of Edinburgh. This a family of undertakers and private investigators. Just to set up the kind of family they are, the author places their residence and place of work at No 0 – somewhere that doesn’t exist. Grandmother Dorothy is a Californian lured to Edinburgh after falling in love with Jimmy Skelf, now passed away. Dorothy works in the funeral business with employee Archie, but also takes on PI duties and in her spare time teaches spunky young girls to play the drums. Mum Jenny is at a loose end so comes into the family business after her father dies. She jumps into the PI business with both feet, which is how she seems to do most things. Granddaughter Hannah is studying physics at Edinburgh University and lives with her girlfriend Indy. The women are following two lines of enquiry. Dorothy is trying to find out about a young man who died when his van crashed into an open grave leaving her with his dog. Hannah is drawn into a mystery surrounding her physics professor who dies while they are organising a memorial for Hannah’s friend. This is a family at full stretch, struggling to come to terms with having a murderer in the family and investigating on three different fronts. These women are ballsy and formidable, but ultimately the most loving and accepting family. This is about them all finding ways to live, whilst in the midst of healing from trauma and dealing in death. I’m waiting impact for the next instalmen
12. The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith
Wow! This was a tough read in lockdown. Eve Smith creates a world like this. It’s ours, but not quite. There’s a sense of the uncanny. It’s familiar, yet changed completely. This is a world ‘post-Crisis’ and three different women tell the story. Lily is an older woman, living in a nursing home after the ‘Crisis’ act was passed, to reduce access to antibiotics for the over 70s. Life has now changed completely. Kate is a nurse, working within this changed healthcare system. She works with people who are terminally ill and if someone is over 70 and has a terminal diagnosis they have a choice; they can take their chances in an imperfect system with no interventions possible or they can come to waiting room with their family and end their life. Mary takes us back to pre-crisis times and her post-graduate days in South Africa trying to find a new species of plant for medical applications. This is a very credible dystopia, one that’s closer to the truth than a lot of people would like to think. We follow three interesting and intelligent women, trying their best in an imperfect system. It scared me, made me think about my old age and the way we treat those older and sicker than us. I think it is a staggering work of genius, delicate and detailed, but inside a huge vision. I found it incredible.
13. The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman
Set around one day in London, the author takes a handful of strangers and places them together in an intense situation. Abi is a solicitor, who decides to pop to a Balham cafe called Tuckbox because the station cafe is crowded and she only has four minutes till her train. Mutesi has come from a night shift and is meeting her daughter -in -law in Tuckbox to collect her grandson, Emmanuel. Neil is homeless, and has been given some money so he opts to visit Tuckbox and sit by the radiator for a while. Inside is a waitress and cafe owner, Robert. Into this everyday scene walks Sam and each of their lives is about to change beyond recognition. After a brief argument with Robert, Sam returns to his nearby Land Rover and comes back with a shotgun. Novels like this work because they teach us something about what it means to be human. These characters take a terrifying situation and choose to grown and connect. It was moving, compassionate and a story for these times.
14. When The Music Stops by Joe Heap
The joy of doing blog tours is that sometimes you stumble across a book you wouldn’t normally have read. I’d never read Joe Heap’s work before, but what started out adagio builds to an absolute crescendo of emotion and I shed tears over Ella’s story. In the present, we meet Ella as an old lady shipwrecked on a yacht called Mnemosyne with a small baby. She’s struggling physically and seems forgetful, whether through injury or age we don’t know at first. Then we are taken back to different points in her life, significant moments with specific people. Whether with her for a short or long time, these are people she has lost and their presence had a massive impact on her life. When she’s left a guitar by her childhood friend who dies for an asthma attack. Ella picks up a book of seven guitar exercises featuring songs that encompass stages of life, from the child to the crone. Called The Songs of the Dead, the music shop owner is unsure whether it’s suitable for a child, but Ella is sure. It is each of these exercises that separates the sections of the book. The structure is incredibly effective, it feels natural and organic rather than a forced device. Each section comprises the song, the memory and then Ella’s present situation with an unusual element – each person she has lost returns from the past with her. For anyone who has lost someone this story is especially poignant, but somehow it manages to stop short of sentimentality. Instead it feels profound, honest and raw and left me with such a beautiful bittersweet afterglow.
15. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
I loved the main character in this novel. Dee drew me to her straight away. There is a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Some thing of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provides services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning. They do not ask for references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record. Cracks soon become evident in this family as Dee moves in and starts to look after Felicity. Her stepmother, Mariah, tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died and that they both did everything to help her talking again. This is very economical with the truth. Felicity isn’t just mute; she is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient, but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with bones and artefacts, and wanders into the ‘priest’s hole’ at night. The tension is ratcheted up when Felicity goes missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and each character’s past. As the police wonder and question, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee believes? Or is Nick right and it’s Dee’s presence causing the problems? This was an intelligent and taut psychological thriller that will leave you conflicted to the end.
16. Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson
Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city was still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Dan never understood what happened and why they split up. In the present day Dan is married and lives between his his home in Manchester and a narrow boat in London. Alison is a successful writer, married to an Australian. Dan happens upon her Twitter account, which is largely dormant , and decides to send her a song. He chooses Elvis Costello’s Pump it Up the song that was playing at a house party when he fell in love with her. What will this contact lead to? I loved the way that Sheffield is portrayed with such warmth and the contrast of the two character’s home lives that tells us so much about the people they’ve become. Does first love last a lifetime and would they both unpick the lives they’ve created to be together? This was romantic but realistic and the pair share some great music along the way the pair share some great music along the way.
17. When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby
At the heart of this moving novel is the tragedy of the Katyn Massacre in which over 22,000 Polish military officers were murdered with the Russians claiming the German forces were responsible. The only female victim of the massacre – Polish pilot Janina Lewandowska is the basis of one of the characters in Carolyn Kirby’s novel. Stefan is a Polish pilot of German ancestry. Born in Poznan, a Polish city with a history of German settlers, Stefan speaks both languages. In WW2 Polish inhabitants were executed, arrested, expelled, or used as forced labour; as more Germans were settled into the city. The German population increased from around 5,000 in 1939, to around 95,000 by 1944. The Jewish population of about 2,000 had been moved into concentration camps. Stefan’s girlfriend Ewa is helping with her father’s guest house but also working for the Polish resistance. She has not heard from boyfriend Stefan for some time, and is worried he has been killed or taken as a prisoner of war. Across Europe, Vee is in the ATA- a woman pilot, ferrying RAF planes to and from different bases. Vee fights a lack of confidence to get her wings, but loves being up there in the sky, never knowing from day to day which plane she’ll be flying or where in England she might be going. Vee meets a Polish pilot on the base who introduces himself as Stefan. The next day he sends her roses and an invitation to join him on a night out to a club frequented by the RAF. From here, the three characters collide as Stefan starts a dangerous mission to prove that the Russians committed the massacre at Katyn, not the Germans. When we find out his reasons, they are devastating. I read this novel in two sittings, because I was so emotionally involved with the story. The author created such detailed characters, I believed in them immediately. I had to know who lived to be an old lady, or whether any of the characters made it through the war. The ending is bittersweet, because although I was happy for the characters who survived, I was aware they would live with the events of Katyn and Poznan for the rest of their lives.
18. A Song of Isolation by Michael Malone
Dave seems to have it all: a job within his father’s business, a beautiful home and a long-term relationship with the actress Amelie Hart. His whole world falls apart when he is arrested, accused of molesting the little girl who lives next door. Damaris seems like a lonely little girl, often desperate for someone to play with when Dave is working in the garden. They’ve played football and frisbee together several times, but on this occasion, the police allege that Damaris has gone home on her bike claiming Dave has touched her inappropriately. A medical examination reveals bruising consistent with sexual assault. Dave is living in a nightmare, continually asserting his innocence while every sign seems to point to his guilt. Within days he is charged and remanded into a sexual offender’s unit. Amelie is devastated, although she was having doubts about their relationship she believes Dave is incapable of such a crime. Dave’s parents also believe he’s innocent, but as his mother points out ‘people will say there’s no smoke without fire’. This brings them all unwanted press intrusion and has the potential to ruin them. They all wait for trial, to hear Damaris’s account and praying that it will clear Dave’s name. Michael Malone takes such a difficult subject and creates a compelling story. For me, it was the profound sense of loss that hangs over this story that was most heartbreaking. Damaris loses the one person who has noticed her loneliness and vulnerability. When cross examining Damaris’s mum, the defence barrister asks when she last played football or frisbee with her daughter and she can’t remember. Damaris calls Dave her friend and this could be the confusion of a groomed child, but it feels genuine. I was desperate to believe Dave’s innocence, but if they are making false allegations, Damaris’s parents will be charged and she will end up in care. Even if Dave is found innocent he has lost so much: whatever the outcome, nobody wins here. Despite that there is a sense that too will pass, maybe there will be healing and a chance to connect again. To take that song of isolation and turn it to one of hope for the future.
19. Spirited by Julie Cohen
Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted them to marry, but time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. Henriette, has worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage and as a young servant models herself on the French governess in the house. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has just died. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else. This is an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith; faith in the paranormal; faith that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other. It also shows that the ‘in-between’ spaces of life give us more freedom live authentically.
20. This Lovely City by Louise Hare
Set in post-Windrush London, this novel had such a great sense of place, that I felt I was there. The mother land had put out a call to the colonies to fill a labour shortage, and people had answered in great numbers. They relocated from the West Indies to a freezing, grey London and found the welcome was not as warm as they’d expected. We follow two main characters: Lawrie and Evie. They are courting in the old fashioned sense. Lawrie sees in Evie a nice girl, a girl who has been well brought up even though she has never known her father. He wants to do things properly, do right by her. So he calls and they go to the cinema or for a walk. Lawrie has come from Jamaica and works part time as a musician in a local band and full time as a postman, with a sideline in the odd special black market delivery too. Evie has lived in London her whole life with her mother Agnes. They have been Lawrie’s neighbours ever since a rented room opened up at the house next door. The story splits into two time frames approximately one year apart. In one, Lawrie is cutting across Clapham Common at the end of his postal route when he hears a woman shouting. She has found a baby in the pond. Lawrie rushes to help, but they are both too late. The baby becomes the book’s central mystery and because she has black skin, suspicion falls upon the already beleaguered Jamaican community. Rathbone, is the police officer assigned to the case and he relishes causing problems for the community. His suspicions fall on Lawrie, as the first man on the scene, but Rathbone doesn’t just investigate, he sets out to ruin Lawrie’s life. However, there is a secret to this baby’s background that is closer to home than Lawrie imagines. You will root for Lawrie and Evie throughout this mystery, which sheds a light on the racism and suspicion faced by the men and women of the Windrush communities.
Anna Wharton’s debut, The Imposter, is a gripping story of obsession, loneliness and the lies we tell ourselves in order to live with ourselves . . .
I wanted to put out a preview of this debut novel by Anna Wharton because I enjoyed it so much. The novel follows a young woman by the name of Chloe whose background in care has lead to an isolated and lonely existence in the world.
Chloe lives a quiet life. Working as a newspaper archivist in the day and taking care of her Nan in the evening, she’s happy simply to read about the lives of others as she files away the news clippings from the safety of her desk.
But there’s one story that she can’t stop thinking about. The case of Angie Kyle – a girl, Chloe’s age, who went missing as a child. A girl whose parents never gave up hope.
When Chloe’s Nan gets moved into a nursing home, leaving Chloe on the brink of homelessness, she takes a desperate step: answering an ad to be a lodger in the missing girl’s family home. It could be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the story she’s read so much about. But it’s not long until she realizes this couple aren’t all they seem from the outside . . .
But with everyone in the house hiding something, the question is – whose secrets are the most dangerous?
I loved this book because of its portrayal of someone potentially living with borderline personality disorder. Chloe is rootless and with her Nan taken away, she is also purposeless. Losing her job at her beloved archive is disastrous, because it is as if her last mooring rope is cut. When she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Angela Kyle. Borderline personalities tend to have a disorganised background, and exhibit impulsive behaviour. They also have very intense but short relationships, a description that fits Chloe perfectly. She moves into the Kyle’s home and forms an intense bond with Maureen; they are a mother who has lost a daughter and a daughter who has never known maternal love. As the tension builds I couldn’t stop reading and went on late into the night. It also has a double reveal at the end – one of which had me wanting to start reading again!
My review will be out near publication day, but I want to thank Anna Wharton and NetGalley for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.
Remembrance Sunday is going to be very different this year as we’re in lockdown, so I’ve decided to remember in the way we book bloggers do; by writing about books on war and its aftermath. My relationship with remembrance has changed enormously as I’ve grown older. I’ve gone from sixth form pacifist, through research on representations of disability at university to a greater understanding of the aftermath of the Great War. Through marriage into a Polish family I understood from first hand accounts how war shatters, dislocates and transforms families. Then through the deaths of my husband and his family, beyond my own personal grief, I felt a sense of an important story being lost. I realised what happens when we lose those that bore witness both to the Holocaust and both world wars. Now after spending a few years with my fiancé, a veteran of 22 years in the RAF, I began to understand more about service and the effects that war can have on the minds of those who undertake a career in the military. I’ve learned that I can be a pacifist, but understand other people’s experiences and empathise with them. Remembrance for me isn’t about glory, it’s simply about remembering servicemen’s sacrifices as well as their families. For me these weekends are remembering the effects war has had on all people, the men at war and the women they left behind. So over these two days I want to share with you a list of books about both world wars, from many different perspectives. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor does it cover the classic war novels or non-fiction. It’s simply a very personal journey through books I’ve read that stayed with me, books you might not think of as ‘war’ novels and what they taught me about wartime experience.
WWI and it’s Aftermath
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – I think most people would be surprised to see D.H. Lawrence’s novel on a list of war novels, but this was one of the books I read about disability post – WWI. The war left 9.5 million people dead, but for an estimated 20 million service men the effects of war lasted long after the guns fell silent. In Britain alone 2 million men came home with a disability from facial disfigurement, blindness, lung damage, amputations or shell-shock. Lady Chatterley is caught between two men affected by their service in the Great War. Her husband Clifford Chatterley has been left a ‘cripple’, a wheelchair user who is struggling both physically and mentally. He feels the pressure of being responsible for his family estate and its future. He can no longer perform sexually, but must have an heir, so informs his wife she may have an affair with someone with the caveat that they are of the same social class. Connie feels coldness from her husband, he spends a lot of time with his nurse, and is preoccupied with the engineering of his wheelchair and the machinery of the mine. His world now revolves around the mind. Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, is his opposite. Connie first encounters him making pens for the pheasant chicks and he lets her hold one. This is no coincidence, Lawrence is aligning him with fertility, nature and the physicality of living, and loving. He desires Connie, something she has not felt for a long time. Their love making is outdoors, they run naked in the rain, and thread flowers through their hair. However, Mellors isn’t unaffected by war. His scars are more mental, he needs the peace of the outdoors, his simple life and to be accepted wholly as he is. He doesn’t see Connie as an aristocratic lady of the manor, he sees her as a woman. Their love story is actually quite beautiful and borne from all of their experiences of war.
Photographer of the Lost and When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott – These are the most recent books I’ve read based on the Great War and they are truly incredible. I have just taken part in the blog tour for the second novel and I was so moved by the story of a man who doesn’t know who he is. With the backdrop of the burial of the unknown warrior we see a man, named ‘Adam’ by the police, who remembers nothing but wears the uniform of a soldier. He is taken into the care of another man coming to terms with his own war. Hawthorn thinks that with talking therapy, and a range of other techniques, he will gradually remember. Eventually, he has the idea of putting his picture in a national newspaper because surely someone will recognise him? Yet three women come forward claiming he is theirs; their Mark, their Robert, their Ellis. In this way the author cleverly shows us the cost of war to the women left behind. This novel is haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.
In Photographer of the Lost we meet Edie. It’s 1921 and as people are putting their lives back together, coming to terms with loss or welcoming men back home, Edie’s husband Francis is still missing in action. So why did she receive a postcard from him? Unable to move on she starts to search for him, but she is not alone. Francis’s brother Harry is at the Western Front photographing grave sites for grieving families, but he also wants to find his brother. Their paths converge and together they start to piece together the truth. I love that this book covers a period of the war often forgotten. We often imagine that wars end and life carries on neatly, but the truth is some people are left never knowing what happened to their loved ones. Scott writes about the in-between people, the lost, broken and the left behind. I loved both novels.
Spare Brides by Adele Parks – This is a great book, set in the early 1920s – a decade promising glamour and progress, focuses solely on women’s post-war experience in the story of four friends. This is a generation touched by trauma and loss, especially for Sarah whose husband died in the war. Lydia’s husband was safe behind a desk in London, but she can’t help feeling he’s a coward compared to the men who fought. Ava feels suddenly restricted by the men’s return, after the newfound freedom she felt in the war. In fact so few have returned that those without husbands will have to be beautiful or maybe wealthy enough to shore up an aristocratic estate crippled by the loss of heirs and death duties. Poor lonely Beatrice has neither and looks likely to become a Spare Bride. Beatrice is the reason i fell in love with this book, because she was the answer to a question I’d always asked myself when working in a nursing home back in the 1990’s. I looked after three pairs of sisters and out of the six women, only one had been married. I should have realised but didn’t at 19, that the reason was the Great War. I felt for Beatrice who would have excelled at university and in an academic career, but is like a square peg being forced through the round hole of the old ways. When one of these women encounters a handsome soldier, still haunted by his past, it sets off an explosive chain of events. Adele Parks attention to detail for her settings, the women’s clothing and that feel of luxury in this set of friends is brilliant. It also gives us insight into how the initial trauma ripples out into family and friends, then down the generations.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – like many people I first read this novel at university and without the incredible background to modernism we received at the same time I think I might have dismissed this as a very slight book. It is stream of consciousness in style and on the face of it is about a middle class woman going out to buy flowers. However, as always with Woolf there is so much more going on. It’s not long before other lives and voices join in and it becomes a very shattered and multi-layered narrative. This was done deliberately to have several different effects: it showed that what is a normal day for one person can be extraordinary for someone else; that what we see can be very different from what’s going on inside; to break away from the traditional linear narrative common to Victorian literature and represent the feeling of post-war Britain, broken up and with parts missing. The more obvious reference to war is the character of Septimus Smith, a veteran who is suffering from shell-shock. A car backfiring in the street is nothing to most people, but for Septimus it is a trigger taking him straight back to the battlefield. His wife is desperately trying to understand but struggling to know what to do. He has a mental health problem in a time that doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to help him. Mrs Dalloway herself shows signs of neuroses, an inability to deal with life or to reconcile the society she’s in with her inner self. In that way both of these characters are the same, their inner lives leave them struggling with the roles society expects of them; the hostess and the hero.
A Very Long Engagementby Sebastien Japrisot – This is a beautiful novel translated from French and it caught my attention for two different reasons. It was a story of war from the French perspective and our heroine Mathilde has a disability. I came across it during my dissertation research at university and saw the film starring Audrey Tatou. The novel is a mix of love story, war account and mystery. It starts in January 1917, when five wounded french soldiers are bound and forced into no-man’s land at Picardy, left to be caught in the crossfire between French and German troops. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, who has been a wheelchair user since childhood, sets out to find what happened to her fiancé who went missing in action. The lack of a definite answer to whether he’s alive or not sends her on a mission to determine his fate. She has been given a hint, in a letter from a dying soldier, that the official version might not be all it seems. Mathilde is a determined, shrewd and sarcastic soul and I love her resilience and ingenuity. Through sheer determination she uncovers a web of deception and coincidence, but she also learns a lot about what her fiancé’s war experience might have been like. She starts to uncover the horrors, courage and incredible kindnesses of war so gains an understanding of the men’s experience, beyond that of most other women. The men were cold, starving, dirty and infested by lice in trenches overrun with rats and relentless mud. One of the things I enjoy most is that her disability is actually an aid to finding information. Most officials see her as harmless and she willingly uses their assumptions about what she can and can’t do, if it will get her further on the road to the truth. This book shows the effects of the war on those left behind and a wonderful warmth from surviving soldiers for their fallen comrades. We don’t find out what happened to Mathilde’s fiancé till the very end, but it engaged me completely until that moment.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason – When WWI spreads across Europe in 1914, Lucien is in Vienna training to be a doctor. Inspired by the thought of performing surgery on heroic soldiers in a battlefield hospital, he enlists and is sent to the remote Carpathian Mountains. Rather than the well organised hospital he expected he finds a commandeered church that is freezing cold and riddled with typhus. There are no doctors, just one lone and mysterious nurse who is expecting a surgeon, but Lucius is only 22 and has never even used a scalpel. He was expecting to be trained by battle hardened surgeons. The lessons he has to learn are fairly brutal ones, the surgery he has to perform is rudimentary and a long way from a clinical operating theatre in Vienna. Even more unsettling, he finds himself falling in love with Sister Margarete. Then one day a soldier appears with strange drawings in his uniform, he is named Horvath and seems beyond saving. Lucius makes a decision that changes the course of the war for all of them. I enjoyed that this book didn’t stint on its battlefield detail, there are times you might even wince a bit, but it’s clear that the author has put in the research on what was possible at the time for different injuries. As always, it is the nervous disorders that are the most difficult to treat. However, the beauty of the writing, the stories of the men and the love story balance out this gruesome detail. The story emphasises the separation of people, the precariousness of life and the triumph of love in even the most dire circumstances.
And more …
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Wake by Anna Hope
Tomorrow I will share some thoughts on novels about WWII.
Yesterday, I shared a post about some of the novels I’ve read and enjoyed based during WWI and it’s aftermath. Today I’d like to share with you some of the books that made me think about the experiences of WW2. As I mentioned yesterday, I married into a Polish family in 2001 and this gave me a totally different perspective on the war. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto and was sent through the sewer system to escape without either of her parents in the first instance; her father was somewhere fighting and when an opportunity to save her daughter came along, her mother grasped it with both hands. They eventually reunited in England, but didn’t find Hana’s father. Years later they found him; he had ended up in the USA, believing both of them to be dead. Several years after the war he had married again and had another daughter. I couldn’t imagine this type of dislocation; it seems unthinkable that we might not know where our loved ones are or even whether they’re still alive. Yet if we can cast our minds back to a world with nothing but snail mail, where both parties have been taken from their country of origin it’s conceivable that it would take some time and determination to find each other. Hana bore no ill will to her half-sister, they were treated as family and often visited each other, to and fro across the pond. In fact, my late husband was attending a family wedding with them in Cape Cod when 9/11 happened.
My father-in-law’s story was just as terrible and it still breaks my heart to think of them both going through so much at such a young age. When war broke out my father-in-law Aleks and his younger brother were living in Krakow with their mother. Their father was an officer in the army and believing the family to be a danger, Aleks was detained with his brother and mum. Eventually they were taken to a camp in Siberia by the Russians, where his younger brother sadly died. Somehow, Aleks escaped with his mother to join a group of Polish resistance living in the forest. Once the war was over, they were refugees and slowly made their way to England. I never met my mother-in-law, she died in a car accident in the 1990s. My husband died in 2007, followed by his father in 2016 and finally my brother-in-law Jan a year later. I have felt like the holder of these stories, because I don’t think they were written down anywhere. Eventually as the wider family is lost, these incredible lives will be undocumented. In reading the following novels I have gained more understanding about their experiences and feel closer to them. Reading has allowed me to put myself in their shoes, through the different characters and aspects of the story. Reading has made my in- law’s personal histories all the more extraordinary. Again this list of novels is not an exhaustive list of WWII fiction. They are just some of the books I’ve read that touched me in some way and opened up the experiences of those times. Although Remembrance Sunday is for our servicemen and women – made all the more important as I’m now marrying a RAF veteran – it tends to take my mind back to all those who have sacrificed something, especially in our two world wars. Whether it’s from the military point of view, or that of a widow, resistance fighter, or Holocaust survivor, it is so important to value and share these histories and make sure that we never forget them.
Atonement by Ian McEwan – Ian McEwan is such an incredible writer and this novel will always stay with me. I read the book before I saw the film and it was one of the few times where I haven’t been disappointed with the adaptation. Although the crucial events that send Robbie and Cecilia apart are before the war breaks out, the events that follow capture perfectly that sense of loved ones being torn apart by war. Robbie is the gardener’s son and has grown up in a cottage on the estate of the Tallis family. When his father dies Robbie and his mother stay on, and the family support Robbie to go to university at the same time as their eldest daughter Cecilia. We join the family in the heat of summer 1935 and watch events through the eyes of the much neglected younger sister Briony. Briony is a precocious child who wants to be a writer, creating plays to fill her time but also to control an environment where both her parents are so distant. Crucially, she seems to understand human behaviour, but is not emotionally mature enough to understand what really happens over one afternoon and evening that summer. She witnesses an exchange between Robbie and Cecilia, that is a moment of desire and flirtation. We realise this is a liaison that has grown at university; when away from the house Robbie has not been the gardener’s boy, but a contemporary of Cecilia’s. When later that evening a young guest at the house is attacked in the grounds by a man, Briony jumps to a terrible conclusion and names Robbie as the possible attacker. Accused of a crime he hasn’t committed Robbie faces a choice as war breaks out; prison or conscription into the army. He chooses to enlist, while Cecilia goes to London to train as a nurse. They are now parted, with just one last meeting where Cecilia begs him to come back to her. The novel is so evocative of the period, from the rather enclosed and privileged world of a landed estate to a completely changed landscape of war torn France for Robbie and a sandbagged, under attack London for Cecilia. The book is encased within a present day narrative where an older Briony now an author, is trying to unravel and understand the events of that summer and it’s aftermath through writing. We realise the story we are reading is her narrative, but will she finally write the truth and consequences of what she’s or will she write a fiction? The sections where Robbie is trudging through France, trying to get the coast where they will be evacuated is particularly poignant. Holed up in a bombed out house on the coast, we do not know if he will survive and come back for Cecilia. We need Briony to finish her narrative. A haunting, heartbreaking, piece of meta fiction from McEwan that really captures its period through a young generation who might lose everything they love to serve their country.
When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby – this book helped me to understand aspects of my father-in-law’s story that I’d only been able to guess at before. We follow Polish pilot Stefan through the eyes of two brave women helping the cause as best they can: Vee is a pilot with the ATS who moved military aircraft around the country to different bases; Ewa is Stefan’s sweetheart from his home town of Poznań and helps her father run their guest house while secretly running messages for the Polish resistance. Captured by the Russians, Stefan is witness to the Katyn massacre, an atrocity supposedly carried out by German forces. He then spends the rest of the war working trying to expose the truth of the massacre, dragging both women into his acts of espionage. Vee is very taken with the handsome and mysterious Polish pilot, but does he return her feelings or is she simply a means to an end? This book is beautifully researched and immersed me completely into these women’s lives. I love the way this book highlights women’s roles in the war and cleverly saves Stefan’s recollection of the massacre to the end, a device that makes sense of his actions and is truly devastating all at the same time.
A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson – this novel is the follow up to Atkinson incredible novel Life After Life which tells the story of the 20th Century through the life of a young girl called Ursula Todd. This companion novel follows the life of her younger brother Ted and hops about from present day York where Ted is an old man, across the 20th Century to WWII and the how it affects the years that follow. Using her incredible skill with time slip we keep going back to his war as a bomber pilot, where missions started against strategic resources but then moved on to civilian targets. We see his regard for every single life lost summed up as Aunt Izzy consumes a skylark. For Ted it isn’t just one skylark, but the next generation of skylarks and on into the future where a huge flock is now silenced. He must ponder on the many generations he snuffed out in those later bombing raids. However, I also found it very moving that Atkinson beautifully illustrates how the generations scarred by war passed that trauma on to their children. I’ve read psychological research that posits the theory of WWI veterans passing trauma to their children, who then experienced WWII. The aftermath being the following generations mental ill health. While a ‘stiff upper lip’ may be vital in wartime, it can feel confining or even be dangerous to young people in peacetime. That 1960s exploration of feelings and pacifism was antithesis to parents who’d known the rigours of military training and the hardship of battle. Similarly, we see that Ted has not been happy in his marriage but stayed with his wife, apart from one war time indiscretion full of the feeling missing from his marriage. He wonders at his daughter’s ability to accept relationship breakdown solely for reasons of personal happiness. The main difficulty of living through the 20th Century for Ted is that he has done so, while others didn’t. I won’t reveal the end, but I was dreading Ted’s death because I’d become so fond of him. Atkinson plays with her characters though, and a big reveal towards the end reduced me to tears. Exceptional.
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman – This book probably isn’t thought of as a traditional war novel, but despite its supernatural elements it has a moving depiction of war and how the Holocaust affected Jewish communities across Europe. We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge. There are other characters in the novel bringing their own past and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together and they all encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household as their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor is mourning Marianne who we follow back to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions of safety are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be. This book is a story of finding ways to survive, whether that be fighting, hiding, building a supernatural protector or falling in love.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult – For me this beautiful novel is Jodi Picoult’s best. It weaves three different narratives. In the present day Sage Singer is a baker, seemingly hiding by taking a night shift at a local bakery and cafe, and taking care of her Grandma in the day. She has no friends and hides her face with a hoodie at all times. Sage feels a massive guilt about something and her face is hidden due to a large scar. One day as she’s late leaving the bakery, she meets an elderly customer Josef Weber and they make a connection. They become unlikely friends but each has a scar they are hiding – Josef discloses to Sage a secret about his past, one that will call her own identity into question and challenge their newfound friendship forever. He asks a favour of Sage, who agonises over whether she can grant his wish. Woven with this is a very dark fairytale, set in an Eastern-European forest where a young girl is part of a baking family. We learn that this strange tale is told by Sage’s grandmother. As Sage wrestles with Josef’s disclosure about the war, she starts to hear her grandmother’s incredible story. Minka went to Auschwitz where her knowledge of German brings her to the attention of the treasurer of the camp, and he makes her his assistant. He tells her he is a good man, who was forced to serve his country this way. He has a much more brutal brother at the camp and sets himself apart from his atrocities. Minke is sickened by the work they do gathering and valuing prisoner’s belongings once they are sent to the chambers, but she knows it is the only thing keeping her alive. That, and her strange ‘upior’ story which fascinates the treasurer. When Sage takes the step of contacting Leo, a lawyer for a commission hunting Nazi’s who escaped justice she reports Josef as an officer in a concentration camp. Now she must struggle with a complex set of moral choices; does her Jewish background mean she must implicate Josef? As she ponders whether she can betray her friend, Sage must confront her own guilt and the end of her grandmother’s story. The final reveal is heart wrenching.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
The second Kate Atkinson book in my selection is set in 1940s London and a tale of wartime espionage. Juliet Armstrong is only 18 when she is recruited to an obscure department of MI5. Far from exciting, she finds the job of tracking and translating the comings and going’s of Nazis and their sympathisers by turns terrifying and boring. When the war is over, she imagines those days far behind her but ten years later, when Juliet is working at the BBC she is confronted by figures from her wartime past. She was monitoring British Nationalists such as those who rose up with Oswald Moseley and warns the reader not to confuse patriotism with nationalism. Nationalism is only a step away from fascism. I loved that there were parts of the novel that resonate into current politics and struggles for equality. Juliet is a naive girl in a very male environment and soon finds herself pursued by a superior. He tells her not to worry about the more serious people she’s monitoring. He tells her to watch out for clowns; clowns are dangerous and then no one’s laughing. I loved Juliet, she’s such an intelligent and incisive operative, with flashes of humour. She observes that the Russians had been their enemies, then allies and now enemies again. The Germans were enemies and now allies. On and on it would go forever, she muses in later life and I could imagine her adding ‘in the hands of men’. This is not as emotive as other books on the list, but the war wasn’t just won on the battlefield, it was also won by intelligence gatherers in dusty offices in London.
The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters – I loved Sarah Water’s’ Victorian fiction so took a while to start this novel set in the Blitz. I was wrong to wait because this book is a masterpiece. It tells the story of four Londoners – three women and one man – during 1940/41. Kay has been given space during the war to work out who she is. She’s an ambulance driver, and is at full throttle most of the time, but lately she’s been wearing masculine clothes and feels a restless energy inside her. Helen is sweet and much loved by her family, but holds a secret deep within. Viv is the glamour girl, she is fiercely loyal to her soldier lover but is that loyalty misplaced? Then there’s Duncan who is fighting demons from his war experience. All of their lives intersect, sometimes in surprising ways and tragic circumstances. What I love about this novel is its structure. Instead of meeting our characters and moving forwards with them, we work backwards and gradually questions are answered and behaviour is explained. I fell in love with the character of Viv, who is larger than life, but so open and easy to hurt. Her descriptions of London in the Blitz are so vivid and terrifying. The thought that my home, my haven and place where all my favourite things and people are could be wiped out in a second while I’m at work was so scary. I could imagine that level of threat and insecurity every day would wear you down over time and leave a long term scar. This had a brilliant sense of time and place, a London we would recognise, but made utterly foreign.
The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino – the story of Rosa, one of ten women chosen to taste Hitler’s food for poison. She does this to survive but knows that every bite may be her last.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – a beautiful story of a blind French girl and a young German boy in occupied France. Marie-Laure and her father have fled to St Malo, hiding a precious jewel from the museum where he works. Werner has learned to fix and use radios to the extent that he becomes useful to the German cause. This book is about two people meeting and trying to be good to each other in terrible circumstances.
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak – this is an incredible novel weaving stories of book thief Liesel, Death himself, and the Jewish man Leisel’s family hide in their basement. Definitely lives up the hype.
I want to make honourable mention of the very recent book A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington. Not a war novel, but there is a section where our lead character is given a letter after her mother’s death. They have a difficult relationship, and when her mother relates her wartime experience we understand why this woman could not love her daughter. The letter is beautifully written, told without pity or sentiment, and is utterly devastating.
This was one of those novels that came as a complete surprise. I had no idea what to expect as I’d never read Joe Heap’s work before, but what started out adagio builds to an absolute crescendo of emotion and I shed tears over Ella’s story. In the present, we meet Ella as an old lady shipwrecked on a yacht called Mnemosyne with a small baby. She’s struggling physically and seems forgetful, whether through injury or age we don’t know at first. Then we are taken back to different points in her life, significant moments with specific people. Whether with her for a short or long time, these are people she has lost and their presence had a massive impact on her life. Our first flashback takes us to meet Ella when she’s a little girl, living in a Glasgow tenement and spending time after school between her home and that of her friend Rene. Rene has a beautiful guitar, made for her by her father and Ella is quite jealous of it, wishing she had a father who could make such things. One evening, after school Ella wants to avoid going home because she’s been in trouble and keeps Rene out in the cold on a local playground. Rene has severe asthma. The next morning, when Ella wakes she senses something wrong and when she goes into the main room where her parents are up and making breakfast she sees Rene’s guitar and knows immediately. Her friend is gone.
This loss when she is so young, sets in motion events that will resonate throughout her life. First, it brings her into contact with Rene’s brother Robert who is a few years older. He brings her a parcel and she expects something terrible, some retribution or punishment for what she sees as her culpability in his sister’s death. What she opens is a block of ‘tablet’ a Scottish fudge-like sweet made by their mother with sugar and condensed milk. This gift cements their friendship, one which will last their entire lives. Secondly, after vowing never to look at Rene’s guitar and stuffing it under the bed, she decides to learn and her father takes her to a music shop for a beginner’s guitar book. Yet Ella is drawn to something different. She picks up a book of seven guitar exercises featuring songs that encompass stages of life, from the child to the crone. Called The Songs of the Dead, the shop owner is unsure whether it’s suitable for a child but Ella is sure. It is each of these exercises that separates the sections of the book. The structure is incredibly effective, it feels natural and organic rather than a forced device. Each section comprises the song, the memory and then Ella’s present situation with an unusual element – each person she has lost returns from the past with her.
It is never explained whether these visitations are supernatural in nature, whether Ella is hallucinating these characters or whether they’re a way of expressing how she remembers these people’s contribution to her life. Each one brings something to the present, whether it is the mechanical expertise needed to pump out the water in the hold, or a philosophical context to Ella’s experience. I loved how her friend Sandy describes life, death and time using the vinyl record as inspiration. He believes that we all still exist in time, even after death. In the same way other music tracks exist on a record, while we’re playing just one. The other tracks are always there, we have the memory of playing them, or anticipate hearing them again. They’re not wiped the moment a needle leaves the groove. There’s also the concept of two types of time; the time measured by clocks, work hours and timetables and a different kind of internal time. It’s something I discovered through meditation, but we all experience it, from time flying when we’re having fun or the perception that summer holidays used to last forever when we were children. Time seems to speed up as we get older, it barely seems like we’ve got one Christmas over before another is round the corner. Ella’s means of discovering slow time is destructive, but there are positive ways to slow down our internal time such as mindfulness. For Ella, time is coming full circle, and she’s slowly revisiting each life that touched hers either for a moment or for a lifetime. Each character is so fully realised. I loved Lester, a one time lover of Ella’s who helps her cope with the baby when he’s ill. Mai was so touching. She’s a young woman who meets Ella briefly in the labour ward as they both give birth to their children. In finding each other again Ella can fill in the gaps in Mai’s knowledge and reacquaint her with a son she never knew. In return Mai can help Ella face a loss she hadn’t fully apprehended. Each person’s story is so emotional and so real. I love that the author doesn’t judge any of the characters we meet, even where their influence on Ella isn’t always a positive one. We see them as fully rounded people and with such fondness, possibly because we’re seeing them through Ella’s lens and her love for them shines through.
The settings are also vivid. I throughly enjoyed Ella’s period in London, playing as a session guitarist and sharing a flat with Robert. Musicians come and go, and the flat is a whirlwind of jam sessions and parties. The 1960s were equally exciting as Ella becomes very sought after and chance finds her playing on tracks with some famous names. Of course the party can’t last and not all Ella’s experiences are happy ones, but she learns from each one. Her time as a nurse in a burns unit was also well drawn and as anyone who cares for others knows, there are patients who will remember what you did for them and others who get under your skin and stay with you forever. Like every life there are moments of bliss, excitement and love. Similarly there are moments of grief, dislocation and despair. All the time Robert is there, repeating like a musical refrain, rippling quietly under the surface of the music or occasionally becoming the main melody. We all have those people who come and go, who don’t always figure in our everyday lives, but who are constantly there. There were so many points where I thought of my own life. I thought of my friend Elliot who I was close with through school, and after university, and who I see intermittently but think of constantly. My friend Nigel who died only a couple of years ago, we were only friends for a few years but he taught me so much, made me laugh and simply let me sit in his house and relax when I was a full time carer and desperately needed an escape. I am one of those people who fall in love with people I meet regardless of age, gender or situation in life. So, when I’ve worked in care there have been patients who have stayed with me forever, especially a little 90 year old lady called Mary who could sit on her own hair. I would go in on my days off and wash and dry it for her and she often used to sneak up and put her little hand in mine and follow me about while I made beds and doled out biscuits. I’ve often wondered when my time comes who would come to meet me. Finally, a word on that gorgeous cover: where the plants grow from spring freshness to an autumnal hue towards the neck of the guitar signifying the seasons of life. For anyone who has lost someone this story is especially poignant, but somehow it manages to stop short of sentimentality. Instead it feels profound, honest and raw and left me with such a beautiful bittersweet afterglow.
About The Author
Joe Heap was born in 1986 and grew up in Bradford, the son of two teachers. His debut novel The Rules of Seeing won Best Debut at the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Reader Awards. Joe lives in London with his girlfriend, their two sons and a cat who wishes they would get out of the house more often. This book is inspired by his mum and dad’s story.
A Note From Joe
At a summer season in Ramsgate, 1959, two ice skaters held a party. My grandfather, a Glaswegian saxophonist who would rather have gone to the pub, was convinced by a comedian on the same bill to come along. My grandmother, another one of the ice skaters, sat down next to him and spilt her drink in his lap. Though she has since denied it, her first words of note to him were ‘Oh no, not another Scot.’ Nobody could have guessed how much would spin off that moment, myself and this book included.
‘Gripping, beautifully written perfection.’ SOPHIE HANNAH
‘A masterpiece.’ LOUISE O’NEILL
‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’
Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
Beautifully written and incredibly powerful, Girl A is a story of redemption, of horror, and of love. If you liked Room, My Dark Vanessa and We Need to Talk About Kevin, you will love this book.
Meet The Author
Abigail Dean was born in Manchester, and grew up in the Peak District. She graduated from Cambridge with a Double First in English. Formerly a Waterstones bookseller, she spent five years as a lawyer in London, and took summer 2018 off to work on her debut novel, Girl A, ahead of her thirtieth birthday. She now works as a lawyer for Google, and is currently writing her second novel, The Conspiracies.
Girl A sold in the UK after a 9-way auction, and also sold in auction in the US. The novel has since been acquired in 23 other territories, and television/film rights have sold to Sony.
Abigail has always loved reading, writing, and talking about books. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AbigailSDean
This was a much anticipated read for me as Alice Hoffman is probably my favourite writer. Most people know her for Practical Magic, but I think her more recent novels have been remarkable. The World That We Knew stands with them. It was sad, unflinchingly honest and strangely magical.
We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. First she approaches the rabbi, who turns her down, but the rabbi’s daughter Ettie is listening and spies a chance to escape home. She assures Hanni she has the necessary power and learning to create such a creature, programmed to protect Lea, but only on the basis that Ettie and her sister can travel with them. They gather river clay, water and blood to create Ava, a strong woman with dark eyes and hair, who will travel as Lea’s cousin. However, all Golems must be destroyed once their purpose is done, so Hanni leaves instructions in Lea’s locket to ensure she can carry this out. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the fictional story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge.
There are other characters in the novel bringing their own story and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together so that they encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household, because their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor has been mourning for Marianne as we follow her home to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be.
We follow these various characters through Germany, to Paris, to a convent where silver roses bloom, and a farm in the mountains where over three thousand Jews are walked to the mountains and freedom. In between the many horrors of war sits the beauty of nature, strangely incongruous and almost mystical in that it carries on without or even in spite of us. I love the audacity of Hoffman’s magic realism in juxtaposing the Holocaust with a mysterious heron who dances in the moonlight, at the river’s edge, with a very unusual woman. This beautiful novel weaves together the realities of a terrible war, with an element of ancient magic. Hoffman creates a story about the lengths people will go to in order to survive, protect those they love and fight for what they believe in. We also see the amazing healing power of love and forgiveness. Most of all, against a backdrop of the most evil and inhumane act of the 20th century, Hoffman uses the character of Ava to make us truly think about what qualities make us human.
Meet The Author.
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Dovekeepers, Magic Lessons, and, most recently, The Book of Magic. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com
The Bookstore Sisters
I usually expect a new Alice Hoffman novel in the autumn as she’s so prolific, but this year it’s a short story to keep us ticking over until her new novel arrives.
Isabel Gibson has all but perfected the art of forgetting. She’s a New Yorker now, with nothing left to tie her to Brinkley’s Island, Maine. Her parents are gone, the family bookstore is all but bankrupt, and her sister, Sophie, will probably never speak to her again. But when a mysterious letter arrives in her mailbox, Isabel feels herself drawn to the past. After years of fighting for her independence, she dreads the thought of going back to the island. What she finds there may forever alter her path—and change everything she thought she knew about her family, her home, and herself. I’m a lover of books about books, and since the words I keep hearing are ‘relationships, charm and magic’ I’m really looking forward to a long bath with this story.
Published by Amazon Original Stories on 1st Nov 2022.
This was an exquisite, slow-paced, historical novel that moved me so much. It was a window on both individual, and collective, grief. It also explores the psychological rehabilitation process which is my day job, as a counsellor. Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am fascinated with this period of history depicted in novels as varied as Emma Donoghue’s recent novel The Pull of The Stars and in the last few years Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, Adele Park’s Spare Brides and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. All deal with a different aspect of this period of huge social change. The nation is grieving, for lost sons, husbands and brothers but also for a time of innocence now lost to them. Young women struggle to find husbands as the policy of neighbours fighting together meant villages losing whole generations of men. Distinctions between the classes come tumbling down as men from all backgrounds fought together for a common purpose. Many estates were crippled by death duties, often for two generations at once, and men who never expected to shoulder the burden of a family estate were suddenly dukes, but without any means. Institutions like the debs ball seemed trivial and outdated, with many new heirs marrying money from abroad bringing Americans and their new money into the ranks. Others lost their estates altogether and had to consider working for the first time ever. Women who had held the fort, while the men went to Europe to fight, did not want to return to the home and wifely duties. Even men who had jobs held for them, faced a fight to get them back. Women were not the same, they’d been stretched and depended upon in wartime and wanted more equality at home, work and in the political system. The upheaval in our class system, in gender roles and working life is unimaginable. When set against the backdrop of national mourning and a worldwide flu pandemic we can perhaps imagine a little the seismic psychological shifts happening. On the plus side it’s a dynamic time, where the old order is overturned, people born in poverty or the wrong gender could change their lives because of the social mobility created.
We see these issues through the characters in Caroline Scott’s book and understand how some want to recover a lost past however unlikely it is, whereas others want to blank out their experiences and start again without memories or baggage. Scott starts her book with an epigraph from the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey. Also used as a focal point for Anna Hope’s wonderful post WWI novel Wake, the burial of this young man is full of symbolism. One man chosen from the many lost in France, to symbolise both those who died and those who would never be recovered or identified. His burial in the abbey would be broadcasted in cinemas and over 100,000 visited his grave to pay their respects in the next few weeks. In Durham, another anonymous young man is found using chalk to write on the flagstones in the cathedral. He is arrested and taken for treatment with Dr James Haworth who aims to slowly help his patient recall who he is and what has brought him to Durham. Named Adam Galilee by the police who found him, he is subject to many different methods, including covering the walls of his room with mirrors. They spend so much time talking and questioning, gently in case they force him into distressing memories. As Haworth observes ‘something strong within him is resisting recalling the pertinent parts’.
As a counsellor and writer I think a lot about the concept of ‘self’ and how it’s constructed, and I loved how Scott explores this in the chapters marked as belonging to Adam. He talks about how they ask him for a first memory and he knows they’re avoiding more recent times, despite there being a complete void where his time as a soldier is concerned. He knows they’re looking for a beginning to who he is and all he does know is that it doesn’t work like that.
‘It isn’t linear. That’s not the way it works. It doesn’t have momentum, or a narrative arc, and he doesn’t know where it starts. It surprises him, if they are doctors of minds, that they can’t understand that’.
I thought this was so clever, because it questions the very nature of the self. Are we ever one fixed set of characteristics or are we fluid and ever changing? If any of us are asked to describe who we are we tend to come up with a list of things we love to eat, listen to, wear and watch. As if the self can somehow be captured and solidified by these objects. When asked who we are, we refer back. So what happens when we cast our minds back and there is nothing there to hang on to. All Adam can do is ‘be’. To exist, try things and see what sticks. Rebuild from now. Maybe this is preferable to remembering before, the trauma and the hell of the battlefield? It was beautiful to see Adam gain a love of nature, whether rediscovered or a new appreciation it has a healing quality. He also has a talent for sketching and he captures the nature around Fellside, as well as the repeating a young woman’s face, which may be a clue to who he is. Supporting him through this self-discovery is James, himself a lost man due to his war experience and very much a wounded healer in these circumstances. His marriage to Caitlin is struggling under the weight of grief, I wanted him to share his war with his wife, but also understood his need to forget.
Just like the unknown soldier, Adam is a cipher for every young man lost in the war. When James puts his picture in a national newspaper, he hopes that someone will recognise him – what he didn’t expect was that three people claim that Adam is theirs; Mark, Robert or Ellis. Caroline weaves the women’s narratives into this tale so we see what war has done to the women left behind. My heart ached for them all and I wanted Adam to belong to each of them in turn; to be Celia’s son, to smooth away the rough edges of Lucy’s tough existence, to absolve Anna and bring resolution to her life. Of course he can’t be all things to all people. This is an intricate balance of viewpoints and Scott weaves a beautiful tapestry from them. Through these people we see a snapshot of post-WWI Britain that is truthful. Art is able to move beyond the patriotism and glory, to see the real cost of war. This is an incredible piece of work. Haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.
Meet The Author
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the First World War, in the challenges faced by the returning soldier, and in the development of tourism and pilgrimage in the former conflict zones. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in south-west France.
Oh my goodness I can’t stop looking at this gorgeous cover! It is absolutely stunning and stopped me in my tracks as I was scrolling through Twitter. Then, once I read the premise, I knew this had to go on my TBR list for next year.
Nima doesn’t feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.Until she doesn’t.
As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn’t give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry. And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else’s. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.
Early reviews suggest that the author has created an incredible world around her main character, using words like ‘lush’ and ‘magical’. I’m so looking forward to a different reading experience – the book is written in verse. It also has some of my favourite themes, such as how we construct an identity for ourselves, finding our place within a family and a culture. Categorised as YA, I think this is a book that will transcend that label and be read by teens and adults alike.
Meet The Author |
Safia Elhillo is the author of the poetry collection The January Children, which received the the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award.
Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 30 Under 30. She is a 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.