It’s a tough year for all of this year and Christmas is no exception, most of us are still more worried about how to keep warm than feeling festive. As I get older, I seem to think about Christmas earlier each year, then get to this point and realise I’ve done nothing, again. Last year the Christmas cards didn’t even get posted, so I’ve got to sift through the pile just to weed out anyone who’s had another baby, got married or even worse, divorced. There’s nothing worse than sending a card with the ex-husband’s name in it! This year I’m buying less and with my side of the family we’ve decided on a meal at the local pub together, rather than struggling to buy each other more stuff. With my lot the best side of Christmas is us all together having a laugh. For those people we’re still buying for I’m always keen on buying a book and in our Squad Pod Collective we do a Secret Santa where everyone gets a book and chocolate. So I thought I’d share with you the books I’ll be buying friends and family this year. There’s nothing I love more than seeing someone reading the book I’ve bought for them and really enjoying it. Happy Christmas Reading folks. 🎄🎄
Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre
My other half really enjoys reading when he gets a chance and he loves military stories like this one I saw him pick up in Waterstones a few weeks ago. He read the book behind the SAS Rogue Heroes series a few years ago, followed by the author’s other novels. I think he feels at home in that world, after spending 22 years in the RAF in avionics he misses the camaraderie. In fact he picked this book up because he knew that SAS founder David Stirling spent some time in Colditz, as did pilot Douglas Bader. This book is an incredible story that challenges the usual tale of daring and brave British officers plotting their daring escapes from captivity. Colditz was a forbidding Gothic castle on top of a hill in Nazi Germany. Bestselling historian Ben Macintyre, does tell a tale of the indomitable human spirit, but also one of class conflict, homosexuality, espionage, insanity and farce.
Macintyre has gone through an incredible amount of historical material to reveal a remarkable cast of characters, wider than previously seen and hitherto hidden from history, taking in prisoners and captors who were living cheek-by-jowl in a thrilling game of cat and mouse. From the elitist members of the Colditz Bullingdon Club to America’s oldest paratrooper and least successful secret agent, the soldier-prisoners of Colditz were courageous and resilient as well as vulnerable and fearful—and astonishingly imaginative in their desperate escape attempts. Deeply researched and full of incredible human stories, this is said to be the definitive book on Colditz and I can’t wait to hear about it.
Rachel’s Holiday and Again,Rachel by Marian Keyes
My eldest stepdaughter is 18 next February and she’s finishing her A’Levels. She’s been trying to improve how much she reads, in competition with her boyfriend. I thought it would be nice for her to have something that’s an easy read, but with great character and storytelling, plus lots of heart. Who better than Marian Keyes? Again, Rachel is her latest novel and a sequel to Rachel’s Holiday, first published 25 years ago. Rachel Walsh has been living in New York City, spending night’s partying in glamorous venues and spending the early hours with hot boyfriend Luke.
‘How did it end up like this? Twenty-seven, unemployed, mistaken for a drug addict, in a treatment centre in the back arse of nowhere with an empty Valium bottle in my knickers….’ Rachel’s older sister turns up and talks her into going to rehab, something Rachel only agrees to because she’s heard that rehab is wall-to-wall Jacuzzis, gymnasiums and rock stars going cold turkey – plus it’s about time she had a holiday. Saying goodbye to fun will be hard. But not as hard as losing the man who she realises, all too late, might just be the love of her life.
Back in the long ago ’90s, Rachel Walsh was a mess. But her spell in rehab transformed everything. Life became very good, very quickly. These days, Rachel has love, family, a great job as an addiction counsellor; she even gardens. Her only bad habit is a fondness for expensive trainers. But with the sudden reappearance of a man she’d once loved, her life wobbles. She’d thought she was settled. Fixed forever. Is she about to discover that no matter what our age everything can change? Is it time to think again, Rachel? I hope these are the perfect introduction to a great author.
For Agatha Christie Lovers.
I know a lot of Agatha Christie lovers and this is the perfect package for someone who’s perhaps read all of Agatha’s stories and novels. Firstly, Marple is a collection of twelve original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple and introducing the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery. There are some great crime and mystery writers here such as Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths and Val McDermid giving us a reminder why Marple is the most famous fictional female detective of all time. Agatha Christie is a new biography of the writer from acclaimed historian Lucy Worsley, to run alongside the BBC series. I was surprised at how modern Agatha was in her thinking – she liked fast cars, went surfing and was fascinated by the new science of psychology. I hadn’t known she suffered from mental ill health herself. Yet despite this, she seemed to project an image of being an ordinary Edwardian housewife. She was born in 1890, which really was another world compared to the modern period post WW1. Lucy Worsley shows a woman who lived through a period of huge social change and became an incredibly successful woman writer, a pioneer of crime fiction. To round everything off is a novel about a very specific period of Agatha Christie’s life; the eleven days in 1926 when she went missing and created a mystery worthy of one of her own novels. The Christie Affair is narrated by the other woman, the woman Agatha’s husband says he’s leaving her for. Nan has an unusual link to the Christie’s and her tale unfolds from a childhood in Ireland and through the Great War. Agatha has something that Nan wants, but it isn’t just her husband. This was a fascinating novel, that again shows the huge differences in life before and after the war, particularly for women. I think any of these books would be a great addition to to a Christie lover’s library.
Novels With an Italian Flavour.
I read both of these novels over the summer and absolutely craved the Italian coast, the food and the incredible people. Both these authors are brilliant storytellers and conjure up a real atmosphere of Italy, as well as the history. Santa Montefiore takes us to Brooklyn first, to the heart of the Italian neighbourhood in the late 1970’s. Evelina has her close family and friends around her for Thanksgiving and while she’s full of gratitude for what she has, she can’t help but reminisce about what she left behind thirty years ago. She thinks back to a turbulent part of Italian history, when she lived a sheltered life in the countryside in Northern Italy in 1934. Her older sister Benedetta follows her father’s choice and marries a banker, against her own wishes, but Evelina is determined to never marry out of duty. Of course she’s never been in love, that is until she meets the dressmaker’s son Ezra and her heart recognises him. They have a beautiful summer getting to know one another, but as the shadows of war gather and Italy seems certain to follow in Hitler’s wake, Ezra and his Jewish family could be in danger. This is a beautiful love story and a different look at WW2, showing how it affected ordinary Italians and tore families apart.
Adriana Trigiani tells the story of proud grandmother Matelda Cabrelli who always has something to say, but as she faces the end of her life, she worries she’s failed to tell the stories that matter. Most of all, she finds herself needing to tell the tale of her mother Domenica’s two great loves. First, she tells us about Domenica’s childhood sweetheart: a boy from her own small coastal town of Viareggio. Second, a mysterious captain: an infatuation forged in the midst of WW2, and the father Matelda never knew. Now, before her time runs out, it falls to Matelda to tell her granddaughter Domenica’s story. Together, the Cabrelli women unpick the mysteries, passions and tragedies that sent Domenica away from Italy—then brought her home again. This book introduced me to a gorgeous sounding part of Italy – the Tyrrhenian coast, but also beautifully conjured up the atmosphere of Scotland and a favourite haunt of mine, the West End of Glasgow. Both of these novels fully immerse the reader into Italy and it’s history, as well as telling a beautifully romantic love story.
An Introduction to Will Carver
I’d been wondering what to buy our 17 year old’s boyfriend when she came home and told us they were both trying to read more. I take any opportunity to recommend Orenda books and I thought what better than Will Carver, the most inventive and original novelist I’ve read in a long time. He’s impossible to review, but I’ve cherry picked these three. Good Samaritans is dark, sexy, dangerous crime fiction with the tagline – ‘One crossed wire, three dead bodies and six bottles of bleach’. Seth Beauman can’t sleep, so he stays up late, calling strangers from his phone book, hoping to make a connection, while his wife, Maeve, sleeps upstairs. A crossed wire finds a suicidal Hadley Serf on the phone to Seth, thinking she is talking to The Samaritans. This seemingly harmless late-night hobby turns into something more for Seth and for Hadley, and soon their late-night talks are turning into daytime meet-ups. And then this dysfunctional love story turns into something altogether darker when Seth brings Hadley home, and someone is watching. Nothing Important Happens Today opens as nine people arrive one night on Chelsea Bridge. They’ve never met, but all at the same time, they run and leap to their deaths. Each of them received a letter in the post that morning, a pre-written suicide note, and a page containing only four words: Nothing important happened today. That is how they knew they had been chosen to become a part of the People of Choice: a mysterious suicide cult whose members have no knowledge of one another. People of Choice are appearing around the globe: a decapitation in Germany, a public shooting at a university in Bordeaux; in Illinois, a sports team stands around the centre circle of the football pitch and pulls the trigger of the gun pressed to the temple of the person on their right. It becomes a movement. But how do you stop a cult when people do not know they are members?
Finally there’s Psychopaths Anonymous, where Maeve welcomes you to the club. Maeve has everything: a high-powered job, a beautiful home, a string of uncomplicated one-night encounters. She’s also an addict: A functioning alcoholic with a dependence on sex and an insatiable appetite for killing men. What she can’t find is a support group to share her obsession, so she creates her own and Psychopaths Anonymous is born. Now in a serious relationship, Maeve wants to keep the group a secret. But not everyone in the group adheres to the rules, and when a reckless member raises suspicions with the police, Maeve’s drinking spirals out of control. She needs to stop killing and she needs to close the group. But Maeve can’t seem to quit the things that are bad for her, including her new man. This is a scathing, violent and darkly funny book about love, connection, obsessions and sex – and the aspects of human nature we’d prefer to hide – Psychopaths Anonymous is also an electrifyingly original, unpredictable thriller that challenges virtually everything. These seem the perfect unexpected gift for an 18 year old keen to extend his reading range. I’m sure he’ll be surprised.
A Little Bit Ghostly..
I really enjoyed both of these reads and I would recommend both of them if you like historical fiction, women’s history and a very spooky edge. The Marsh House is definitely in my books of the year, it’s so atmospheric and also unearths a fascinating tale of the influence of eugenics in early 20th Century Norfolk. Zoe Somerville takes us back to 1962 and a young mum eager to create a magical Christmas for her daughter Franny. Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast, but once there, the strained silence between them feels louder than ever. As Malorie digs for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house 30 years before. Trapped inside by a blizzard, and with long days and nights ahead of her, Malorie begins to read. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, she finds herself inexorably drawn into the past. In the summer of 1932, Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family move to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright façades and the same political outlook that spawns Naziism. The more Malorie reads Rosemary’s diary, the past and present begin to merge in this moving story of mothers and daughters, family obligation and deeply buried secrets. It’s stunningly atmospheric and Malorie’s evening visitations and dreams are incredibly haunting.
C.J. Cooke’s novel The Ghost Woods also has a focus on mothers and daughter, a spooky house and women’s history of the mid- 20th Century. In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall, a place shrouded in folklore—old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. In 1965, Pearl arrives at the hall about to give birth, something she’s chosen because the hall’s owners help young girls find adoptive families for their child. However, the supposedly philanthropic family who live in Lichen Hall, are eccentric to say the least, with the family patriarch obsessed with parasitic lichens. Mabel, who lives in a caravan in the grounds with her mysterious son, had her baby here several years ago but he wasn’t adopted, because he has a talent the family can use. There’s an incredible sense of creeping evil at Lichen Hall and a system that only works due to women’s shame and society’s judgement. The author mixes her women’s history with a supernatural story that’s genuinely scary.
Other Books I’d Love To Gift
The Maid by Nita Prose – one of my first reads of 2022 this is a great crime novel with a unique narrator that you’ll fall in love with. When a murder takes place in a smart hotel, who knows most about what goes on in the behind the locked doors?
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – an incredible novel based in 1970’s America, where a young nurse starts work in a rural part of the southern states of the USA. Her attachment to two young sisters, from a poverty stricken family, leads to her uncovering a terrible injustice inflicted on African-American women.
The Flames by Sophie Haydock – if you have a family member or friend who loves art, this is the novel for them. We’re taken to early 20th century Vienna and two upper class sisters who meet artist Egon Schiele. Haydock takes four of Schiele’s paintings of women and gives each model a voice to tell their own story.
The Blackhouse by Carole Johnstone – this is a brilliant crime story, based in the Outer Hebrides, with mysterious elements of folklore. Maggie is an investigative journalist who returns to the village of Blairmore to uncover a secret. As a child Maggie claimed that someone on the island had killed a man, but do the locals want her to solve that mystery? Atmospheric, dark and very compelling.