Well, what an exciting book month it’s been! Not to mention a busy one. I’ve been straight from one book to another without a break without the usual time to contemplate a bit and wonder what was next. I was surprised to find myself reading one brilliant novel after another, from some of my favourite writers and publishers. There were some great writers who were totally new to me as well, with incredible debuts full of atmospheric mystery, emotions and relationships. I’ve moved from a future dystopia where stories are banned, to a Japanese love story that turns into an action thriller, then driven through Scotland with three fugitives and a space cephalopod in a van. Two psychological thrillers kept me guessing about human relationships: from a mother and her daughter, befriended by a woman who is at least careless and at worst manipulative with others feelings; to a wife and mistress coming dangerously close to knowing the truth and the man in the middle becoming increasingly desperate to escape the situation. Finally there are two historical novels, one taking us to Jane Eyre territory with a large mysterious house, a governess and a ghostly presence. The last is set in the aftermath of WW2 where a woman tries to revive a garden as an escape from her changed husband, just returned from fighting alongside the French resistance. So my brain has been all over the backwards and forwards in time and all over the world! But from the thirteen books read this month, it was these books that I simply couldn’t leave out.
This atmospheric debut was our Squad Pod Collective book club choice for March. Written with inspiration from Jane Eyre the book follows Margaret Lennox, a recently widowed woman who has secured a post as governess at Hartwood Hall. On arrival Margaret looks forward to working for Mrs Eversham and her son Louis, but there are doubts about the hall. Villagers won’t come near the place, amid superstitions about spirits and spectres and rumours about Mrs Eversham. Margaret is told that the East Wing is kept locked and out of bounds, but one night she follows an apparition with a candle towards that part of the house. The same figure is glimpsed at twilight in the gardens. Added to this is blackmail, a lost daughter, marital abuse and an illicit affair. I loved how Katie subverted the novel that inspired her, especially towards the end and the atmosphere she creates is classic 19th Century gothic. I found myself carrying the book around so I could dip into it and come closer to finding out the truth. What a fabulous debut this is.
I’ve come a little late to this story of two fascinating women, the wife and lover of the same man. Set in the 1920’s and a country still in mourning, this has so much period detail and is based on a real case. Beatrice is alone in life and is moving towards the age where marriage and children will definitely have passed her by. She lives in a women’s hostel and works in the offices of a London firm. She’s so good at her work that the current office manager has her in mind to replace her when she retires. Just when romance seems unlikely, she strikes up a friendship with a salesman at her firm, the handsome and charming Tom Ryan. There’s just one snag, Tom is married with a little girl and Beatrice’s reputation could be ruined. Kate is Tom’s wife and is largely in the dark about Beatrice till the police turn up at her door. This isn’t the first time that Tom has strayed, but this could be the first time that she doesn’t stand by him. When Beatrice falls pregnant, the pressure starts to build for Tom. Will she tell his wife? He could lose his job, his family and his status. As both Beatrice and Tom become increasingly desperate, all three are moving towards a terrible crime. The women are the stars of this show and the ones I felt most empathy for as the tension built. Their alternate narration was a brilliant structure and really took us inside these characters. Psychologically complex and compulsive reading as a domestic thriller, I’m going back to read Emma’s previous novel on the strength of this one.
This was a beautifully written debut about female friendship, with an undercurrent of clever manipulation. Sunday has lived and worked on a farm belonging to Dolly’s father ever since their divorce. She also has quirks that could be seen as neuro-divergent traits – she doesn’t speak to strangers, only eats white food and doesn’t like noise, especially several at once. It’s a surprise when her new neighbour at the cottage next door embraces Sunday’s differences and is determined to make friends. Sunday feels very lucky that the rich and glamorous Vita wants to be her friend. It’s the little touches, like always making sure there are plain white rolls at dinner and the fizzy drinks that Sunday prefers. She feels like Vita and Rollo accept and embrace her. One particular Friday night, after dinner, Dolly asks can she stay overnight with Vita? Sunday has no objection, but when it becomes a regular thing Sunday feels excluded. Is it her imagination, or since Dolly has been staying with the couple, hasn’t Vita stopped coming over so much? However, she doesn’t want to prevent Dolly having opportunities and making connections. We are just as unsure as Sunday, because the changes are subtle, but could be seen as manipulative and exploitative. What does Vita want with her daughter and if she stops Dolly seeing them could she lose her altogether? This is so emotionally literate and subtle psychologically, but also a beautifully written debut.
I loved this historical fiction novel, another fantastic debut, set in the aftermath of WW2. This is a story about what war did to those who left to fight, but also explores what it did to those left behind. Alice, or Lady Rayne to give her full title, is struggling under the pressure of keeping the family estate going. Two successive world wars have depleted their finances due to two sets of death duties. Her husband Stephen is the unexpected heir and has come back from war troubled and angry, far from the gentle, affectionate man she fell in love with. The hall is falling apart round their ears and the gardens have also fallen into disrepair, apart from the vegetable plots. Since returning, Stephen has retired every night to a small room in the servants quarters, instead of the marital bed. So she decides to try and resurrect a small part of the garden first, the walled garden. In the hope it might spur her on to do more and inspire Stephen to come up with solutions for the house. The author contrasts the couple with the village G.P. and George the parish vicar. The doctor is keen on social justice and full of concern for those in the village who are less fortunate. The vicar, George, did not fight because a lung disease kept him at home and he wrestles with the guilt of that while trying to minister to those troubled souls who have seen and done things in the name of their country that cause terrible nightmares. He falls into an easy friendship with Alice, they have a lot in common, but could that friendship deepen into something more? This is a thoughtful and moving account of the post-war years in a rural community and I liked the way we learned about the effects of war across class boundaries, as well as the differences between London and the more rural communities. This was a great debut from the author and I’m sure she’s one to watch.
The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone.
As most of you know I’m a mad Skelfaholic, in love with Doug’s trio of female private investigators/ funeral directors. This is a stand alone novel, but does have the usual mad combination of science, philosophy and psychology that underpins his story. On an evening in Edinburgh, people witness a bright light in the sky, an object hurtling towards earth. It’s vivid light display is noticed by Lennox, being confronted by a gang of lads, Ava who is in an argument with her husband which will only end in the usual way, then there’s Heather, a loner who after a terminal cancer diagnosis was wading into water with her pockets full of stones. All three wake up in hospital, which is a miracle since none of the others who saw the light is going to recover. All of them have suffered a cerebral haemorrhagic stroke, a type of stroke that’s usually unrecoverable. When a strange creature washes up on the beach, it’s guarded by local police until a more specialist team can come and pick it up. It’s a cephalopod, something rather like an octopus but without the eight legs. Lennox knows immediately that he must rescue the creature, so with Heather, Ava and a borrowed camper van they take Sandy towards the northern coast. With a journalist and strange suited men in pursuit, will they reach Sandy’s destination? This is brilliant, thoughtful, funny and touching all in one. Loved it.
End of Story is absolutely stunning and had a huge impact on my emotions. Our narrator Fern Dostoy is a writer, one of the ‘big four’ novelists of the not too distant future. This is a future where the Anti-Fiction Movement’s campaign to have all fiction banned has been successful. It was Fern’s third novel, Technological Amazingness, that was cited as dangerous fiction likely to mislead and possibly incite dissent in it’s readers. All fiction authors, including Fern, are banned from writing and the only books on sale are non-fiction. The message is that fiction is bad for you, it lies to the reader giving them misleading ideas about the world and how it’s run. Facts are safe. I had strange feelings of anger and frustration with the narrative, not because it isn’t brilliantly and vividly brought to life, but because I could sense something else going on underneath. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. As the pressure built and the compliance officers started to push Fern into telling the truth, I inexplicably felt a lump building in my throat. I’d no idea why I was feeling so choked up. I read the final third with tears streaming down my cheeks, followed by full-on sobbing. I hadn’t known my emotions were so engaged with Fern’s story until my husband came home and I couldn’t even speak to explain why I was crying. It was like I’d known this was where the story was going all along. I loved it and I know it will be on my list for the year’s end.
This is science fiction with a heart and a lot to say about the human experience. Our narrator John is an awkward 17 year old, from a dysfunctional family and with deeply personal body issues. He also happens to be a coding genius, talented in quantum code and greatly in demand by tech companies. He is spending some time in Tokyo while signing a deal with Sony and comes across a small cafe that offers ear cleaning. Inside he finds a huge Japanese man working behind the counter, a quirky dog with a spherical head and his owner, a pretty and rather enigmatic young girl called Neotnia. This chance meeting develops into an incredible journey that will take them from the neon city of Tokyo, to the tragic past of Hiroshima and finally the beautiful mountains of Nagano. The world the author creates is mesmerising and the love story that develops is touching. Then there’s a twist and we’re through the rabbit hole into sci-fi and a road trip to find Neotnia’s father. Then we morph into a thriller and my heart was racing to the end! I loved how this was so many different things at once and I particularly loved the philosophical and historical elements. This was an incredible read and I was surprised at every turn.
All out in paperback now.
I just wanted to give a mention to some paperback releases of books I loved from last year. Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth is set in Victorian London and the world of the freak show. Zillah is the star of a theatre show appearing as a terrifying tribeswoman, but she was born in London and has never been to Africa. When her consciousness is raised she is compelled to help the showman’s latest acquisition, the Leopard Woman. Fantastically immersive historical fiction. One Italian Summer takes us to Positano with Katy, who’s recently found out her mother spent time there as a young woman. As Katy waits in the foyer of her hotel in walks a young woman called Carol. Carol is Katy’s mother. Has she gone back in time or or is this her mother’s ghost? What might she find out about her mother that she’s never known before? I absolutely loved Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? and the title character. Yinka has been the perfect daughter who did well at school and university. She now has a great job too, but is still the subject of prayers when her British Nigerian Aunties get together. She doesn’t have a husband, or even a boyfriend. We follow Yinka’s plan to have a relationship by the date of her friend Rachel’s wedding. What if the things that it takes to attract a man, mean you’re no longer being yourself. Funny and really heartfelt too. Finally, in the follow up to his first novel we are back with Evie Epworth in Matson Taylor’s All About Evie. We’re ten years on from the first novel and Evie is working for the BBC in London, but thanks to a mix-up with a member of the Royal Family and a mug full of something unfortunate, she’s looking for new employment. She wants to write for a magazine, so when she sees magazine Right On she thinks it might be the right for her. They agree to give her a trial on the listings pages, essentially long lists of what’s on in London across the arts from opera to poetry evenings. With the offer of help from Lolo (Radio Three producer, homosexual, basset owner) on the classical music listings, Evie decides to give it a go and sprinkle some sunshine over her work, in her own inimitable way. As always this is an uplifting, joyful and funny romp through Evie’s life with a sprinkling of romance too.
All out in paperback now.
One thought on “Books of the Month – March 2023”
I bought Yinka the other day after reading your review.