I don’t often do cover reveals or previews, but there are just so many books to look forward to I might start. I think it’s the only way I can tell show you the novels I’m excited about. Otherwise I have to wait till I’ve read and review them all and that can take a while! Sometimes just the blurb and the cover is enough to whet my appetite. Other times it’s the first page that I’ve been reading while stood up in the queue at the bookshop. Sometimes I’ve been granted the book on NetGalley and couldn’t resist peeking at the first chapter. Or it could be I’ve read the author’s first book and I’ve been waiting impatiently for that difficult second book, just knowing it will be great.
Today I’m talking about Freya Sampson’s new book The Girl on the 88 Bus. I loved reading her debut novel The Last Library last year because it was like a warm hug in a book. By the looks of early reviews this book has that same magical feel. Here’s the blurb:
When Libby Nicholls arrives in London, broken-hearted and with her life in tatters, the first person she meets on the bus is elderly pensioner Frank. He tells her about the time in 1962 he met a girl on the number 88 bus with beautiful red hair just like her own. They made plans for a date, but Frank lost the ticket with her number written on it. For the past sixty years, he’s ridden the same bus trying to find her.
More than anything, Libby wants Frank to see his lost love one more time. But their quest also shows Libby just how important it is to embrace her own chance for happiness – before it’s too late.
A beautifully uplifting novel about how one chance meeting can change the course of your life forever
Published in June 2022 by Zaffre Publishing. I can’t wait. Can you?
Meet The Author
Freya Sampson works in TV and was the executive producer of Channel 4’s Four in a Bed and Gogglesprogs. She studied History at Cambridge University and in 2018 was shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. She lives in London with her husband, two young children and an antisocial cat
One of the most enduring series of books in my collection and one I never tire of re-reading is Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series of novels. So far there are four novels in the series and every one has that perfect combination for me – strong women, good food, a beautiful continental setting, and a little sprinkle of magic. Each one features the enigmatic and charming Vianne Rocher, mother, chocolatier and witch. Vianne takes us from Provence to Paris, then back and everywhere she goes people seem drawn to her warm nature. Since I always find myself rereading Chocolat in the run up to Easter, I thought it was an ideal time to review this extraordinary series for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (although there’s probably not many) and those who haven’t read the sequels, perhaps only visiting the series due to the successful film adaptation starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne and Johnny Depp as Roux. Here’s why I love this magical and strangely comforting world Harris has created.
“There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s-gold, a layman’s magic that even my mother might have relished. As I work, I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows are open, and the through-draft would be cold if it were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans, the rising vapor from the melting couverture. The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper, and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rain forest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals: Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The Food of the Gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.” Chocolat
I read this first book in the series long before the film adaptation and I’m glad I did since there were aspects changed, and I think the book is perfect as it is. Vianne Rocher, a single mum with a young daughter, blows into the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday. The villagers are still clearing away the last dregs of the carnival which heralds the beginning of Lent. Vianne and daughter Anouk, move into the disused bakery facing the church. Francis Reynaud, the young and opinionated curé of the parish, watches her arrival with disapproval and suspicion. When the priest realizes that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop in place of the old bakery, thereby tempting the churchgoers to over-indulgence, Reynaud’s disapproval increases.
As the villagers of Lansquenet start falling under the spell of Vianne’s easy and charming ways, Reynaud feels that she undermines his own authority and he starts to see her as a danger. Yet Vianne’s influence is having a positive effect – an old woman embraces a new way of living, a battered wife finds the courage to leave her husband, children are rebelling against authority. Worse she’s even welcoming outcasts and strays such as the river gypsies. Reynaud feels like his tight and carefully ordered community is in danger of breaking apart. Easter approaches and both parties throw themselves whole-heartedly into the preparations; Vianne is creating delicacies for the chocolate festival she plans to hold on Easter Sunday. I think this is one of my favourite parts of the whole book, when Vianne is creating and you can tell that the author’s really luxuriating in the flavours and textures. There’s always that little touch of magic too. There’s her daughter Anouk with her little ‘shadow’ friend Pantoufle the rabbit who I adore. Vianne is naturally talented, but there’s a little touch of something that makes the fairy lights extra sparkly, or the delectable smell of hot chocolate drift that bit further up the road and into people’s homes.
It’s this something extra that Reynaud can sense, and it sends him looking for a way to win back his straying flock. Both factions have a great deal at stake and the village starts to feel divided, Some blame the river gypsies for the change in the air, but there is a power in the tension between Vianne and Reynaud that turns their emotions into a brisk wind stirring up the leaves in the church yard, or slamming doors as it goes. Vianne knows the danger of being different and she warns Anouk not to let Pantoufle become too visible. As Easter day comes closer their struggle becomes much more than a conflict between church and chocolate – it becomes an exorcism of the past, a declaration of independence, a showdown between pleasure and self-denial with an ending no one expects.
“The real magic – the magic we’d lived with all our lives, my mother’s magic of charms and cantrips, of salt by the door and a red silk sachet to placate the little gods – had turned sour on us that summer, somehow, like a spider that turns from good luck to bad at the stroke of midnight, spinning its web to catch our dreams. And for every little spell of charm, for every card dealt and every rune cast and every sign scratched against a doorway to divert the path of malchance, the wind just blew a little harder, tugging at our clothes, sniffing at us like a hungry dog, moving us here and moving us there.” The Lollipop Shoes
I was so excited to know that Vianne and her daughters were going to be back in another adventure, this time set in Paris. Tucked away in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her two daughters live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped – at least for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes – ruthless, devious and seductive. Set a few years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne has left Lansquent-sous-Tannes, and is now living in Paris with Anouk and her second daughter Rosette. Rosette is an unusual red haired child who doesn’t seem able to speak, but has her own special abilities like Anouk. Although we don’t know why at first, Vianne has changed her name to Yanne. Even more unexpectedly, she has suppressed her magic powers and is now contemplating a more conventional lifestyle, including marriage to the older, more traditional, Thierry le Tresset. Thierry is also their landlord and Anouk is concerned. She doesn’t like Thierry and wonders what has happened to her mother.
So much has changed and all the fun they used to have before is gone. Then Zozie de l’Alba turns up at Vianne’s chocolaterie with an air of magic and a trademark, she’s always wearing her bright red shoes. Anouk is ready for a friend and for some excitement so is easily to be seduced by Zozie’s charisma. This young woman becomes a part of the family’s lives and in the shop, but they don’t really know who she is. Against Vianne’s wishes, Anouk wants to practice with the magical power she has always had and Zozie uses this to create a wedge between mother and daughter. She encourages Anouk to use her magic, but what is her motivation in coming between mother and daughter? It feels personal, but Vianne doesn’t seem to know her. Then, Vianne’s previous lover arrives in Paris. One of the river gypsies from the village, and incidentally the father of Rosette, Roux and Vianne haven’t seen each other for four years. What does his arrival have to do with Zozie and why does she seem to creep ever closer into their lives?
This is the instalment of the series that comes closest to magic realism, and it definitely feels more fantastical and less warm than Chocolat. Yet there’s still something very readable about it and its still full of those long descriptions that send beautiful images dancing across my brain. Three characters narrate this sequel, and one of whom is Anouk which shows us how grown up she has become and gives her an independent voice from her mother. I loved how it shows the changes in the mother/ daughter relationship as the daughter grows up and wants to make her own mark on the world. It showed how households like this can come into conflict, often by not really listening. It was interesting to experience the three different perspectives and to see Anouk having her own voice. I did miss those other background characters that made Chocolat so special though, despite that this was a magical read and left me fully immersed in Harris’s world once again.
“I have never belonged to a tribe. It gives me a different perspective. Perhaps if I did, I too would feel ill at ease in Les Marauds. But I have always been different. Perhaps that’s why I find it easier to cross the narrow boundaries between one tribe and the next. To belong so often means to exclude; to think in terms of us and them – to little words that, juxtaposed, so often lead to conflict.” Peaches for Monsieur le Curé
It was a number of years before I read this book, the third in the Chocolat series, after finding a copy in a charity shop. I was happy and strangely soothed to find the village of Lansquenet still as lovely as ever. In fact I blame Joanne Harris for my urge to grow red geraniums for every hanging basket chapter’s narrator – a crescent for Vianne, a cross for M. le Cure. In fact the crescent is symbolic to the plot of the book as a new type of outsider now takes up residence at the other side of the river. The two differing populations in the village are the Catholics from one side of the river, and the Muslims from the other side. In fact there is even a minaret marking the mosque, just as the bells and spire mark out the church. As usual though, even though Vianne has allegiances in the village, she finds herself drawn to the far side of the river, where a plot develops involving the treatment of women that I enjoyed a lot. Vianne’s charm brings her friends within the Muslim community, as well as for Rosette and Anouk too. Rosette has her own spirit friend Bam, just like her sister had Pantoufle, but friendship with Maya really blossoms and Maya would love her own ‘djinn’ just like Bam. Vianne is intrigued by Ines, a woman who wears a black veil and who the locals believe is a dark spirit bringing fear and unrest. As Vianne knows too well, first impressions are seldom correct.
This book is a little darker in tone than the others, as Reynaud and his parishioner’s suspicion of the Muslim community, comes to a head. Vianne seems compelled to befriend her one time enemy. Now that she knows and understands Reynaud, she finds herself caring about him and as readers we do too, almost in spite of ourselves. Roux reminds Vianne that it isn’t her responsibility to fix things, but she can’t seem to help herself. I loved being back in this beautiful village and for me it’s the place where Vianne belongs. Harris brings the place alive with her beautiful descriptive passages and she also recreates some of those memorable characters I loved in the first book, However, the new community has its own interesting characters and I enjoyed getting to know them too. However, her girls are uneasy about making strong connections. They know all too soon the wind will change direction. Do they have to go with it this time?
“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.” The Strawberry Thief
This final instalment in the series is sitting on my TBR pile and it’s about time I went back to these incredible characters. Vianne Rocher has finally settled down! It’s Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, ironically the place that once rejected her, that has finally become her home. With the help of Rosette, her youngest child, she runs the chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, and is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has now become a close friend. Then, old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, throwing life in this sleepy village into disarray again. Then a mysterious new shop opens in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that strangely mirrors J hpidbdn, and has a strange appeal of its own – seems to herald a change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder . . .
What will the wind blow in today?
Meet The Author
Joanne Harris is the internationally renowned and award-winning author of eighteen novels, plus novellas, scripts, short stories, libretti, lyrics, articles, and most recently, a self-help book for writers, TEN THINGS ABOUT WRITING. In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and is Chair of the Society of Authors.
Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She is active on Twitter, where she writes stories and gives writing tips as @joannechocolat; she posts weekly writing seminars on YouTube; she performs in a live music and storytelling show with the #Storytime Band; and she works from a shed in her garden at her home in Yorkshire.
She also has a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours. Red, she says, smells of chocolate. Weirdly, I also have synaesthesia and at this time of year it’s very active, with every bunch of yellow daffodils, smelling or even tasting of lemon sherbet!
I thought I’d celebrate Valentine’s Day by talking about our literary crushes. Let’s be honest, we all have them. Those literary heroes that draw us in and make us swoon. From a young age there have been literary heroes that have stuck in my mind, and probably informed some ill-advised dating choices over the years. Those formative literary heroes who made my adolescent heart flutter, have changed a lot as years have gone by. Perhaps because what I’ve learned through my real life relationships has started to change the characteristics that attract me in a hero. Those young, dashing, tortured souls don’t seem quite so attractive when you’ve encountered a few in real life. Of course, literary adaptations on film or TV often influence these crushes greatly – remember the endless banging on about a wet Colin Firth striding across the Derbyshire countryside? My mum’s expectation of that scene had obviously been honed by 1970’s literary adaptations like Women in Love where Oliver Reed and Alan Bates famously wrestled naked in front of a roaring fire. She expected Darcy to be wearing less clothes and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Anyway, I much preferred a slightly dishevelled Matthew McFadyen Mr Darcy, striding across a field at dawn. However, between the book covers, Mr Darcy simply doesn’t do it for me. Similarly, Mr Thornton from North and South was incredibly sexy when portrayed by the lovely Richard Armitage, but simply fails to light my fire when reading the book. So, with some trepidation, here are my reading crushes. Let me know yours. There’s no judgement here. ❤️❤️
Mr Rochester – Jane Eyre
“To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts…but to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am every tender and true.”
Considering they barely left the surroundings of their home at Haworth, those Brontë girls knew how to write the brooding, Byronic, hero. Heathcliff is probably the best example, but I read Wuthering Heights again when I was older, and he was a bit too tortured soul for my liking, plus he hangs a woman’s dog for goodness sake! I first read Jane Eyre when I was ten, in my last year of primary school, and I’ve read it every couple of years since. When younger, I loved the slow burn of their romance. From the moment she saves him from burning in his bed, it’s clear there’s something about Jane that attracts him. For him, she seems like a cool drink on a hot day. Somewhere he can sit and find peace, and let’s face it, he has an awful lot of drama to escape from. Of course when I was young I couldn’t see the feminist or sexual implications of the novel – Bertha upstairs was a bit of a monster to me. She was the gothic, scary bit so I didn’t really think about her as a person or what Rochester had done to her, until I was in my teens. I liked his dark brooding character and when he appears out of the fog on his horse it is still a swoon moment for me. I think I also enjoyed that he loves the plain, poor governess rather than the decorative, but awful Blanche Ingram. I loved their conversations and the way he seems to enjoy that fiery part of Jane. In my teens I used to think she was mad for leaving Rochester, but later I could see why she left and sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t have been better for her to keep her fortune and take off on a trip across the world. At least when she does return to Rochester it’s as an equal, with her own fortune and experience
Willoughby – Sense and Sensibility
In every meeting of the kind Willoughby was included; and the ease and familiarity which naturally attended these parties were exactly calculated to give increasing intimacy to his acquaintance with the Dashwoods, to afford him opportunity of witnessing the excellencies of Marianne, of marking his animated admiration of her, and of receiving, in her behaviour to himself, the most pointed assurance of her affection.
We’re still in bad boy territory here, with the ultimate cad who breaks Marianne’s heart and reputation in Sense and Sensibility. I have read the book, but I will admit that the Greg Wise version does play a large part in this choice. I loved the romantic way that Willoughby finds Marianne, having sprained her ankle on a hillside. He simply picks her up and carries her home. Factor in some rain, and Greg Wise being all dark and handsome, mastering a huge horse and a literary crush was born. No wonder Emma Thompson wrote in her diary on that particular day that Greg was setting all hearts fluttering as he was drippng wet an
a he loves Marianne, but in need of money he chooses status and an heiress above his heart. There’s no excuse for how he behaves, he’s an absolute rat, but that rush of chemistry can’t be denied. Would we have done any different to Marianne? In the film, when he rides to the hill in order to watch Marianne and Colonel Brandon leaving the church after their wedding, I think he’s truly sad and a little jealous.
Jamie Fraser – Outlander.
“I will find you,” he whispered in my ear. “I promise. If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you–then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest. Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”
I couldn’t resist the giant photo of Jamie Fraser! I had barely started reading the Outlander series when the TV series started so now the literary character is always going to be linked with the lovely Sam Heughan. He’s a great choice for the character and the chemistry between him and Catriona Balfe as Claire is perfect. What I love about Jamie is the way Diana Gabaldon has written him and it’s something that spills over into the TV series. We as readers are firmly with Claire and everything Jamie does is viewed through the female gaze. Their wedding night sequence is good example. We experience him through Claire and it’s his body we’re undressing and enjoying. I think the allure of Jamie is that heady mix of tough outdoors warrior, with a vulnerability underneath. There’s the way he respects her ideas and opinions, unheard of in most men of Claire’s time, never mind the 18th Century. It’s also his deep loyalty to Claire, not just across the few years they’re together but all those years inbetween when they’re in a different time from each other. There’s nothing more romantic than that.
Cormoran Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling Series
‘My best mate . . . ” For a split second he wondered whether he was going to say it, but the whisky had lifted the guard he usually kept upon himself: why not say it, why not let go? ‘. . . is you.”
Robin was so amazed, she couldn’t speak. Never, in four years, had Strike come close to telling her what she was to him. Fondness had had to be deduced from offhand comments, small kindnesses, awkward silences or gestures forced from him under stress. She’d only once before felt as she did now, and the unexpected gift that had engendered the feeling had been a sapphire and diamond ring, which she’d left behind when she walked out on the man who’d given it to her.She wanted to make some kind of return, but for a moment or two, her throat felt too constricted. ‘I . . . well, the feeling’s mutual,” she said, trying not to sound too happy.”
Finally, I actually fancy someone in this century! From the moment I picked up a dog eared copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling in a charity shop I was hooked on private investigator Cormoran Strike. Yes, there’s the old tortured soul aspect to his personality, but it’s not just the high pitched warning alarm of a damaged man that calls out to me. I remember how well the author described him having to care for the stump left when his leg was amputated. It felt realistic to me, because walking and standing a lot was painful for him. If he is tailing someone he would ache and his leg might have chafed against his prosthetic. I appreciated a hero with a disability, his heroism magnified by the fact he was injured in action. He’s a big man, broad and tall, so much so that you’d feel safe with him. He may be vulnerable, but he can handle himself if necessary and that’s a heady combination. He’s a great listener, full of empathy for people in a predicament and for those close to him. He’s deeply loyal to those who he can trust, like his business partner Robin. He’s been messed up by women, from his mother to his long term girlfriend Charlotte. However, he’s a very private about his relationships and seems to have his own code of honour which is very attractive.
Captain Wentworth – Persuasion
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.”
Are there any more romantic words in literature? Wentworth’s letter is, for me, the most romantic I’ve read. I’d go as far as saying it’s the best declaration of love in the classics. It’s all the more wonderful because Anne is so unassuming and modest. She has spent months with Wentworth back in her circle, loving him from afar, but never presuming he might feel the same way. In fact she’s so sure he’s moved on from the feelings he had for her when they were younger, she thinks he’s in love with Louisa Musgrove. She has so little confidence that she misses the care and kindness he shows her. After a long walk he makes sure it is Anne who gets the seat on the carriage because he’s thinking of her comfort. She thinks he wants to be alone with Louisa or that he thinks she needs to sit as she’s older. I love Wentworth’s constancy and the passion he has been hiding under that polite exterior. The kiss that follows is wonderful, because we’ve been waiting for it so long.
Jackson Brodie – Case Histories Series
“He was officially a lunatic, she decided. Strangely, that didn’t make him less attractive.”
What is it about Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie? He’s a slightly rumpled, middle-aged, private investigator. He’s been in the military and the police so is probably institutionalised. In fact he’s a bit of a hopeless case, often taking on the lame ducks he finds along the way, whether they’re human or canine. Marriage doesn’t seem to suit him, but he is a very loyal friend. He’s quite grumpy and set in his ways. I’m not really selling him well I know, but there is that indefinable something that’s attractive. Rather like Cormoran Strike, there’s that sense that he’s an honourable man. He’s old-fashioned and would want to make sure you got home ok. In fact he’s one of those men who would walk on the outside on the pavement so you’re safe, away from the traffic and don’t get splashed. I imagine he looks like life has knocked him around a bit, but if someone needs help he would still be the first one there. There are times when he does the right thing, not by the book, but by his own moral code and I love that.
Gabriel Oak – Far From The Madding Crowd.
“And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be— and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
I haven’t put my crushes in any sort of order, but I’ve definitely saved the best till last. If you ask me, for most of the book, Bathsheba Everdene needs her head examining. Near the beginning of the book, Gabriel visits her. They’ve been neighbours and he comes striding across the fields with a lamb under his arm. It’s an orphan and he thought she might like to feed and take care of him. He then proposes to her and she refuses! If a man brought me a lamb I’d be beside myself with excitement and I’d be saying yes before he’d finished his sentence. How can you turn down a man who brings you your very own lamb? However, their fates are intertwined. After a terrible tragedy where he loses his whole flock, Gabriel is forced to look for a job. It turns out that Bathsheba has become an heiress, inheriting a farm but luckily needing someone to manage it for her.
Gabriel proves himself to be a loyal employee and is constant even when she marries the ridiculous Sergeant Troy. Troy gambles her money and one night gets the whole workforce dangerously drunk. They are celebrating the harvest, but the hay stacks aren’t covered and a storm blows up. Bathsheba finds Gabriel desperately trying to save he harvest for her, while Troy is passed out cold in the barn. Bathsheba grows up a lot in the course of the novel and she starts to see and value the qualities Gabriel has. She has previously overlooked his steadfast loyalty, how hard he will work for her and what an incredible friend he can be. He listens to her and when she is silly enough to lead on Mr Boldwood, an older gentleman who owns the neighbouring land, he speaks to her and warns her that it isn’t fair. Of course, this being Hardy, this flirtation ends in tragedy. Yet Gabriel is still there and when he proposes a second time she’s finally ready for the love he’s offering.
Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you have a literary crush you enjoy ❤️❤️
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of romantic novels on the whole, not as a genre anyway. However, I’m also that annoying person who writes outside the boxes on forms, resists the Census and ticks ‘rather not say’ if there’s an option to do so. My objection is to categories and putting things in boxes. I don’t object to a love story, in fact some of my favourite books are love stories. It’s just I don’t like it when love stories are packaged as romantic fiction or women’s fiction, given candy pink or baby blue covers, and characters who have little depth or motivation beyond the ‘meet cute’. I understand that, since Shakespeare, there’s been a set formula to the love story, but this can be taken to extremes. I actively hate simple love stories with manufactured obstacles and I definitely hated Fifty Shades of Grey (which was in no way a love story, but marketed as one). Perhaps my problem isn’t with love, but with romance; a much more contrived hearts, flowers and happy endings sort of place.
I like real obstacles: the terrible coincidence in Rosie Walsh’s The Man Who Didn’t Call; the limits posed by Will’s attitude to his disability in Me Before You; the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre; the girlish mistake of refusing a proposal in Persuasion. My favourite romcom is When Harry Met Sally so I do enjoy a ‘friends to lovers’ scenario, but it’s also witty with snappy dialogue and Billy Crystal making a woman miaow in bed. I love stories that are based within a historical or time-slip setting like the Outlander series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. I also like it when characters are so real it’s painful like Sally Rooney’s awkward teenage fumbling in Ordinary People. The characters must have depth, genuine problems or some meaty psychological issues to get my teeth into. I enjoy love stories set in other cultures or those that could be written as forbidden. I loved the viewpoint of a man coming to terms with his homosexuality in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and the transgressive love affair of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I enjoyed how love blossomed from a marriage of convenience during the Windrush era in Andrea Levy’s Small Island. I also loved the bittersweet tale of love gone wrong in David Nicholls’s other novel Us where our protagonist’s marriage breakdown comes into focus on a trip through Europe, interspersed beautifully with scenes from when they fall in love.
Several years ago, like thousands of others, I was blindsided by One Day. There was a time when you couldn’t move on public transport without knocking into someone reading this book. It’s a simple premise. Dexter and Emma were at Edinburgh University and as they graduate they spend the day together and forge a friendship, they climb Arthur’s Seat in their cap and gowns and talk about what they want for their futures. Dex would like to work in television and Emma would like to be a writer. The book then follows their story on the same day each year, sometimes together and sometimes apart, we see how life has changed them and the circumstances they find themselves in. Of course we know that Emma and Dex should be together, but will they ever find the right time or the courage to try?
I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t feel ‘grabbed’ by their story. My interest was mainly in their individual lives, especially considering that the book is set so that they’re both a similar age to me. I recognised the era, the reference points and also the struggles of life as they go through them. I thought Dex was a bit of a dick to be honest. He’s a player, egotistical and at times downright unpleasant. I really bonded with Emma though. A northern girl, she has a brand of kindness and an ability to see through bullshit that I liked. I saw some of me in her and I have always wanted to be a writer, but also went into teacher training (and didn’t finish). She clearly loves Dex, but will he ever see her? Mostly he sees her as a consolation prize, a shoulder to cry on, an advice giver and sometimes the great big kick up the arse he deserves. I can honestly say I hoped they never got together at several points in the book, because I didn’t think he deserved her. There’s a point where Emma has gone through a really tough time. She breaks off her engagement and goes through moving out and separating from her fiancé emotionally and financially. She goes out to Paris for a while and starts to write a children’s book. She has her hair cut short. She makes friends. I loved this Emma and I thought she’s built a new life from the ground up with no help from anyone. I wanted her to stay there.
As I know all too well, our love lives never simple. Often, where the decisions to be together seem very easy to make, it’s the right person. It’s reciprocal and committed. When we’re younger we’re learning about who we are in a relationship. We don’t know how much to compromise and how much to stick firmly to who we are or what we want for ourselves. We can get tangled up in relationships that are no good for us, are abusive, are with people who cheat, or people who put up obstacles and change their minds. We love people who aren’t ready, or who are too busy adding notches to the bed post. We can be so unsure of ourselves in our teenage years (and beyond) that we accept relationships that aren’t good for us and allow behaviour that’s demeaning or grinds down our self-worth. It’s also hard to love someone who doesn’t love you or who claims they can’t be with you. That great line from Sex and the City springs to mind – ‘he’s just not that into you’ – because when they are into you, they move mountains to be there. I felt that Dex was scared of real love and preferred empty encounters with beautiful women. Emma doesn’t value herself enough to set boundaries or ask for the love she deserves.
Everybody who knows the book will know the line I’m talking about. That one line I read and spontaneously burst into tears. That rarely happens with a book, but it did here. That’s when I knew this book had got me. My emotions were so invested in these characters that I had such a spontaneous response. I’m not sure how David Nicholls managed it, but I’ve spoken to other people who were similarly emotional. I think it’s the way he writes these two characters, they’re real and flawed. They struggle with life. We go through so many highs and lows with them, because even though we meet up with them on one day, we’re drawn in to how they got where they are. They’re not perfect either, far from it. Nichols weaves in addiction problems, affairs, career disasters and the difficulties of being a parent. There’s also huge loss to, and how the characters deal with these setbacks. One Day is a love story. Love is the primary theme of the novel. However, it’s also about being honest with ourself and others about our feelings and about recognising what love actually is. Perhaps I love One Day because it does go beyond the ‘falling in love’ stage, that even after years of yearning and kidding themselves about their feelings, Emma and Dex can still wake up one morning unnecessarily grumpy and tense with one another. Life is full of obstacles and love doesn’t stop them coming. Love isn’t always excitement, flinging your clothes off and swinging from chandeliers. Real love is always about being with your best friend.
Meet The Author
David Alan Nicholls (born 30 November 1966) is an English novelist and screenwriter. Nicholls is the middle of three siblings. He attended Barton Peveril sixth-form college at Eastleigh, Hampshire, from 1983 to 1985 (taking A-levels in Drama and Theatre Studies along with English, Physics and Biology), and playing a wide range of roles in college drama productions. Colin Firth was at the same College and they later collaborated in And When Did You Last See Your Father?. He went to Bristol University in the 1980s (graduating with a BA in Drama and English in 1988) before training as an actor at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. Throughout his 20s, he worked as a professional actor using the stage name David Holdaway. He played small roles at various theatres, including the West Yorkshire Playhouse and, for a three-year period, at the Royal National Theatre. He struggled as an actor and has said “I’d committed myself to a profession for which I lacked not just talent and charisma, but the most basic of skills. Moving, standing still – things like that.”
Since then, David has turned to writing full-time, and is the author of four novels. ‘One Day’ was an international bestseller and the follow-up, ‘Us’, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. He’s also a screenwriter and TV dramatist; his credits include adaptations of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and feature film version of his own novels. ‘One Day’ and ‘Starter for Ten
“Christmas ought to be brought up to date, Maria said. It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.” – John Masefield, The Box Of Delights
My Christmas fascination with this particular book may owe more to the BBC adaptation, broadcast in the run up to Christmas in the Sunday teatime slot, than it does to the book. Although I do still have a copy, one I bought with a gift token I’d won at school for trying hard, sometime in the mid 1980s. I read the book after the series aired and was captivated by this strange tale of wolves, clergymen, gangsters and Herne the Hunter. I think it captured my imagination because this was Christmas, but not the Christian version of events. This tale owes more to pagan winter festivals, fairy folk and ancient magic. I have always felt there’s something magical and transformative about Christmas Eve. I’ve never celebrated Halloween, we belonged to a restrictive church that frowned upon any sort of occult meddling, so we had to go to ‘Light Night’ instead. Instead of the magical witching hour, I felt that anything could happen on Christmas Eve. Before our swap to a ‘happy clappy church’ I’d been brought up Catholic. For me there was nothing like the excitement of being woken up late at night, bundled into the car and travelling to Midnight Mass in the frosty cold when others were in bed. I felt like a nocturnal creature, up and about just as rabbits and badgers were popping up from their burrows and sniffing the night air. My brother and I would press our faces up against our windows, looking up into the sky as far up as we could, just in case we saw Father Christmas. Miraculously, he would always have been when we arrived home again. We loved seeing everyone’s Christmas lights on and landscapes turned a glittery white with frost. I had a sense that the veil between this world and others was very thin at this time of year. That there was still magic afoot in the world and I might see something mystical and strange, much like Kay does in this novel as he travels home by train for the holidays.
In fact Kay’s adventure starts as soon as he sets out on his homeward journey by steam train. Kay thinks he hears wolves, but that’s impossible. He does meet an old Punch and Judy man though, who inevitably draws him into an adventure.
“And now, Master Harker, of Seekings,’ the old man said, ‘now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?”
The wolves he speaks of are not the howling ones outside. The wolves are Abner Brown and his dastardly crew of henchmen. They’re after a magic box that the old man uses to go small (shrink) or go swift (travel), and which he now gives to Kay so he can keep it safe. This box sets Kay off on marvellous adventures and although I don’t remember it all, there are parts that have stuck with me. I remembered a mouse who enters Kay’s room via tiny archway in the skirting board. As Kay shrinks to avoid Brown’s henchmen, he finds himself having to navigate the ‘rapids’ in a paper boat and then disappears for a while after finding a fairy door. He’s welcomed into a fairy gathering, attended by the King and Queen of the fairies. He’s not completely alone in his adventures either and new friend Maria is a plucky little character who wants the exciting Christmas quoted above. She’s incredibly posh, cut from the same cloth as the ‘boy’s own’ heroes and has an excellent line in slang.
‘They know better than to try that game on me. I’ve been expelled from three and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear my name breathed. I’m Maria Jones, I am: somewhat talked of in school circles, if you take the trouble to enquire.’
Such intrepid characters are needed to foil the plans of Abner Brown and his men, who seemed truly evil when I first saw them. What I loved though was that sense of ancient magic – ‘I do date from pagan times’ – mixed with the public school language and sensibility. There’s a sense of Kay’s quest turning him into a man or at least trying it on for size. It’s hilarious when he adopts an important tone and asks the family servant if she knows how to make him a posset. There’s also the wonderful vocabulary that sounds like it’s come from a Roald Dahl novel, with words like splendiferous, scrobbled and purple pim. This truly is a little magic box of a novel, with richly painted scenes of nature and fairies as well as unnerving moments like the boy trapped behind a waterfall. The best thing is that every time I think about this book a huge wave of Christmassy nostalgia washes over me.
Maybe Adrian Mole isn’t the first thought most readers might have when thinking about Christmas books. For me they are right up there with the funniest and most realistic Christmas Days in literature. Every diary, starting with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, contains a Christmas and each one is disastrous, but also laugh out loud funny. We’ve all had such Christmas disasters, perhaps not with such alarming regularity, and while a lot of us run ourselves ragged in December to ensure everyone has the perfect day, it’s good to read something like this to remind us that Christmas still happens whether your napkins match your tree decorations or not. The true joy of the Moles is that they are a (fairly) normal family, but their Christmas Days are always fraught. When they’re all together, Grandma Mole can always find fault with something her daughter-in-law has done, usually there’s something wrong with the food or her darling son George is being hen-pecked. In the later years, as his parent’s complicated sex life can mean some extra bodies at the table, there is a tug of war over the gravy. The Mole family gravy is made with stock from giblets and was his grandmother’s recipe. His mum Pauline would fight to the death over her right to make the gravy. Here, if anything can go wrong, it will, whether it’s a culinary mishap, an ill thought out present, or natural disaster. Christmas 1981 was our first with the Moles, but it sets a precedent.
Friday December 25th (1981)
‘I went up to the bathroom and found my mother crying and running the turkey under the hot tap. She said, “The bloody thing won’t thaw out, Adrian. What am I going to do?” I said, “Just bung it in the oven.” So she did.
‘We went down to eat Christmas dinner four hours late. By then my father was too drunk to eat anything.’
Adrian is one of life’s innocents, even in adulthood, and it’s delightful to read his completely oblivious observations of others. His friend Nigel receives presents that might indicate to most people that he’s thinking about his sexuality. He’s also oblivious during the years that both his father and mother are pursuing affairs, most notably with ‘Stick Insect’ Doreen Slater. His head is often so full of his attempts to be an intellectual, his love for Pandora Braithwaite and his various anxieties that he misses what’s going on under his nose. One year Adrian invites Bert Baxter and his girlfriend Queenie for Christmas but hasn’t informed his Mum and Dad. It’s Christmas morning when he wakes his hungover parents to say they have to pick them up. Bert usually spends the day in his bungalow with Alsatian Sabre, eating pickled beetroot in his underpants, so this is definitely a step up.
Whoever the guests are, they bring their own drama with them. His parents seem inclined to come on the same day, but bring a new lover whether it’s ‘Rat-Faced Lucas’, Pandora’s father Ivan or ‘Stick Insect’ with Adrian’s step-brother in tow. I find Adrian’s maternal grandparents hilarious. Used to living in a potato field in Norfolk, and not used to company, the pair are very Biblical and disapprove of drinking and fornicating. Their glum faces at the dinner table make everyone feel guilty for having a good time. At Christmas 1982 it’s the turn of Adrian’s Aunty Susan. She is a prison warden and has leave to join them for Christmas Day, along with her glamorous friend Gloria. Adrian is so flustered by Gloria’s impressive cleavage he can’t even tell his Dad what part of the turkey he wants.
Saturday December 25th (1982)
‘When my mother asked me which part of the turkey I wanted, I said, ‘A wing please!” I really wanted breast, leg or thigh. But wing was the only part of the bird without sexual connotations.
‘I was given a glass of Bull’s Blood wine and felt dead sensual I talked brilliantly and with consummate wit for an hour, but then my mother told me to leave the table saying, “One whiff of the barmaid’s apron and his mouth runs away with him.”
1982 is the first year that Adrian has to think about gifts for his family. With typical tact he buys his mother a cookery book, but Pandora’s gift is more difficult. As outsiders we know what Pandora will think of her Woolworth’s locket (2 days later it has turned her neck green) but Adrian has a budget. I loved this description of Christmas Eve panic because we’ve all done it. Sucked in by the Christmas music and the knowledge it’s his last chance to buy before the big day, he goes ‘off list’ convinced he needs something extra.
Friday December 24th 1982
‘At 5.25 I had a panic attack and left the queue and rushed into Marks and Spencer’s to buy something. I was temporarily deranged. A voice inside my head kept saying: “Only five minutes before the shops shut. Buy! Buy!
As the years go by and Christmas becomes Adrian’s responsibility, he has to face providing for his expectant and excited son with very little cash coming in. As we tip into the 21st Century, I found this poignant note. Trying to lower his son’s expectations while desperately trying to keep the magic of Christmas intact he writes the following note from Santa.
Thursday December 14th 2000
I had to forge the following note from Santa tonight.I laid it on William’s pillow before I put him to bed.
Dear William Mole
I have been watching you all year, and have been pleased with your behaviour. However, I’m sorry to have to tell you that my elves have failed to manufacture enough PlayStation 2s, therefore you will not find this item on the sofa on December 25th.
P.S. 2000 elves have received redundancy notices
Santa Claus, Greenland
These later Christmas entries are full of drama. Two years later, joining his parents in their new country abode, the Mole Christmas is overshadowed by the events of the previous year. The weather is bleak, the fields are muddy and they are in the middle of nowhere, not to mention that Adrian killed the ‘new dog.’
Wednesday December 25th 2002
‘The atmosphere in my parent’s living room was more Pinter than Dickens. There was a Christmas tree in the corner of the room but it was a scraggy affair and looked as though it was apologising for it’s almost bare branches. My mother had done her best with three sets of Christmas lights, baubles and tinsel. My mother said ‘it’s the anniversary of the new dog’s death. ‘Christmas Day will never be the same again. I will never forget the sight of that poor dog choking to death on a turkey bone.’
Our final Christmas with Adrian takes us up to 2007, where we find Adrian and his family are living next door to his parents at ‘The Piggeries’. It’s a pretty bleak outlook for Adrian, whose kindness means he is overloaded with worries, at a time when he needs some support. Adrian is having treatment for prostate cancer daily and feels unwell, but he’s looking after daughter Gracie, while his wife Daisy is working as PA at Fairfax Hall for the new heir, Hugh Fairfax-Lycett. Adrian’s usual inability to see the elephant in the room means he hasn’t noticed her weight loss, her Gucci dress or the fact that she works late several times a week. Their Christmas is hijacked by the accident prone Bernard, Adrian’s colleague at the bookshop where he’s been working till it’s recent closure. Wonder son Brett Mole is back, having lost all of his money, his home and his car. On Christmas Eve Adrian and Daisy are having a problem familiar to most parents.
Christmas Eve 2007
Gracie’s main present was a mini trampoline. When we opened the box from Toys ‘R’ Us we discovered that it contained eighty separate components and that it lacked the special tool with which to build the soddin’ thing and which was vital to the trampoline’s successful self-assembly. So the boast on the outside of the box that ‘Within minutes your child will be having healthy, happy, bouncy fun!’ was a lie. At one thirty in the morning, when we were practically weeping with tiredness and realized that we had connected the springs upside down, Daisy gave me a look of pure hatred and said, ‘A proper man would have realized that the springs were on upside down,’ and stomped off to bed.
It’s clear to the reader what’s going on between Daisy and her boss, but the ever sharp and blunt Pandora – now their local MP – picks up on it straight away. She asks if Daisy is still buying matching underwear and draws her own conclusion. This could be really bleak, but in Townsend’s hands this Christmas is both funny and poignant. I loved Bernard’s nocturnal disaster as he gets up to visit the toilet, steps on the trampoline, bounces off the ceiling light and is found naked except for a strategically placed cushion with his ankle still trapped between the springs of the trampoline. The New Year party at Fairfax Hall is a turning point. Adrian finally notices his wife’s dress, is puzzled that all Hugh’s London friends seem to have met her and sees Daisy and Hugh photographed together in a society magazine. Then Pandora walks in, sees everything in a glance and is the first person to notice that Adrian looks very unwell. After a call from his Dad to collect Gracie, Adrian is forced to walk home, but Pandora leaves with him and her kindness is touching.
When we went next door, Pandora ordered me to put some dry clothes on. While I was changing into my pyjamas and dressing gown she cooked bacon and eggs and made a pot of coffee.
I won’t ruin the ending of the book because some people might be tempted to go and read these later books that they might have missed. You won’t be disappointed if you do. I felt it was a fitting end to the series, even if Townsend didn’t know it was to be her last. It was sad to leave behind such a human, intelligent and loveable character. Adrian is the embodiment of that quote attributed to John Lennon, from his song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy); ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. We’re just happy he allows us to come along for the ride:
If you are someone who receives a present from me at Christmas, don’t read on! I don’t want anyone to ruin their surprise. I love giving and receiving books at Christmas. We have a rule in our house, that apart from the authors I LOVE and pre-order, I’m not allowed to buy books after October so that my wish list is up to date and can be used. My family know how much I appreciate their bookish gifts but they also know that we’re rapidly running out of book shelves and might have to adopt a ‘one in – one out’ policy for a while. Of course my ARC shelf gets fuller by the week, but I do like to have final copies and support the author, especially those published by small indie publishers. I always say to my stepdaughters, when they ask me what I want for Christmas ‘a book and some chocolate’ and they’re now used to Sundays where I’m in pyjamas, snuggled up on the chaise langue with Baggins the cat on my knee, chocolate at my side and a book on the go. If you give me a book at Christmas, it means so much because you’re giving me a doorway into another world. I stay home a lot, especially in recent times, due to being susceptible to viruses and my MS and back injury getting progressively worse. I feel less alone when I have a great book I can get into and I love to share my finds at Christmas. I also love to find that one book that suits someone perfectly and when we catch up and they tell me all about reading it, I am always so happy. Here are some of the books I’m gifting this year.
The Christmas Poems by Carol Ann Duffy.
I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture and gifted it a few times to different friends. I often avoid ‘themed’ books at this time of year but this is a beauty. For her last ten years as Poet Laureate, Duffy has produced an annual Christmas poem taking us to places as diverse as the famous 1914 Christmas Day truce where German and British soldiers played a game of football together, to a lesser known 17th Century festival held on the frozen River Thames. There are ten poems in all, each one beautifully illustrated by artists like Lara Hawthorne and my personal favourite Rob Ryan. I’ll be buying this for people who like poetry and art, but also in bundles of homemade goodies like iced gingerbread and chocolate pudding truffles that we make a couple of days before Christmas. This is a lovely family book to keep and look at whenever you need a hit of Christmas.
Carol Ann Duffy Christmas Poems Published on 25th November by Picador.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.
This is a total change of pace. A fantastically adventurous story about one woman’s quest for a golden beetle, but also about female friendship, finding the confidence to place importance on your own dreams and ultimately carving out your own space to be a woman who’s truly herself. I love Rachel Joyce’s work so I had high hopes for this novel and it didn’t disappoint. We follow Margery Bensonwho has a devastating moment of clarity in 1950, leaves her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves. I’m going to buy this for my feminist friends who will fall in love with Margery and her courage. I’m also going to buy it for my friends stuck in rut after lockdown and needing some inspiration. I know it worked for me!
Published in paperback on 21st April 2021 by Black Swan.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.
Those two words on the front cover of this novel were enough to whet my appetite and I know exactly which friends will be as drawn to it as I was. ‘Decadent and macabre’ is a good summary of this novel which I wasn’t sure of at first, but came to appreciate as we travelled back in time to Belle Epoch Paris and a secret circus who perform by invitation only. Just to give you a taste of what to expect, the special invite is alive so if you tear it, it will bleed. Lara’s boyfriend Todd disappears on the eve of their wedding, never to be seen again. His disappearance echoes that of another young man thirty years before. Lara has spent the past year trying to find out what happened, alongside Todd’s best friend Ben who is the sheriff of Kerrigan Falls. However, Lara isn’t an ordinary girl, something we see as she enchants her own wedding dress. There are powers that seem to be hereditary, as Lara discovers when her investigating uncovers one of her great-grandmother’s journals. As she reads, she learns of a secret circus, one that appears to the person with a ticket. What will she find there and will it bring her fiancé back? Just as she starts to develop feelings for another. This is a perfect book for those who love fantasy and magical. Give to fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal and A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington.
Midnight in Everwood by M.A. Kuzniar.
This is the perfect Christmas book because there are some beautiful special editions lurking at high street and indie book stores. This is one of those novels that splurging on a signed and special edition is absolutely worth it, especially for someone important to you. This is historical fiction, set in turn of the 20th Century Nottingham. It’s also a retelling of a Christmas story that most of us will know through Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music and grunge to the ballet. The author takes The Nutcracker and tells us a story of a young woman being confined by her class – Marietta Stelle wants to pursue her love of dancing and become a ballerina. However, Christmas is approaching and she must finish her Christmas Eve performance and take up her expected place in society. When a neighbouring townhouse is taken by Dr Drosselmeier, a mysterious toy maker, he becomes involved in the sets for the production. However, his work contains magic, very dark magic that transports Marietta to a sugar palace in an enchanted woodland. Will she ever get home again or is she trapped in Everwood for ever?
Published by HQ 28th October 2021
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield.
I watched an interview with Chris Hadfield and knew this would be a great read for some of the men on my Christmas List. Chris was a test pilot in the Air Force when he was selected for astronaut training. He’s been up to the space station twice and in the interview he talked about doing a space walk to make repairs outside the station. In this thriller he takes us back to the Cold War and one final mission to the moon. Cleverly, this is history, but an alternate history. Three astronauts are trapped together in the lunar module, a quarter of a million miles from home. They’re also a quarter of a million miles from help. The political stakes are high for this mission and NASA are under pressure. There’s a rival Russian crew making for the moon at the same time, both hoping to retrieve an important bounty from the moon’s surface. Controller Kaz Zemekis must keep his crew on track, while feeling the pressure of the Russians hot on their heels. The Houston control room is close to breaking point. What they don’t know is not everyone on Apollo 18 is who they appear to be. I was lucky enough to have an ARC of this tense and fascinating novel, so I can vouch for it’s quality. Of course the technical know-how and experience the author has, bring this novel to life. It feels like you’re there and it really helps orientate you round this alien scene. I find it strangely freeing to imagine floating round in space, but here it’s incredibly claustrophobic too. This has a great write up from director James Cameron and Andy Weir, the author of The Martian. I agree with them that this is fascinating, heart-stopping and relentless.
Published by Quercus 12th October 2021.
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod.
I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who absolutely loved literature and without that I don’t think I’d be blogging and writing my own novel. Her favourite author was D.H. Lawrence and I remember being taken to see his house when I was little, and how happy that made her. We watched all the film adaptations together too. So this huge doorstep of a book is the obvious choice. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was always on our bookshelves, but it took me all the way to my late twenties before I read it for myself. What I was most stunned by was that this wasn’t a dirty book, it was so many things: an exploration of the aftermath of WW1; the disintegration of class boundaries, particularly the reduction of the aristocracy; disability and it’s effect on a person’s identity and their marriage; mechanisation and it’s effect on warfare, as well as positioning it opposite nature. Most of all it’s a story of love. I re-read it regularly and think it’s so complex, fascinating and tender. That’s where Alison McLeod’s book is pitched – is this a book that should be banned as obscene or is it a picture of tenderness? We jump the decades from Lawrence’s death bed where he takes account of his life, a betrayal committed in the war years and an image of red-headed woman in an Italian courtyard. Then we meet Jacqueline, travelling with her husband when she slips into a NYC court where a book is on trial. In a library, a young man and woman meet and make love. These stories are bound together by that one question; is it obscenity or is it tenderness? This is a moving book, beautifully written and a treatise on the power of fiction. This is wrapped ready for my Mum on Christmas Day.
Published on Bloomsbury Publishing 12th September 2021.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith.
As my Dad gets older and his health has been getting worse, he’s had to do a lot of rest and recuperation and he has started reading more. I’ve learned a lot about what he enjoys reading and it turns out we both enjoy dystopian fiction. I bought him The Girl With All The Gifts one year and we got to have our first book conversation. This year I’m buying him another of my favourites, The Waiting Rooms. This is a tough read in a pandemic, but interesting, chilling and strangely prescient. In a not too distant future, a government ruling states that those over seventy-five years of age can’t have access to new antibiotics. Years of overuse have led to drug resistance so something as simple as a cat scratch can kill. Drastic action was needed to ensure that younger people have access to a small supply of newly created antibiotics. If an elderly person gets a scratch or infection it’s a death sentence. They have two choices, either wait to die a painful death in a state run hospital known as The Waiting Rooms. Alternatively you can visit a clinic where a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication, in a glass of whiskey should you choose. Kate works at such a clinic by day, but by night has been searching for her birth mother. However, her birth mother may hold many secrets about the crisis and Kate might not be the only one looking for her. I felt completely immersed in this world whether it was a version of our future or a pre-crisis South Africa which appears beautifully vivid against the bleak future. Haunting, tense and eerily recognisable, this book was one of my top 20 of 2020.
Published by Orenda Books April 2020
SAS Sea King Down by Mark ‘Splash’ Aston and Stuart Tootal.
This is another choice for my Dad, who served in the Royal Engineers and may have been selected for SAS training (he won’t confirm it, but certain things he says suggest this). He loves reading these series, even if he does grumble a bit about people revealing their experiences. Mark ‘Splash’ Aston joined the SAS in 1979 as part of D Squadron, SAS. This left him in prime position for deployment to the Falklands in 1982. They were at the frontline of taking back the islands, facing twin enemies of extreme weather and determined Argentinian troops. It was during one skirmish that the Sea King helicopter they were travelling in crashed into the freezing South Atlantic. Only nine survived and Splash was one of them, rescued and sent to a hospital ship nearby. Suspected of having a broken bones in his neck, he defied orders and hospital advice to return to his Squadron and finish what he’d started. Written with an experienced author, Stuart Tootal, the book gives us an insider view of an SAS unit and a war that was fought in my lifetime, in fact my cousin served out there in the RAF. I felt the tension and the hardship of serving in the SAS and I felt I was reading a truly authentic experience.
Published 13th May 2021 by Michael Joseph
The Snow Song by Sally Gardner.
This is a stunningly beautiful book that has always been appreciated wherever I’ve gifted it. It’s a feminist fable, and a love story with a touch of magic realism. We’re taken to a land perched on a mountain, covered by forests, and to one tribal village. The village elders are all men and tradition is all, including marital tradition. Our heroine Edith has fallen in love with a shepherd who took a trip away, promising he would return to her. The elders want her to marry the local butcher, and start to apply pressure, but Edith turns mute just as the snow starts to fall. The elders agree that if the shepherd returns when the snow melts she can have her wish, but if not she must marry the butcher. She will not speak until her love returns and this enchantment has far-reaching consequences for the villagers as well as her. Her stand starts to inspire other women in the village. This is a fable about the power of speech, and of silence. When everyone around you is shouting, silence can be the best way to be heard.
Published 12th Nov 2020 by HQ.
Medusa: Girl Behind The Myth by Jessie Burton.
Finally, we have this little gem from one of my favourite writers. Jessie Burton has taken one of Greek myth’s most well-known monsters and given her a feminist retelling, one I’m dying to share with my oldest stepdaughter. The gods have exiled Medusa to a far-flung island and turned her beautiful hair into living snakes. They are the only company she has until one day a boat comes to shore with the most beautiful boy on board. Perseus arrives full of charm and has the luck of the gods with him. He disrupts Medusa’s lonely existence and brings with him a future full of desire and betrayal. I have purchased signed editions of this beautiful book for friends and family who I know will love it. The illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill are gorgeous and the foil front of the special edition is stunning.
Last month I started a new feature on the blog where I shine a spotlight on one of my favourite authors. I feature the books I most enjoy from their back catalogue and in October I’d hoped to feature four authors who write books that are spooky, sinister, or magical in some way, hoping to give you some interesting Halloween reads. These featured everything from the evils that men do, to families of witches, cunning fairies, strange powers and other ghostly goings on. However, last weekend it didn’t happen because my other October evil crept up on me. I have MS and I always have an autumn relapse. I was just starting to pick up, but had a very dodgy weekend. So I’m bringing you last Sundays author today instead that’s Alice Hoffman. I’ve featured her book Blue Diary on Throwback Thursday before, but that’s a rare magic free novel. Magic realism flows through most of Hoffman’s works. Some of the strangest include a woman falling in love with a magical talking heron, angels descending to earth, a family of women who can see the future, a golem made from river mud protecting a girl fleeing the Nazis, a man struck by lightning leaving a pattern on his skin and a mermaid girl living in a freak show at Coney Island. However, for most people it’s the Practical Magic book, or the film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two sisters coming to terms with their heritage as witches, that first comes to mind. This October sees the publication of the fourth and final book in the series, The Rules of Magic. So, I thought it was perfect timing to feature the whole Owens family series in chronological order.
Despite being the most recent novel in the series, Magic Lessons is actually the first in the series chronologically. I was lucky enough to have a preview copy of this novel and reviewed it only last October. Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up in the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows that she will never be taken in by a man. Tragically, Maria’s adopted mother Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She then meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots from them and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. 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 takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and their very human need to be loved.
This was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story for a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the flawed human aspects of these women. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional when Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, when she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and when she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. This was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet Owens’s journey or that sees Gillian Owens constantly pick the wrong man. I really enjoyed being back with these strong, powerful women once more.
This is the second in the series and my personal favourite of the four books. We meet the family on the cusp of the 1960’s in New York, where Susanna Owens has three very unique children, two sisters and a brother. Franny has deep red hair and the palest skin, which make her distinctive, but she’s also very difficult. Jet is so beautiful but terribly shy, and has the magical ability to read people’s thoughts. Vincent is trouble, from the moment he was born. Susanna knows that the Owens girls are unlucky in love and lays down the law to save them from heartbreak. She also wants to save them from the magical heritage: no walking in moonlight; no red shoes; have nothing black whether it’s crows, cats or clothes; no candles; no books about magic and most definitely no falling in love. Yet family secrets are still uncovered, back in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women have been scapegoats for anything that goes wrong. Aunt Isabelle doesn’t care what people think and the children open up for the first time to the truth of who they are. The two girls will become the fabulous aunts in Practical Magic and Vincent leaves an unexpected legacy. I loved the mix of ordinary teenage growing pains with the twist of something supernatural, and the magic even us mortals feel when we fall in love.
The Owens girls, who live in the strange house on the edge of the town, were always treated as different by the children and adults living alongside them. Gillian and Sally lived with their elderly aunts who did nothing to dissuade the townsfolk of their suspicions that witches lived among them. One look at the turrets on their house, the herd of black cats, and the aunt’s love potions would tell you there’s a possibility of magic. Unfortunately for the girls, the aunt’s freedom of expression has been their prison; schoolyard pointing, taunts and whispers have followed them through their childhood. The girls responded to this in different ways. Gillian ran away and became the beautiful, mysterious stranger always passing through and always falling in love with the wrong man. In losing the magic that was her birthright, she’s fallen for the charms of men and the magic of attraction. Sally disappeared too, but into a marriage with a respectable man in the hope of being ordinary and accepted. Now she has two girls and is determined they won’t have the same childhood she did. Then Gillian turns up, still running, but this time back to the family she left behind. She’s fallen in love with a very bad man and needs the help and comfort of her sister. Will Gillian’s troubles bring the sister’s closer? It might even bring their very elderly aunts back into their orbit. However, it also brings a detective into their midst. He could change their lives, in a very negative way if they let him. Yet the magic of love hasn’t finished with the Owens girls and maybe magic is the answer to all of their problems.
This is the last instalment of the series and involves the family, after the events of Practical Magic. Sally’s girls are now teenagers and the aunts are very elderly. However, it’s difficult knowing your time on earth is coming to an end. Aunt Jet has heard the Deathwatch Beetle ticking – a sure sign she only has a week left. However, the Owens family curse is at work and Jet isn’t the only one to hear it. The family must come together, for Jet’s sake but also to save another life. Much to the aunts surprise, a long lost brother returns to help. The family roam from Paris to London and deep into the English countryside where Maria Owens took her first tentative steps into magic. The youngest girls start to learn how much their Sally has kept from them, in terms of their heritage but also each tragic, family secret too. Kylie in particular relishes learning who she is and starts to dabble in some dark arts. Franny embarks on a journey of realisation, she will do anything for this family and Sally Owens will do anything for those she loves too. Magic comes in many forms and this is a very human type of magic – the magic of love within a family. This novel’s strength is in those well-known characters coming full circle and a new generation to explore. A magical tale of love and family lore passing from mothers to daughters.
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952, and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of the most distinguished novelists. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah’s Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner Brothers film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Hoffman has written a number of novels for young adults, including Aquamarine, Green Angel, and Green Witch. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the best books of the year.
Aside from the Practical Magic series, the novels I would recommend highly are:
Blue Diary – a picture perfect family in a small town is torn apart when Jory’s husband is accused of rape and murder.
The Marriage of Opposites – this stunning novel explores the difficult relationship between the painter Camille Pissarro and his mother. Set on the island of Sao Tomae this novel is an incredibly visual book, with stunning descriptions of Pissarro’s island home akin to impressionistic paintings.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things – set in a Coney Island freak show at the beginning of the 20th Century, this is the story of a girl who is shown as a mermaid by her father. As her confidence and self-belief grow and she falls in love, we also see the birth of Manhattan as we see it today.
Today’s Sunday Spotlight is a little bit different because I want to bring a collective of authors to the reader’s attention and not just one. The most important thing about Christmas, especially this year, is being together. So in that spirit, I was very happy to be approached by the Christmas Collective with their beautiful collaborative work More Than Mistletoe.
Cosy up for Christmas with 12 very different tales of love with all the festive feels!
More than Mistletoe, the debut anthology from The Christmas Collective, is an eclectic and inclusive mix of stories, with swoon-worthy characters, second chances and happy endings.
Between the pages, you will discover classic romance, festive thrillers, LGBTQ+ love stories, hilarious romcoms and historical settings, these stories really do span the whole spectrum of festive fiction.
Featuring twelve up and coming new authors, this refreshing, diverse and romantic read, is a must-have for Christmas 2021 that will leave you reaching for your Christmas jumper, gingerbread cookies and a mug of hot chocolate!
• Lumikinos by Lucy Alexander
• The Ghost of Christmas Past by Michelle Harris
• Christmas for Two by Marianne Calver
• August in December by Joe Burkett
• Under the Christmas Tree by Cici Maxwell
• Killing Christmas Eve by Jake Godfrey
• Christmas and Cocktails by Jenny Bromham
• Christmas at The Little Blu Bookshop by Sarah Shard
• Not Today, Santa by Martha May Little
• Sealed with a Christmas Kiss by Bláithín O’Reilly Murphy
• Love Forever by Donna Gowland
• The Last Christmas by S.L.Robinson
I felt very lucky to be sent a preview of this short story collection, along with a festive box of goodies – a lovely little treat to enjoy. The thoughtfulness of this little parcel gave me a preview of the care and attention given to this enjoyable collection of short stories. Although I’ve had the collection a little while, I hadn’t had chance to read them until last week and I think I timed them perfectly. As we’re now in the early stages of the run up till Christmas, I could imagine someone coming home after a fraught afternoon Christmas shopping and reading this with a warming hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. That’s exactly what I did. I made some hot chocolate with Cointreau and settled on my chaise langue with my kindle and my cat Baggins for a few hours. I think these would be perfect to pop into people’s rooms if you’re having family to stay this Christmas or if you have adopted the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, where books are given and read on Christmas Eve ( I mention this an annoying amount, because I’d love to do it ).
I tend to gravitate towards two different types of stories at Christmas; slightly spooky tales and cosy love stories. I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers and spooky tales this month, so the love stories in this collection were a very welcome change of pace for me. I’m a sucker for a Christmassy rom-com so these fitted the bill perfectly, but there were also one or two stories that were hard to categorise into genre, which I love! There really is something for every reader here, although I have to say I’ll be buying it for female rather than male friends. These were perfectly chosen to work as a collection, so there was an overall cosy and uplifting feel, although Killing Christmas Eve by Jake Godfrey was a great change of pace in the middle. It’s so hard to pick a favourite, because I liked each story for different reasons, but I think S.L Robinson’s The Last Christmas was the one that moved me most, in a deeply personal way.
I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, but have only just had the courage to let people know that I write. In fact I started my blog to gain confidence in sharing my writing and to get into the discipline of writing every day. I’ve been working on my MA in Creative Writing and Well-being and, although I’ve been running writing therapy groups for several years, there’s something very different and daunting about sharing your work with fellow writers. In my head, they are always way more experienced, talented and disciplined than me. However, sharing some of my writing in the workshop environment every week, has helped enormously. Taking criticism and ideas from other writers has been invaluable. My writing has grown along with my confidence. So, I loved the story of this talented group meeting at a writing group and working collaboratively to create this collection. I’m sure it’s been a brilliant experience for the authors involved and will prove helpful for those who’ve taken their story from a longer work in progress. It has certainly whetted my appetite for those completed novels some time in the future. I love it when authors work together this way, and it seemed strangely apt that the collective approached my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod Collective to review their work. A really lovely background story for collection that felt like a hug in book form.
I couldn’t have introduced my Sunday Spotlight feature in the month of October, without spotlighting the King of Horror himself, Stephen King. I’ve been reading King since my teenage years and I was horrified to learn that my first was at least 22 years ago.
I first encountered Stephen King when I borrowed my mum’s copy of Salem’s Lot, but when I started to look back I was shocked to see how many copies of his books I’d ‘acquired’ from other people. I remember when I was 18 begging, borrowing or ‘acquiring’ most of his back catalogue and I’ve bought most of his novels since. This month though, I was very happy to receive my first ever hardback copy of a King book on publication day. I haven’t read Billy Summers yet, but I know it will always be special because I bought it brand new. I have many well-loved and well-thumbed copies of his back catalogue, because I’ve read most of them more than once, so I picked out the ones where I can talk about my relationship with the book.
Well this is quite a colourful story. I’d read a bit of Stephen King before Misery arrived, and I was 17 when it did. Every summer, my friend would take me up to the Yorkshire Dales when she spent some of the summer holidays with her Dad. He always lived in quite remote villages, but this particular summer he was living in a small village called East Witton. It was a long village green with a row of cottages lined up on either side, facing each other. There was a tiny shop and at the bottom of the village a large pub with rooms. One night my friend and I went to the pub for a couple of drinks. My friend hit it off with the barman straight away and after a few freebie drinks, he introduced me to his friend who worked in the kitchens. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, which is awful, but he was a really quiet, sensitive guy, who read a lot so we had plenty to talk about. For some unknown reason we went to fetch our waterproofs and a torch and climbed a hill?! The view as the sun started to come up was beautiful. On the way back down we talked Stephen King and his favourite King novel was Misery. I hadn’t read it. So he was kind enough to lend me his copy and gave me his address to keep in touch (and return his book no doubt). I still have it. Misery is an incredible book, because of the tension and fear it creates in the reader, but also because it was weirdly prescient. In the novel Paul Sheldon is driving through ice and snow to post off his manuscript – the final book in the Misery Chastain series. He’s elated, because despite Misery’s popularity and the financial security she represents, he had started to hate her. Unfortunately for Paul, his manuscript will not end up in the hands of his editor. The terrible ice proves treacherous and Paul remembers nothing about the accident, but when he wakes he’s about to meet his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. The positive thing is that Annie is a nurse, capable of looking after his shattered bones and dosing the pain with some very potent painkillers. The negative is that Annie’s not a fan of all Paul’s writing, she’s the number one fan of the Misery Chastain series and now his provocative manuscript is in the hands of the person who might take Misery’s end badly. He has no idea just how badly. The tension is unbearable, the horror is visceral and the book is impossible to put down.
I found this old film tie-in copy of The Shining in a second hand bookshop and I had to be very brave to get it. This particular bookshop is a unit of our local Antiques and Collectibles Centre and the owner is always in residence, reading in a huge Windsor chair by the till. I didn’t know this the first time I went in and was stuck for forty minutes listening to him promoting the genius of L.Ron Hubbard. Forever afterwards known as ‘Fat Scientology Guy’ I used to try and avoid his eye and only browse around the back shelves, but he seemed to have eyes everywhere. Now I never shop there, but I do have this odd yellow copy of The Shining to remind me of my escape from Scientology. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. It’s the combination of the supernatural horror like the creepy twins and whatever lurks in one of the rooms, and the horror of the person you love most becoming a monster. King brilliantly depicts a man on the edge in Jack Torrance and I love the little clues that show us his breakdown is looming. He starts to chew dry painkillers, his drinking increases, and once they reach The Overlook he starts to have hallucinations, or converses with ghosts depending on your perspective. Then there are the signs, like the wasps nest -a fascinating labyrinth of chambers and pathways, but with a nasty sting in its tail when Danny finds it’s still got the odd resident. I felt so sad for this little boy with his ‘shining’, it’s hard enough to have good perception and empathy in the moment, without seeing into the future. This book really did affect my sleep and made me feel a bit jumpy. I must have been 15 when I read it for the first time and at that point you’re breaking away from your parents a bit more. We start to see them differently, as people with their own personalities and faults. They’re like everyone else with the ability to make mistakes. Jack is a heightened version of that realisation, the family man who becomes killer. Aside from the supernatural elements, the fear is that anyone could boil over and become a monster.
This is one of those huge bricks of a book that can be a daunting prospect and I definitely felt that for several years. My mum’s friend, who’s like an honorary godmother to me, knew I read King’s novels and recommended this as her favourite. It was one of those books that sat on the shelves for years, and I tried to read it several times before giving up. How interesting could it be, to read about people catching a cold? I’m aware of the irony. I finally picked this up three years ago and for some reason it just clicked with me. I now think it’s one of his best, not just because he captures perfectly the terror of a pandemic, but because of the strange supernatural elements behind the disaster. A bio-engineered virus escapes from a lab and spreads across the world with fierce speed. It acts like a ‘souped-up’ flu and most of humanity succumbs to it, except for a mysterious few who seem immune. However, they get something else, a legacy of nightmares. Their dreams focus around a strange old woman named Mother Abigail, who beckons them to follow her. Worse though are the nightmares of a figure called Randall Flagg also known as the Dark Man. Survivors start to amass around these two strange people: Flagg is in Las Vegas (of course) and his survivors pledge to annihilate anyone who doesn’t follow him, whilst Mother Abigail is in Boulder, Colorado, advocating the old ways and telling followers they’re chosen by God. I was fascinated with Flagg, who is a devilish figure and has seen the plague as an opportunity to cause more chaos and division. We even get God, but a scary Old Testament one who isn’t afraid of zapping his detractors. This is an epic novel, and feels almost Biblical in it’s theology and it’s incredible push and pull between good and evil.
Meet The Author.
Stephen Edwin King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, crime, science-fiction, and fantasy novels. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many have been adapted into films, television series, miniseries, and comic books
The other seven books in my top ten would be It, On Writing, Insomnia, The Green Mile, Salem’s Lot, The Outsider and The Institute