Posted in Books of the Year 2021, Uncategorized

My Top 21 of 2021! Part One.

It’s been a fantastic reading year, my second full year as a blogger and lots of milestones met. This year I’ve cracked my goals of 3000 followers, 200 subscribers to The Lotus Readers blog and I’ve smashed my Goodreads reading goal of 120 books. Aside from these rather trivial goals, I’ve read some fabulous books this year. Although being a blogger means I’m all too aware of the ones I’ve missed or not had time for yet. Even more important than this are the wonderful friends I continue to make on BookTwitter and Bookstagram. Becoming part of the #SquadPod, a collective of book bloggers, has been a wonderful experience. Since I’m an ‘at risk’ person thanks to my multiple sclerosis and breathing issues, I’m home a lot but even when I don’t see anyone that day, I still have some wonderful, kind and supportive friends to listen to. I love them all. So this is the start of my favourite reads list for 2021. I had to go with 21 because I would have struggled to reduce them any further. If I did star ratings, all of them would be five stars so it’s not a countdown. It’s just a chance to reminisce and a recommend ahead of the January sales.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

I had read Elizabeth’s MacNeal’s first novel The Doll Factory, so I knew I would love this one. The story of a young girl with birthmarks on her face and body, catches the eye of a passing showman. Jasper Jupiter has seen her dancing round the camp fire with her brother. She has the sort of wild abandon that’s rare in one so shy and reserved. He can see her now, in his circus, perhaps even performing before the Queen if she could be tempted away from mourning Prince Albert. The book flits between the circus and back to Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimea. We follow Nell as she leaves her village behind to become Queen of the Moon and Stars. However, could Jasper’s eagerness to expand and show in London be their undoing? There are some very interesting disability issues here, including a look at the ethical concerns around freak shows. The beautifully vivid descriptions of the acts and their costumes are wonderful too.

The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone.

It’s no secret how much I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series, since I outed myself as a #Skelfaholic on Twitter. I was lucky enough to be sent an early copy of this book, the third and potentially last one in the series. I had to dive on it immediately and find out what came next. As usual the book began with a strange event. Dorothy takes her dog Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him? Doug Johnstone is a poet, philosopher and incredible observer of human nature and I can only hope for another instalment of this much loved series.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward.

This was one of the first books I read in 2021 and for a while I didn’t know what on earth was going on for a while, I was drawn into this very strange mystery. I finished it in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I had to give it a go. Multiple narrators were introduced, including a cat, and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. The writing is so involving that I was inside a character’s head and at times I had an uneasy feeling I would never be able to get out. I guessed some of what was going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I felt so privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hit the shelves and became a phenomenon.

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.

I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways. This was an incredibly funny book as Seb’s straightforward way of interacting with the world butts up against nuanced and sometimes dishonest way humans deal with each other. This felt so real. So moving. It’s also wonderfully unexpected and such a fresh perspective. I loved it.

The Unheard by Nicci French.

I read this novel on the four hour drive to North Wales and spent most of the first day of my holiday absolutely enthralled with the story. I was hooked immediately, intrigued by the mystery of what exactly Tess’s daughter Poppy had seen or heard. Tess is starting a new life in a garden flat with her daughter, after a divorce from husband Jason. Having a background as a child of divorce, Tess was determined that Poppy should be their number one priority. No matter how much animosity and hurt they feel, their interaction with each other must be civil and they prioritise time with both parents. Jason is already remarried to Emily, a much younger woman who seems very sweet and tries hard to have a relationship with Poppy. One Saturday, Poppy returns from an overnight at her father’s and displays signs of distress. These were classic symptoms, that any counsellor like me, would be concerned by. She’s clingy, she wets the bed and seems to be having nightmares. Over a week these symptoms worsen: she bites a girl at school, uses foul language to her teacher, and her mother is terrified for her. She has her attention drawn to a picture Poppy has drawn, all in black crayon which is a huge contrast from her normal rainbow creations. The picture shows a tower and a woman falling from the top to the ground below. ‘He killed her’ she tells her Mum ‘and killed and killed and killed’. I read a lot of thrillers, but this one had me gripped. Had Poppy seen something? Who should we suspect? Or is Tess manipulating her daughter into such psychological distress? I was greedily hoovering up the chapters till the early hours!

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.

This was a simply stunning piece of historical fiction set on Orkney 1940. Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem. This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex.

I loved this book so much that I went to bed early two nights running so I could finish it uninterrupted. I was so drawn in by the isolation of this lighthouse, that it was just standing directly in the sea and no one could come on or off until the relief boat came. Inspired by true events, the story is set in two time frames. In one we learn that a writer is researching a book on a famous disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. While in 1972, miles off the coast of Cornwall a relief boat arrives at the Maiden, to find the door locked from the inside, the clocks stopped and no sign of the Principle Keeper or his two assistants. The writer contacts the women left behind by these men: Helen, wife of the Principle Keeper, Arthur; Jenny, wife of Bill his deputy; Michelle, girlfriend of the new recruit Vince. They have all received money from Trident, the company who employ the keepers, but with that came a directive, not to talk about the events surrounding the mystery. At the time, Vince came under the most suspicion. New to the area and with a criminal past, he seems the likely candidate to have harmed the others. Yet, why would Arthur write of a huge storm in the log, when seas had been calm all week? What became of the small boat rumoured to have sailed near the Maiden? There were also whispers about a mechanic sent to carry out repairs at the Principle Keeper’s request. It’s hard, years later, to distinguish between rumour and truth. Will any of the women speak to the writer and will they finally solve the mystery of what happened to the men? This was a fascinating mix of mystery, love story and the hint of the supernatural. The atmosphere created by the writer was incredible and I knew straight away this would be a book of 2021.

That’s my first seven books of the year, so watch out for parts 2 and 3 coming up in the next ten days.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Books I’m Gifting This Christmas.

****SPOILER ALERT****

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 Benson who 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.

Constance Sayers

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.

Published 28th October 2021 by Bloomsbury YA.