My book review posts are long-overdue, but there’s some good’uns to get, and you may just be able to find some good present ideas. It may surprise you that there’s at least one I don’t recommend…
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Literary fiction that’s easy to read
1. The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal
An utterly charming story about a woman who lost her only love and now spends her life making weighted baby dolls for women who have lost their baby. It flits between the present day and the past, and we slowly piece together her love story, so it feels like the mystery of a person’s life gradually revealed (with a few unexpected turns). It also explores what it was like to be an Irish person in England at the time of the IRA bombings. Kit de Waal, author of My Name is Leon, has produced another memorable story with characters you enjoy spending time with. Highly recommended.
2. The Only Story – Julian Barnes
Barnes kicks off the narrative with the question, “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?” In one of his previous books, ’The Sense of An Ending’ he explored a man who chose not to love and ended up miserable; this book is about a man who does love but ends up miserable. I love Julian Barnes’ writing for its philosophy and thoughtful quotes, and there were plenty of these. The second section, where he describes a descent into alcoholism and mental illness in excruciating, though not sensationalising, detail, is brilliantly observed.
As a novel, however, it fell a little flat for me. Barnes’ insights, as ever, are fascinating, but both characters were unlikeable, the love story never quite convincing. The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal had similar themes but communicated via character and plot rather than philosophy and observation. In reading them both at the same time I found de Waal’s ultimately more satisfactory and memorable. Recommended for its intelligence, but not an enjoyable read. Quote from Julian Barnes, but read Kit de Waal for pleasure.
3. Everything We Never Knew – Beth Morey
An undertaker’s son is surrounded by graves and haunted by his mother’s death – but is he also literally haunted by her? And is he responsible for his mother’s death? This is beautiful – wispy and wistful with a smidgen of poetry in the narrative voice, telling the story of a broken family trying to find peace after grief. The story switches between the viewpoints of the boy, his father, and the voice of his anorexic mother (through her journals) as we piece together what went wrong and where hope can be found. A little gem – unusual, lyrical and ultimately uplifting – highly recommended.
4. Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler
This is a surprisingly comedic and heartwarming take on The Taming of the Shrew in the much-praised Hogarth Shakespeare series, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. In Anne Tyler’s version, Kate Battista is emotionally blackmailed by her scientist father into marrying Pyotr, his brilliant research assistant who needs a visa. What was lovely about this version is that Pyotr is introduced as a highly affable and affectionate character rather than a bully, though as the book progresses we question whether Kate has made the right choice.
I loved it and thought it clever and funny – but in our book group, it got lower scores from people who didn’t know Shakespeare’s play. On its own, it’s merely good, but as a critique and reinterpretation of a really difficult play, it’s excellent. Highly recommended if you’re a Shakespeare fan or a fan of unusual love stories.
5. The Explorer – Katherine Rundell
This is an outstanding novel about children surviving in the Amazon jungle after a plane crash – an instant classic for both parents and children. Not horror, nor dystopia, it is a tale of four children finding their identities as they grapple together with survival. The characters are all brilliantly drawn, and the jungle comes to life under her pen. Her writing is extraordinary – clear, with real emotion and flashes of brilliant poetry.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of it, though it was this quote that moved me most as a writer:
“Every human on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you. If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.”
Highly recommended for kids and adults alike. (NB – for kids, it contains 4 swear words but not the f- word).
Good books for Book Clubs
6. Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon
An elderly woman in a care home who is losing her memory gasps as she sees the new resident – a man who died many years ago, and hates her. She has to fight to regain her memories with the help of her best friend Elsie – but what else will she discover when she delves into the past?
One of the great things Cannon does is create characters who feel real and with whom you enjoy spending time – I felt a fondness for almost all the ‘cast’ of this drama and a little bereft when it finished. The story is compelling as each piece slots into place, and I found it hard to put down. A reflection on time, memory, guilt and forgiveness, I loved Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and this book is equally moving, emotionally and ethically complex – and is peppered with wry humour.
Highly recommended – this may be my favourite book of the year.
7. The House of the Mosque – Kader Abdolah
The revolution of Iran is told through the experience of one religious family, who end up as divided and polarised as their native country. This has a real sense of place and time, and I felt like I was living in the beautiful house of the mosque with them. Though most of the characters are unmemorable, the main character, moderate Muslim Aqa Jaan, was very well-drawn and has stayed with me.
I’m grateful to have read it because I have more of a sense of the heartbeat of Iran: the legacy of the great Persian empire embracing and clashing with Islam and modern capitalism, and captures the grief of a passing civilisation. Charming, wistful, devastating – recommended.
8. The Summer of Impossible Things – Rowan Coleman
This is like Back to the Future, set in 1970s New York (think Saturday Night Fever), with the aim of solving a mystery of the past to save a life. Luna has lost her mother to suicide, and she hopes that there is some way of changing the train of events that led to her mother’s trauma and future depression. It’s an interesting exploration of how far you would go to save a life, a mystery to solve and it also has a wonderful love story. An easy, uplifting and engrossing read – recommended.
Easy holiday reading
9. A Christmas Case (Posie Parker mysteries) – LB Hathaway
This Posie Parker cosy crime mystery was one of the best yet from L B Hathaway – a classic 1920s locked room mystery, complete with creepy dolls house and a historical mystery about a fire. Does a lot in a relatively few pages – I loved it. Get it now for curling up with at Christmas – a mystery that keeps you guessing and is quite thrilling.
10. A Storied Life – Leigh Kramer
Love and death – a surprisingly light yet sensitive tale of a woman in her thirties falling in love at the same time as walking her grandmother through terminal illness. A single woman, a successful curator of a gallery but with a divided and quarelling family, navigates new love at the same time as preparing for grief. Some will love it for its romantic love story, but what stood out for me was the character of the grandmother, who seemed better than anyone in managing her own death, and the way dying is described with respect but not fear. As the author worked in hospice care, this aspect opened up a taboo subject with sensitivity and education, which I found personally helpful.
This is more of an easy summer read rather than the literary fiction I normally go for, and I found it zipped along very enjoyably. Some characters and scenes are still with me – so this is definitely recommended – especially for anyone with an elderly relative who’s dying.
11. The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma Jane Kirby
This book held so much promise: based on the firsthand account of an ordinary optician who ended up pulling drowning refugees from the sea, it explores the impact on the rescued and the rescuers. Unfortunately, I ended up very frustrated by it. Kirby is a journalist, and the book reflects this too much. Aside from one really gripping and moving scene at the start (when they were pulling drowning people from the sea), there was no clear story arc, the characters felt two-dimensional, and it felt like a reportage of an interview, constrained by the words said rather than freely imagined.
In other words, it read like a very long emotionally-manipulative newspaper article, but without the perspective of statistics – not quite journalism and definitely not quite a novel.
Not recommended – read her original articles, but don’t bother with this book.
The books featured were:
- The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal
- The Only Story – Julian Barnes
- Everything We Never Knew – Beth Morey
- Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler
- The Explorer – Katherine Rundell (kids’ book)
- Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Rundell
- The House of the Mosque – Kader Abdolah
- The Summer of Impossible Things – Rowan Coleman
- A Christmas Case – L B Hathaway
- A Storied Life – Leigh Kramer
- The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma Jane Kirby
Those Who Wait
AND don’t forget my own book with over 70 Amazon.co.uk reviews, Those Who Wait – Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay. Perfect for anyone who feels like they’re living life stuck in a waiting room.
“This is a gentle book full of humanity, biblical integrity and unexpected humour.” – Pete Greig, founder of 24:7 Prayer Movement.