I enjoyed six books this month, which you can order from my bookshop, 10% of which goes to supporting local UK bookshops. https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/january-reads-2021
You’ll find good quality women’s fiction, an American classic, a thriller, a gentle comedy and dark magic. My very favourite this month was The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls
Published by Bonnier Zaffre
Two women, bound by a child, and a secret that will change everything...
London, 1754. Six years after leaving her illegitimate daughter Clara at London's Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the child she has never known. Dreading the worst, that Clara has died in care, Bess is astonished to be told she has already claimed her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl - and why.
Less than a mile from Bess's lodgings in the city, in a quiet, gloomy townhouse on the edge of London, a young widow has not left the house in a decade. When her close friend - an ambitious young doctor at the Foundling Hospital - persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart. From the bestselling author of The Familiars comes this captivating story of mothers and daughters, class and power, and love against the greatest of odds . . .
In that brief period between lockdowns I visited an actual real live bookshop and on impulse bought two novels for myself based largely on their cover design.
This was one and ‘The Binding’ is the other.
Firstly, I was interested in this book partly because of the storyline but also because of the era it’s set in. I’m also writing about a woman who was born probably about 30 years later and I enjoy putting things into context and getting the feel for different periods. This book does this very well, and also focuses on a part of London I didn’t know much about, namely the fishing industry around Billingsgate. Bess’ family and working life is very vividly described and you can almost smell the grime and hardship.
The widow is a character that is also well drawn but despite that I couldn’t understand her motivations throughout the story. The ending was also a little too easy and neat. Regardless, it kept me up at night, and I enjoyed it very much.
The Binding by Bridget Collins
Published by Harper Collins
Set against a landscape that is part Victorian gothic, part medieval outlier and yet strikingly modern, The Binding slowly unravels a mystery surrounding Emmett Farmer, a farm labourer whose life is irrevocably altered when he receives a cryptic summons, pressing him into service as an apprentice to a Bookbinder. It is an invitation he is both drawn to and desperate to run from.
For a Bookbinder’s trade is like no other.
In the house set deep in the marshes, Emmett learns the skills to make exquisitely beautiful volumes, every one as unique as the last and each holding a dark and peculiar secret: a person’s most unconscionable memories. And to Emmett, they whisper in the darkness. Then one day he discovers a book with his own name on it and is forced to choose between forgetting and the dreadful, tantalising promise of remembrance.
Conjuring a magic all of its own, The Binding is a richly imagined story of boundary-defying desire and prejudice wrapped in layers of enchantment, enigma and stunningly evoked detail. Peopled by fully-fledged characters that live and breathe from the book’s pages, it is a novel to fall in love with.
To begin with this seems like other magical stories like The Night Circus, Paper Magician, and The Toy Makers, but this one is definitely for grown ups. It is very, very dark and there’s no hint or warning of content.
I loved it but feel the ending although dramatic was not what I was looking for, without giving too much away, I’ll just say that sometimes I think dark books should have dark endings!
Tell Me Why by Ruth O’Neill
Published Nov 2019 by Publish Nation
Lauren Adams is just an ordinary single girl, until one split-second decision throws her life into crisis. When she meets the handsome and intriguing Max Davies during a girls’ weekend away, she can’t believe her luck. But it soon turns out to be her biggest mistake. Max gets accused of murder, a murder that allegedly happened on the same night he and Lauren met. Is Max really the man she thinks he is? Is he really innocent of murder? And why does Lauren hear him late at night, building something in the basement – a basement he’s made clear is out of bounds? Tell me why follows a woman who just wants to be loved, but who instead ends up in a tangled web of lies, deceit, and terror. A chilling read you won’t stop talking about.
This immediately pulls you in and the action continues to rocket along. The story is told from both Lauren and Max’s POV and at first I was worried that understanding Max’s motivation would lessen tension but it doesn’t at all. It’s a very well structured story that unfolds at a consistent pace in good time.
I enjoyed it and stayed up to finish it.
The only criticism is that although I see there is a publisher, it feels like a self-published book and could have done with a further edit. There are some inconsistencies and grammar errors as well as small details that I’m sure were added to enhance the ‘danger’ element, but were actually distracting and not needed. Parts were also not as well written as others which was a shame because the majority was really strong especially the medical and law based sections.
I highly recommend if you are looking for a quick and fun thriller that you don’t need to think much while reading.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
Published 28 Jan 2021 by Penguin Books
What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back?
Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.
But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother's secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.
This is a thrilling novel of resilience and hope, of love and survival, that explores with dazzling emotional power how the truths closest to us are often hardest to see.
After loving ‘Bitter Orange’ by the same author I was lucky to receive an advance reading copy of ‘Unsettled Ground’ thanks to netgalley.
After the fast pace of ‘Tell Me Why’ by Ruth O’Neill, that I finished the day before, this initially felt very slow. However the sense of place and the characters are so strongly drawn that it wasn’t long before I was fully immersed into Jeanie and Julius’ world. It couldn’t be more different to ‘Bitter Orange’! The twin’s home is simple and basic and their lives far from glamorous.
After their mother’s death the choices the twins make will have you pulling your hair out but it is an important reminder that we are not all born into the same circumstances and that the nature of our birth and upbringing has different consequences.
This is a story that has made me think about my place and privilege and how lucky I am to be able to enjoy stories like these from a place of warmth and safety.
The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom
Published Sept 2004 by Little, Brown Book Group
The novel's protagonist is an elderly amusement park maintenance worker named Eddie who, while operating a ride called the 'Free Fall', dies while trying to save a young girl who gets in the way of a falling cart that hurtles to earth. Eddie goes to heaven, where he meets five people who were unexpectedly instrumental in some way in his life. While each guide takes him through heaven, Eddie learns a little bit more about what his time on earth meant, what he was supposed to have learned, and what his true purpose on earth was. Throughout there are dramatic flashbacks where we see scenes from his troubled childhood, his years in the army in the Philippines jungle, and with his first and only love, his wife Marguerite.
This was sent to me by a friend and arrived completely out of the blue! It was one of the most exciting parcels I have ever opened and came with a copy of ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo which I shall read next month. Both authors are new to me and I have to say having books chosen for you is an excellent way to broaden your horizons.
Albom’s style is direct and stripped of superfluous adjectives every word is essential. The chapters are short and the whole book concise and compact. I also can’t tell when this was written, it feels as though it could have been written recently or from the 1950/60’s, it is only Eddie’s age that gives it away.
It’s moving and amusing and although it is all about Eddie’s death and there are harrowing parts, it is uplifting and thought provoking. Having said that it wasn’t a book I rushed to continue as it wasn’t one I could get totally lost within.
Overall it is one of those great American novels you feel that everyone should read, a bit like Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (with whom Albom shares a publisher).
The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell
Published Jan 2021 Hodder & Stoughton
At nearly ninety, retired nature writer Hattie Bloom prefers the company of birds to people, but when a fall lands her in a nursing home she struggles to cope with the loss of independence and privacy. From the confines of her 'room with a view' - of the car park! - she dreams of escape. Fellow 'inmate', the gregarious, would-be comedian Walter Clements also plans on returning home as soon as he is fit and able to take charge of his mobility scooter. When Hattie and Walter officially meet at The Night Owls, a clandestine club run by Sister Bronwyn and her dog, Queenie, they seem at odds. But when Sister Bronwyn is dismissed over her unconventional approach to aged care, they must join forces - and very slowly, an unlikely, unexpected friendship begins to grow.
Before lockdown I used to visit my mother at her care home, not just to see her but also to catch up with the other residents. In this past year I have missed seeing them immensely.
So how wonderful to find this book! It took me straight to my mother’s care home. Although set in Australia it seems all care homes are very similar, and there is probably a Walter and Hattie in every one: the friendships, the politics, the desire for freedom, for although Woodlands is not a prison, you can’t leave easily either. It’s therefore apt that Woodlands is compared to a monopoly board, the rooms are given names such as Kentish Town and Bond Street. Enjoy making your way around the board, but will you join Hattie and Walter in ‘jail’ or are you ‘just visiting?’
Thank you to netgalley for an ARC. This was an uncorrected proof, but I couldn’t spot any errors. Loved it, highly recommend!