Now is definitely the season to snuggle down with a good book, here are some more that I’ve enjoyed this year.
‘1957, south-east suburbs of London.
Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and — on the brink of forty — living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.
When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys’ GoodReads
I listened to the audiobook of this novel and enjoyed it a lot. Although like so many other readers I was really taken aback by the ending.
I love the household hints and the character Jean. I’m planning to make the spiced apple cake and passed the recipe on to one of my mother‘s neighbours, who has already made it, so maybe some good things come out of novels with abrupt and unsatisfying endings!
Free Love is set in an interesting time period; it’s London in the late sixties. There is political unrest, societal upheaval and attempt at change as new ideologies are being protested by the young, who are distancing themselves from the previous generation. The older generation are worldly wise and have seen too much. They only seek to make more peaceful lives for themselves after living through World War II.
The people and places are described so carefully and realistically that you are there: in a suburban villa’s kitchen with its formica topped table and chipped lino floor, in a squat in the middle of Ladbroke Grove with dirty mattresses on the floor and cigarette smoke mixing with the stale smell of curry in the air, in a boutique trying on fancy dresses while an older lover slowly nods his head and brings out a thick wad of notes with which to pay.
I love the way the author describes little things such as dun-brown paint on a stairwell and the features of a wooden lift that may, or may not get stuck between floors in a rambling old building, which has very much gone to seed and is awaiting demolition. The old ladies who once lived there in safety, in genteel surroundings amongst respectable neighbours but whom are now stranded, impoverished with no other options, tore at my heartstrings.
The story centres upon one family and the repercussions of one night when a sandal is retrieved from a pond, or perhaps it is all from a time twenty years earlier….There are secrets and people not being or communicating authentically, it’s messy and restrained all at once. Free Love is about wanting to shed an old skin amidst the tantalising possibilities of changing everything.
I loved it.
I will definitely be reading more by Tessa Hadley.
I found The Toll House a genuinely spooky and, at times, very creepy book. I really liked the dual timeline and thought this worked well to gradually reveal the backstory.
This would have been a five star read for me, but there was a chapter near the end that felt unbelievable and far too over the top. Until that point you could choose to believe what you believed; whether there had been simple accidents on a steep and narrow staircase and overactive imaginations at play, or if there was more to it …. I think leaving the story with a lingering sense of malice and an “Is there, or isn’t there?” question about the house would perhaps have been a more subtle ending.
However, overall I really enjoyed this book and found it hard to put down. I would recommend The Toll House to anyone who wants an atmospheric read.
The third in the trilogy following on from Harold Fry’s Pilgrimage and Queenie’s Love Song. Maureen is Harold’s wife and it is her turn to go on a pilgrimage of her own. I initially assumed she is now a widow, but I think it’s okay to reassure others that dear old Harold is still very much alive, probably playing draughts and eating sandwiches with Rex, their next door neighbour!
Life has changed, this shortish story is set ten years after Harold’s epic walk. It is during the pandemic and highlights some of the changes we have all experienced in the last decade. Some of these really took me aback, because it’s been a gradual process towards everything being streamed, paid for by contactless or mobile ‘phone, so many products being offered and labelled as vegan. We have all become used to discarded masks dangling from trees, or bowling along pavements in the wind.
So, Maureen is doing something that really challenges her, in a time that is quite difficult. She is undertaking a journey with great reluctance, but it is one that she (and Harold) knows she needs to take.
Maureen is not at all like Harold, she is not a likable and sympathetic character. But during this book she becomes more understanding of how she has become who she is, as she is forced to receive care and kindness from strangers. She begins to accept what she cannot change, this is transformative. The writing is truly beautiful in the last chapters.
Until I had read nearly three quarters of this 200 page book I was thinking it is not a patch on Harold’s story. I was definitely wondering why the book could be so far removed from the other two in the trilogy. And then I found myself sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting for the consultant, and found myself wiping tears from my eyes. The author has really got to the heart of Maureen Fry and writes with insight:
‘Surely it wasn’t too much to ask that you get to the end, and looking back, you don’t fill with horror and bitterness at all the things you got wrong. The mistakes you made, over and over, like falling repeatedly down the same old hole.’
The line drawings by Andrew Davidson at the beginning of every chapter and on the front cover are truly excellent. I wish I could draw!
The heart rendering story of Ash, who is caring for and supporting her dying friend Ali. Ash and Ali have been best friends for over 40 years.
However it’s not all tears and doom and gloom; the Nora Ephron comparison drew me to request a proof of this book, there is definitely plenty of quippy, dry and clever humour. It’s a sad book, but is also full of life, light and energy.
I enjoyed the slow-burn, rather touching and unexpected, love story too. There is a good supporting cast of spouses, friends and family. Belle, Ash’s daughter, is my absolute favourite. She has some of the best lines! You know when you come across a character in a book, and would really like a another written all about them? Belle is that for me.
The hospice and progression of the story rang so true I began to suspect that the author may have experienced something similar; and indeed by the afterword we learn that her best friend died.
**This novel will not be for everyone, particularly those who have someone with a cancer diagnosis within their circle, it’s a tough read at times.**
‘2017: 19 year old Tallulah is going out on a date, leaving her baby with her mother, Kim.Kim watches her daughter leave and, as late evening turns into night, which turns into early morning, she waits for her return. And waits. The next morning, Kim phones Tallulah’s friends who tell her that Tallulah was last seen heading to a party at a house in the nearby woods called Dark Place.
She never returns.
2019: Sophie is walking in the woods near the boarding school where her boyfriend has just started work as a head-teacher when she sees a note fixed to a tree.
‘DIG HERE’ . . .
A cold case, an abandoned mansion, family trauma and dark secrets lie at the heart of Lisa Jewell’s remarkable new novel.’ GoodReads
When I read this I found it my fastest read in quite a while. I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a fantastic twisty, turny read and is really well written. I’ve been reading Lisa Jewell’s writing since the earliest books in the 1990s, so am definitely a fan.
This week I’ve been reading another good advance reader copy of a book which should be out on the 8th of December. It’s so good that I found myself awake and reading at five thirty yesterday morning! I look forward to telling you about that one too.
What about you, anything you’ve read which you want to recommend to the rest of us?
I’ve recently finished a short story, translated from Japanese, called ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’ which I think you’d enjoy. It’s set in a cafe which has a particular seat that allows you to time travel, but all sorts of rules apply and you must return before your cup of coffee gets cold. However, the fantasy aspect of it is really just an excuse to get to know all the beautifully-drawn characters in the cafe, the relationships between them, the reasons why some of them want to travel in time, and the impact it has on them. It’s absolutely charming.
That sounds absolutely intriguing Alice!
Some great sounding books here. Try Keeper by Jessica Moor. Couldn’t put it down.
I loved Small Pleasures, although the ending made me very cross. Hadn’t picked up the new Rachel Joyce yet – might save that for the new year – and I’m a big fan of Tessa Hadley’s work.
The Toll House sounds like it would be right up my current street. I’m on a Victorian kick: the bleaker, the creepier the better. I want to feel the fog twitch my hair and the icy creep of frost against my neck. Call me weird and pass me a Dickens!
In that case call me weird too! I usually read a Dickens around December/January for the same reasons! It just fits with the cold dark winter nights.
Must get that Rachel Joyce book as I have read the other two with great enjoyment.
It’s really quite different, I’d like to know what you think of it.