I was talking a friend the other week, who was surprised by how many books I get through. Admittedly, this is not as many as I did, pre-children, but quite a goodly amount. The secret, I told her, is nothing to do with being erudite, cultured or disciplined. Yes, I read quite quickly – always have done (this came in very useful at Uni), but it’s more to do with what I don’t do. I don’t go out carousing very often. I don’t head to the gym or exercise classes once the kids are abed. And I hardly watch any television – less and less as time goes by. My husband and I don’t do box sets. When I worked in an office, I was rarely part of the TV water cooler chit chat (although when they wanted someone to interview the cast of Call the Midwife, they knew who to ask…) In short: if you want to discuss Game of Thrones, I am not your girl. But if you want to know what to read next, I might just be.
From the bottom up…
Full disclosure: William Boyd could scribble on a paper napkin and I’d read it. I fully believe he is incapable of producing a bad book. His latest is an absolute delight. Yes, it’s cerebral stuff – Boyd had been taking a detour down the path of readable literary thrillers, possibly wondering if he could match Any Human Heart – but it’s also a hugely engaging read. It’s 1894, and Brodie Moncur – an anomaly in his sprawling, brutal, dysfunctional family – is a gifted piano tuner. When he is sent to his company’s Paris branch and falls for the beautiful soprano, Lika, it sets in motion a chain of events that will send Brodie hurtling around Europe. Passion, love and the tumultuous turn of a century through the eyes of one man. Cinematic in scope and brilliantly realised.
This quirky memoir hinges on a similar theme to Tara Westover’s Educated – namely, the redemptive power of education or, in Bayley’s case, books. From her own child’s eye perspective, Bayley tells of growing up in an unorthodox household, under the triumvirate of mother, aunt and eccentric grandmother. The house, perched on the Sussex coast, is dilapidated. Income is patchy. The adults easily distracted from the task of raising children. One summer, Sally’s baby brother “vanishes” from his pram and her mother takes to her bed. Sally escapes – at first, mentally, and eventually, in reality – through books. Her literary companions – Jane Eyre, Miss Marple – are her best friends, as real to her as the eccentric adults in her life, providing far more by way of sense and comfort. Startling, mesmerising and genuinely original.
Queenie is great fun to hang out with. So, I suspect is Carty-Williams, judging by this bright, witty debut. Queenie lives in south London. She’s a smart, educated (the first in her Jamaican family to get a degree) with a good job as a journalist and a stalwart group of friends. But then she breaks up with her long-term boyfriend Tom and embarks on a series of ill-advised liaisons – some of which will have you reading through your fingers. (Shades of Fleabag). It’s refreshing to read a novel with a black woman at its heart, and possibly even more so to read one where finding Mr Right isn’t the be all and end all.
I discovered Brian Bilston via Instagram and for this I will be forever grateful to that social media app. Not wanting to sound pretentious but I think pretty much every bedside table can be enhanced by a volume of poetry. Whether it’s because sometimes you’re too tired to tackle a chapter. Or you’re in need of solace on a dark night. Or you fancy yourself as a poet. Or maybe you just want to have to hand a compilation which includes such gems as ‘My Duvet: A Love Poem’ and ‘I before E Except After C’.
Goodness, but you’re in for a a treat. There are shades of all kinds of great women in this book: Nora Ephron, Anne Tyler, Nina Stibbe. It’s warm and witty and incredibly wise. Taciturn, quiet Graham is married to Audra – one of those women to whom things tend to happen and people fall in love with. No one is immune to her charm – which she opts to turn on Graham’s first wife (her polar opposite). Audra and Graham have one, beloved son, Matthew, who has Asperger’s. That’s it. Except that it isn’t. These characters are funny, fallible, quirky – they are human and will inviegle their way into your affections. Heiny writes of the “little pocket universes scattered around” and this assured debut is a salutary reminder that we’re each in our own.
Full disclosure: Tasmina Perry actually is a friend of the W&W family – Alex and I worked with her at InStyle before she left to become a bestselling author.
Satisfyingly riddled with psychological warfare, a twisty-turny plot and some excellent insight into the world of magazines, Friend of the Family cleverly plays on that trope, the cuckoo in the nest. Amy has the perfect life (you know she’s heading for trouble, right?): a great job as a magazine editor, a handsome husband and an adorable little girl. Then her old friend Karen (life not so rosy) asks her to give her daughter, Josie, work experience at the magazine. What could possibly go wrong? (Answer: Amy’s life starts to unravel.)
Proving that the best ideas are often the simplest, Cohen’s narrative is split by the premise that Louis and Louise are the same person. Same parents. Same friends. Same life. Different gender. Their narratives run in parallel until one life-defining night. Oddly, it ought to be about how gender defines us, but whilst that’s an interesting subtext, what really comes under scrutiny is the complexity of family dynamics, the inexorable, inescapable pull of childhood even in adulthood – and love.
At one point, I was so furious with one of the characters in Harris’s novel, I had to put down the book and take a brief walk about the house. Even thinking about it now makes me take a sharp intake of breath. Suffice to say, this book will get under your skin. Grace lives a quiet life – running a violin shop (it’s evident she is a deeply talented musician who will not – or cannot – perform), at the beck and call of her married lover, David. One action will change all this – and turn her world on its head. A book about finding happiness and friendship in the most unexpected places. It’s alive with music, compassion and hope.