What makes a book a bloody good read ? Of course that’s a subjective question, but in the main I reckon it’s the result of a whole host of literary aspects that align in the right place at the right time for the right reader. It might be the tightly-knit thriller element that keeps you guessing, or the convincing characters that get under your skin, or the evocative locations you just want to dive into, or the profound awareness that after finishing the book, you have come out of it a slightly different person. For me personally, I don’t care whether the magic alignment is achieved through ‘heavier’ or ‘lighter’ writing, as long as it’s good writing. I’m not a literary snob; I just want to be carried away! So here are some books I’ve been carried away by in recent months (no relevance in the order I’ve listed them), and hope to tempt you with over the long, balmy days of summer.
- Expectation by Anna Hope – one of my favourite reads of the past year. This moving novel follows the lives and loves of three women who met when very young and maintained their friendship through thick and thin – or tried to. I think there’s something for most women here – the struggling and unfulfilled mum; the successful career woman who is desperate to have a child but can’t; the wife who no longer desires her husband, the other wife who desires someone else’s husband; the struggling actress who craves success but has to settle for dreams and disappointment; the daughter who grieves her mother’s death, the other daughter who’s desperate for her mother’s approval that she never felt … there’s so much ordinary yet profound material in this book, I found myself actually grieving it when I finished the last page!
- Testament by Margaret Atwood – although I myself preferred The Handmaid’s Tale (maybe because it was so unique and fresh back in the 1980s, whereas Testament is a sequel), I nonetheless found myself glued to the pages of this book from beginning to end. Atwood has once again risen to her well-deserved accolade of ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’ in her tale of the degrading, misogynist, bigoted horrors that a society can fall prey to, if taken over by a power-mad and uncompromisingly fundamentalist government. Scary stuff, and not beyond the realms of possibility …
- The Woman I was Before by Kerry Fisher – a thoroughly readable novel in the style of Liane Moriarty, with that ever-popular intertwining of the spurious friendships, secrets, lies and envies of the residents of a local neighbourhood. The unusual fact about this particular neighbourhood is that all the houses have been recently built and therefore all the residents have moved in more or less at the same time. A catching premise, with believable characters and sharp observations on the duplicity of social media.
- I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell – a very unusual memoir in which O’Farrell recounts an astounding series of near-death experiences that have punctuated her life. These range from a prolonged childhood illness which kept her bed-ridden for a year, to random accidents and ill-starred mishaps in her youth and adulthood. The book is also about O’Farrell’s daughter, who suffers from a potentially fatal medical condition that leaves her vulnerable to all of life’s daily goings-on that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t think twice about. A fascinating read.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler – I’m still not quite sure how I would rate this book, if I was forced to give it stars. One thing’s for certain: although I didn’t particularly like the narrator, I was certainly compelled by Fowler’s skilful juxtaposing of the past and present, and the astounding twist, about a third of the way through the novel, when we find out the truth about the protagonist’s missing sister. In a way, that twist is the starting point of the story. I can’t say any more without spoiling the rest of the book, so just go ahead and order it, read it, and, hopefully (as I did), learn a hell of a lot from it!
- Big Sky by Kate Atkinson – I absolutely adore Kate Atkinson, with her intricate plots that always come together like a perfect jigsaw at the end (though not necessarily a pretty one), her compelling characterisations and family observations, her acutely visual settings, and her wry touches of humour throughout the pages. In this, her latest novel, private detective Jackson Brodie is getting on with his usual humdrum job of trailing faithless husbands, etc., when he happens to stumble across a man perched perilously close to a cliff edge. This chance encounter leads to a shocking world of human trafficking and the appalling baseness that Man is capable of sinking to.
- Tin Man by Sarah Winman – This is almost a love story is the tagline for this novel, and that’s exactly what it’s about. Unlike the other books I’ve mentioned so far, I’d say that this one is not for readers who want a gripping page-turner, but rather, for those who love the lyricism of prose, the poignancy of thoughts and feelings, the nostalgia of past experiences, and the intangible yearning for our ‘almost-selves’: our lost innocence and unfulfilled relationships and clung-to memories. At the end of the day, how many of us have almost had a love story?
- The Catch by T. M. Logan – a gripping psychological thriller that I’m sure many parents of about-to-be-married-children will relate to! In this one, Ed, the father of a bubbly 23-year-old whom he adores, tries in vain to voice his unease about his daughter’s choice of fiancé. Nothing seems right – the suddenness of the engagement, the even greater imminence of the wedding date, and the fact that Ryan seems too perfect to be true. As Ed’s fears become more virulent by the day, he realises that he must take matters into his own hands for his daughter’s own safety …
- Little White Secrets by Carol Mason – just as The Catch will strike a chord with many a parent whose grown-up child is about to get married to an unsuitable partner, so will Little White Secrets resonate with any parent who is worried about their teenage child’s unwise choice of best friend. This is the case for wife and mother Emily, whose perfect life in a semi-rural location seems inviolable – beautiful home, caring husband, brilliant sports-star son and sensitive 14-year-old daughter, Zara. But when Zara befriends their new neighbour’s daughter and gradually falls under her wild and wayward influence, everything begins to fall apart.
- Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas – a captivating mixture of love story and thriller, set in Thatcher’s Britain during the national strikes of the 1980s. I love Douglas’ evocative descriptions of the Yorkshire moors, her depiction of the uneasy atmosphere of a small Northern town under threat of mine closures, the little domestic details she throws in which make the characters’ lives so believable, and the inner thoughts, fears and longings that are palpably felt in all of them. I was rooting for the protagonist Annie from beginning to end, empathising with her unfulfilled home life and her lost love, yet also sorry for her ostensibly cold and unfeeling husband. I honestly had no clue how the murder mystery and love triangle was going to unravel itself, right until the unexpected and powerful ending.
Happy Summer Reading!