A professional pianist searches for her sister, who was taken when their parents died, aided on by her childhood care records and a single song that continues to haunt her. Heather Harris is a piano teacher and professional musician, whose quiet life revolves around music, whose memories centre on a single song that haunts her. A song she longs to perform again. A song she wrote as a child, to drown out the violence in their home. A song she played with her little sister, Harriet. But Harriet is gone ... she disappeared when their parents died, and Heather never saw her again. When Heather is offered an opportunity to play piano on a cruise ship, she leaps at the chance. She'll read her recently released childhood care records by day - searching for clues to her sister's disappearance - and play piano by night ... coming to terms with the truth about a past she's done everything to forget. An exquisitely moving novel about surviving devastating trauma, about the unbreakable bond between sisters, Nothing Else is also a story of courage and love, and the power of music to transcend - and change - everything.
An anorexic teenager escapes from a clinic and forms an unlikely friendship with a farmer. The two damaged women slowly heal as they work the land, in an achingly beautiful debut. Teenager Sally has just run away from a clinic where she to be treated for anorexia. She's furious with everything and everyone, and wants to be left in peace. Liss is in her forties, living alone on a large farm that she runs single-handedly. She has little contact with the outside world, and no need for other people. From their first meeting, Sally realises that Liss isn't like other adults; she expects nothing of Sally and simply accepts who she is, offering her a bed for the night with no questions asked. That night becomes weeks and then months, as an unlikely friendship develops and these two damaged women slowly open up - connecting to each other, reconnecting with themselves, and facing the darkness in their pasts through their shared work on the land. Achingly beautiful, profound, invigorating and uplifting, Tasting Sunlight is a story of friendship across generations, of love and acceptance, of the power of nature to heal and transform, and the goodness that surrounds us, if only we take time to see it...
Exploring male power, female subjugation, sisterhood, and the romanticisation and demonisation of female mental illness, Sarai Walker’s The Cherry Robbers is an incredible novel. It’s a gothic ghost story, of sorts, in which six sisters are trapped by a curse that means their only way of escaping a miserable life - marriage - condemns them to die. In 2017, the wealthy, reclusive American artist Sylvia Wren has lived with a new identity for several decades. She was born into the Chapel munitions dynasty as Iris Chapel in 1937. “Our house was paid for by death… That’s how our family made money, after all: war, murder, suicide, animal slaughter. As macabre as it was, the Chapel rifle was nevertheless a treasured American icon”. As Sylvia/Iris relates in her diary, not only was their Victorian “Wedding Cake” house paid for by death, but the Chapel sisters were cursed to suffer a succession of tragic losses. Living with a distant father and a mentally ill mother who’s haunted by the fact that her mother died in childbirth, the only clear way for the sisters to escape is to marry. But for the Chapel sisters, as predicted by their mother, marriage is a death sentence; the nail in the coffin of their already restricted, subjugated female existence. In the words of one of the sisters, “The embrace of a man doesn’t wake us up, it sends us to sleep, an eternal slumber from which we will never wake”. Though Iris and her sisters and mother are centre stage through this rich, incendiary novel, it’s the lesser-seen men who pull the strings. As Iris comments, she knew from a young age that “it was often women who suffered the consequences of men’s actions”. With all but one of her sisters dead, Iris makes it her mission to protect them both. Suffused in poetry and art, and tingling with atmosphere, coming-of-age fever, and potent feminism, this remarkable novel poses a crucial question that sees Iris take action to break the curse: “What’s a life without love?”
It’s hard to believe it’s a debut as the challenging subject matter of depression is handled with such a deft touch. So dark, it’s pitch, pitch black. Yet so so sensitive. It’s a masterclass in ascerbic narration and perfectly pitches the dark and the light. When we first meet Martha, she talks about her husband Patrick with such disdain, such boredom and he comments that Martha can supply anyone with an inventory of his flaws. But then everyone thinks he’s perfection, so sweet, so kind, living his life in the middle setting with Martha swinging between the extremes. So where does it all go wrong? Narrated in the aftermath of their separation, Martha is forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, eccentric, bohemian parents this book is filled with laughs and tears. At the heart of the novel is long term mental illness, the crushing depression with which Martha has battled since childhood, a depression which comes in waves for weeks or months at a time. However, it’s never named in the book; what is more important is Martha’s quest to know herself, to work out who is she is and why she never seems able to find contentment. It’s hilarious. It’s brilliant. It’s a sharp observational and witty book of huge talent and I can’t wait to read more of what Meg Mason has to offer.
Driven by the interlinked lives of a headteacher and one of her pupils, Sara Novic’s True Biz is an incredibly compelling, stirring story that takes in civil rights and disability rights through the coming-of-age tumult of a rebellious deaf teenager. As Charlie tackles the challenges of being brought up in a hearing household and how she’s been treated by the medical profession, headteacher February faces a fight to keep her school open, and her marriage on track. Until she starts at River Valley School for the Deaf, Charlie has never met a deaf person. Her hearing parents are divorced, and her relationship with her mother has always been a fractious tinderbox. Amidst this turmoil, Charlie arrives at her new school unable to sign, with a cochlear implant that’s done little to help her — “the language acquisition skills the doctors had promised post-implant had been slow to materialise”. Through Charlie’s longstanding, painful problems with her implant, True Biz addresses the ethics of non-consensual implants, and also tells of “hospital horror stories” experienced by deaf patients, with medical professionals overlooking, disregarding, or not recognising cries for help. The story is also interspersed with information on ASL (America Sign Language) and Deaf history. For example, we learn how Alexander Graham Bell propagated eugenics in his belief that sign language should be eradicated, and that Black ASL (BASL) developed as a result of the segregation of students. True Biz also reveals enduring racism towards BASL — how the language is stigmatised. At school, while Charlie tries to fit in and find friends, she experiences the awakenings of first love and lusts, and comes to a political awakening, too. The various characters’ stories are brilliantly interlinked, and make for a tremendously powerful novel that’s tender, absorbing and altogether illuminating.
Sometimes your biggest mistake can also be a blessing . . . Madison has always known she had a different father to her siblings. But it wasn't until she turned eighteen that she learned his name. And now she wants to meet the man who shares her fair hair and blue eyes. Robert is a very lucky man. A big house, beautiful wife, three handsome sons. Eighteen years ago, he made a mistake. A brief fling that resulted in a daughter nobody else knows about. Robert must finally tell his family the truth. Will they ever be able to forgive him and accept Madison as one of their own?
Powerful, thought-provoking, and stunningly eloquent, this remarkable novel will be one of my books of the year. Two young men meet, under normal circumstances they would battle on different sides of the Glaswegian Catholic and Protestant divide, instead they fall in love. Although no date is given, this potentially takes place in the 90’s. Two different time frames slip into and through each other, with the past rushing to meet the present. Gangs of words squared up, pushing and shoving their way into my thoughts. While the focus remains on the main character Mungo, Booker prizewinner Douglas Stuart doesn’t skim the surface of the other characters, he took me deep down into who they truly were. Mungo will remain a part of me, he feels entirely real, and I lived every exquisitely written second alongside him. This travels into extremely dark places, and yet it’s full of love too. Family obligations, abuse, self-worth, violence, religion, toxic relationships, the struggle of being different, the purity of first love all swirl together, creating a darkly addictive pull that on occasion threatens to overwhelm. A LoveReading Star Book and Liz Pick of the Month, Young Mungo is a swaggeringly beautiful novel that I recommend, heart and soul.
I loved this atmospheric, coming-of-age novel, with its ghostly and tragic undertones. Shadow Girls explores the fragility and intensity of teenage friendships in the mid-1960s. The book instantly conjured up memories of my own school days in the 1980s – adolescent emotions, rebellious behaviour, first relationships and cliquey peer groups. The characters leapt out of the page, thanks to the stunning, highly descriptive prose and believable dialogue. The first half of the book is a slowburn, building up the tension and feelings of nostalgia; the second half is unsettling and much darker. The supernatural element of the book worked well for me too, sending a chill down my spine, and with an unreliable narrator it was very difficult to know what was real and what wasn't. Shadow Girls is also a beautiful written novel about mental health and the psychological impact of grief. It's a haunting read, and one that stayed with me long after I turned the final page.
careering (verb) 1. working endlessly for a job you used to love and now resent entirely 2. moving in a way that feels out of control There's a fine line between on the right track and coming off the rails. Imogen has always dreamed of writing for a magazine. Infinite internships later, Imogen dreams of any job. Writing her blog around double shifts at the pub is neither fulfilling her creatively nor paying the bills. Harri might just be Imogen's fairy godmother. She's moving from the glossy pages of Panache magazine to launch a fierce feminist site, The Know. And she thinks Imogen's most outrageous sexual content will help generate the clicks she needs. But neither woman is aware of the crucial thing they have in common. Harri, at the other end of her career, has also been bitten and betrayed by the industry she has given herself to. Will she wake up to the way she's being exploited before her protege realises that not everything is copy? Can either woman reconcile their love for work with the fact that work will never love them back? Or is a chaotic rebellion calling... Hilarious and unflinchingly honest, Careering takes a hard look at the often toxic relationship working women have with their dream jobs.
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake is the runaway TikTok must-read fantasy novel of the year. If you loved Ninth House and A Deadly Education, you’ll love this. Originally a self-published sensation, this edition has been fully edited and revised, including gorgeous new illustrations. Secrets. Betrayal. Seduction. Welcome to the Alexandrian Society. When the world’s best magicians are offered an extraordinary opportunity, saying yes is easy. Each could join the secretive Alexandrian Society, whose custodians guard lost knowledge from ancient civilizations. Their members enjoy a lifetime of power and prestige. Yet each decade, only six practitioners are invited – to fill five places. Contenders Libby Rhodes and Nico de Varona are inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds. Parisa Kamali is a telepath, who sees the mind’s deepest secrets. Reina Mori is a naturalist who can perceive and understand the flow of life itself. And Callum Nova is an empath, who can manipulate the desires of others. Finally there’s Tristan Caine, whose powers mystify even himself. Following recruitment by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they travel to the Society’s London headquarters. Here, each must study and innovate within esoteric subject areas. And if they can prove themselves, over the course of a year, they’ll survive. Most of them. The story continues in The Atlas Paradox, the heart-stopping sequel.
Set in an English smuggling town in 1742, Alex Preston’s Winchelsea tells a thoroughly gripping, atmospheric tale of a young woman’s journey from life as a gentlewoman, to smuggler, to pirate in the name of avenging her father’s murder. Shot-through with much mystery, desire and vengeance, this is Moonfleet meets du Maurier, with deliciously evocative language that conjures a wonderful sense of time, place and its heroine’s engagingly headstrong character. As a baby, Goody Brown was recused from drowning and taken in by a wealthy couple in Winchelsea, where smugglers’ command of the windswept cliffs, coves and secret caves seeps into all aspects of life. As Goody’s beloved brother Francis declares (he was himself adopted by her parents after escaping enslavement), “It is a time for brazen men… A time for the shameless, the vulturous, the shillers and under-merchants to thrive while honest folk struggle and starve”. This is borne out when their father is murdered by a group of men he’d considered to be friends. Already wildly discontent with the prospect of living a gentlewoman’s life, this tragedy spurs Goody to devote herself to avenging his death, setting her on a perilous, exhilarating path of smuggling, piracy and personal transformation.
Daphne Palasi Andreades’s Brown Girls is a triumph. Ambitious in scope, and realised with radiance, heart and bone-deep power, it lays bare the lives of a group of brown girls from Queens through blending detail with a chorus of voices (the narrative uses a collective “we”). It’s an all-consuming, all-encompassing musical ode; a beautiful book that takes in the complex, often conflicted ways women’s lives and communities come together, diverge, return and shift, while also taking in themes around immigration, diaspora, class, and colonialism. The writing is electric from the off: “We live in the dregs of Queens, New York, where airplanes fly so low that we are certain they will crush us. On our block, a lonely tree grows. Its branches tangle in power lines. Its roots upend side-walks where we ride our bikes before they are stolen. Roots that render the concrete slabs uneven.” These opening lines, this opening image, serves as a smart foreshadowing of the girls’ lives. As we follow them through childhood, girlhood, adolescence, college, careers, motherhood, and beyond, many move beyond their Queens’ roots, some return to their ancestors’ roots for a time, and there are tangles at every turn. The uneven footings and upended paths are perhaps most sharply seen when some of the young women experience alienating visits to their mother and fatherlands, and return to the US to realise all the more sharply that “existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us”, with white people deeming “us and our families the good immigrants, the hard-working ones,” and the girls expected to be “grateful brown people” in the US. Then there’s the paradox that those among the girls who become big shots (“paragons of the American dream”) wind up being rendered faceless, leading to existential “Who the fuck are we?” questions. What an extraordinary debut - it’s ablaze with wisdom and love.