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Hot off the press! Check out the books we think are the best of the best this month!
Like the very best short stories, Wandeka Gayle’s Motherland and Other Stories are multi-layered, long-lingering, and delivered in a deceptively simple style - vivid vignettes of life from varied corners of the globe with lasting impact that grows over time and draws you back. Many of the tales take turns down unexpected paths - purposeful detours and changes of direction that reveal new truths. Others present intimate, intense portraits of their protagonist’s complex relationship to home (Jamaica). All of them exude elegance and insights into the human condition. In my book, that’s pretty much short story perfection. Though distinct, the twelve stories are united by the courage of their protagonists, and an exploration of what it is to be black in white worlds. In Motherland we meet compassionate Roxanne, who moved from Jamaica and works in a London care home. She encounters racism, but strikes a bond with an elderly writer resident. Then there’s Ayo in Finding Joy, who leaves Jamaica to study in Louisiana and finds agency through personal upheavals “in this foreign place.” Each story, and each woman’s experiences, had me utterly in their thrall.
Hugely entertaining in a wonderfully witty and gentle way, this forms part of the 44 Scotland Street Series. While you could read A Promise of Ankles as a standalone novel and be perfectly and completely happy, you would be missing out on forming a relationship with the rest of series. From young Bertie (what a joy he is), through to student Torquil, and the Duke of Johannesburg, the variety of residents that greet you ensures an engaging read. As is the case with all of his books, the beauty of this read is in the detail. Alexander McCall Smith exquisitely places the finer points, delivering a lightness of touch that hits with precision. The detail matters, expanding and filling the space, allowing feelings freedom to mutter against Irene and delight in Cyril. By the way, the title is gorgeous, and connected to a certain someone, all will become clear! Chosen as a LoveReading star book, A Promise of Ankles delivers real life with a little extra sparkle and is the most lovely reading experience.
A lovely, gentle exploration of a bygone time, yet there is a quiet strength to this compelling read. It is also one of those books that just may surprise you. Violet Speedwell, still suffering the loss of both her fiancé and brother in the First World War, moves to Winchester in search of a new life. Canvas embroidery, bellringing, the surplus of women after the war, expectations and the judgement of society, all sit alongside each other as Violet explores new thoughts and feelings. Tracy Chevalier writes with true eloquence, the descriptions bloom, the characters sing, and she allows you to ponder, to consider. Notes of caution and unease pierce the tale, with occasional moments of biting intensity. Violet is fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her. In the acknowledgements I found out about the character who actually did exist, and I now want to explore Winchester Cathedral. Expressive and beautifully readable, A Single Thread is an engaging and rewarding tale.
Spiralling down into darkness this fascinating and compelling historical novel is based on the true story of an inmate of Bethlam Royal Hospital (Bedlam) between 1800 to 1815. James Norris an American, was restrained, chained to a bar and confined in isolation for more than ten years, here Emily Bullock takes a look at possibilities and makes them fly. James tells his own tale, the words slinking, twisting, disappearing into the fog of his memory and thoughts. Bedlam broods its way through the centre of this story, with other inmates and the keepers affecting the atmosphere. As James visits the past in his mind, his relationship, role as seaman, and even Fletcher Christian, famous for his part in the mutiny on the Bounty all entwine to explain the man James has become. The writing sparked vivid details in my minds eye, and although my heart physically ached at times, there are also moments of hope to be found within the pages. Inside the Beautiful Inside is a rather special book, it opens a door and shines a penetrating light of awareness into the shadows of history. Highly recommended.
Thirty beautiful short stories written for Christmas sit within the pages of this book. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) from Orkney, wrote these tales during the 1970’s and 80’s, and yet they somehow sit outside of time. As William S. Peterson says in the introduction: “Some of them are set in the ancient or medieval world; others seem to be taking place in the early twentieth century. Always, however, he insists upon collapsing the dissecting between the present and a shadowy past…”. Sometimes Christmas is obvious, while at others there is just a whisper as they sit within the Advent season, but these stories hold tradition, myth, childhood, family, and what it is to be human during this time of year. The wood and lino cuts are an additional treat. A story that is a particular favourite of mine is Dialogue at the Year’s End which sent a shiver of goosebumps cascading down my arms with the kiss of a fairytale, and brought a tear to my eye. Christmas Stories is the most lovely festive treasure, and would make a lovely stocking filler as it brings alive the human spirit and joy of Christmas.
All twenty-two of the short stories included in Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s stunning Caribbean-set Stick No Bills are rich in atmosphere and thought-provoking observational detail. Cutting to the core of their characters’ states and situations, lingering long, and possessing the power of a Siren’s call to draw readers back for multiple readings, these stories are masterworks of the form. Vibrant with humanity and emotional ambiguities and truths, each story is a finely drawn vignette. The author’s characterisation is first-class; her painterly observations and details of place and psychological states profoundly affecting. Take 'Killing Time', for example, in which a young Trinidadian woman coins the term “lostfulness” to describe her uncertain state of being and relinquishes her dream of becoming a writer - the ending made my heart flip. Some of the stories are only a few paragraphs long, and yet these too bear tremendous power. 82, for example, unpacks an entire existence in its chain of 82 words. In these shortest pieces, Walcott-Hackshaw conveys the feeling of existing within particular moments with brilliant dynamism - fleeting flashes of thought, or poignant reflection, or anticipation of what will come next. The eponymous story, 'Stick No Bills', is an exquisite example of this, capturing as it does the cycle of life and motherhood as a woman ponders the imminent departures of her daughter and mother with heart-aching precision, and all prompted by observing a “stick no bills” notice on an ice factory she first saw during her childhood. While the stories exude multiple moods, together they form an exquisite whole, united by finely-threaded themes of family, loss, the passing of time, ponderings on the past, and possible futures.
Setting out to show “how the Roman military changed from one always on the front foot, driving the borders of the Republic and early Empire ever forward … to one acting as the bulwark on the Roman limes as offence turned to defence”, Dr Simon Elliott’s Romans at War draws on the huge canon of existing literature on the Roman military, while also being informed by the author’s pioneering primary research. Elliott’s scholarly lucidity is shot-through with an engaging, entertaining style, which means the keen layperson will find his exhaustive assessment of the Roman military’s key chronological phases (the Republic, the Principate Empire and the Dominate Empire) eminently accessible. Readers already familiar with literature on this subject will be especially interested in the author’s assertion that late Roman military leaders were effectively independent warlords. Elliott also shares new research into the Severan campaign in 3rd century Scotland, and offers a fresh evaluation of late Roman troops. Accompanied by a wealth of colour photography, and supported by a detailed timeline, thorough glossary and maps, this is a mightily impressive - and edifying - feat.
Set in 1980s Atlanta, Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow is a rich tour de force that sparkles with wit, warmth and candid lyricism. Exploring the weight of secrets and the complexities of love and family life through the compelling coming of age stories of sisters estranged by their father’s bigamy, this novel lingers long in the soul. “The truth is a strange thing. Like pornography, you know when you see it.” This potent proclamation cuts to the novel’s core, for Dana and her mother Gwen are the other wife, the other daughter, of bigamist James, and they know this truth while his first wife and daughter remain oblivious. Upset when James tells her that being his second daughter “You are the one that’s a secret,” Gwen poignantly informs Dana that rather than being secret, she’s simply “unknown. That little girl there doesn’t know she has a sister. You know everything.” Knowledge that she possesses the truth offers Dana consolation, of sorts. While James’s other family is financially better off, both wives have a distinct lack of agency. Indeed, the novel is sharp on showing how women often have to make their lives from what men decide, such as when Gwen remarks that when you’re four weeks late, “All you can do is give him the news and let him decide if he is going to leave or if he is going to stay.” The novel is also powerful on elemental love and the nature of memory, such as Dana’s response to being gifted a fur coat her father won in a card game: “To this day and for the rest of my life I will always have a soft spot for a man with rum on his breath.” In time, during her own tempestuous teenage years, Dana orchestrates encounters with her sister and they become friends, with tension rising as the secret threatens to detonate. With finely drawn, flawed characters that pull readers’ loyalties in different directions, this commanding, compassionate novel confirms the author’s exceptional gifts. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
The perfect pick-me-up, this book delivers plenty of romance, smiles, and most importantly enfolds you in a lovely satisfying storyline too. Minnie would rather spend her birthday on New Years Day hiding under her duvet, as far as she’s concerned the last and first day of the year is jinxed. Then she meets Quinn who shares her birthday but otherwise appears to waltz through life, and the attraction is undeniable. Sophie Cousens has the most lovely refreshing style, a lightness of touch and sparkling wit walks hand in hand with considerate contemplation and emotion. Travelling back to the past ensured we saw what had affected, shaped and changed these two characters. I loved the ping-pong of little morsels of information, popping up to build a picture that we had access to, but Abbie and Quinn remained unaware of. Missed chances is the main theme here, but there is so much more on offer too, with access to Quinn ensuring this wasn’t just a one way Minnie street. The supporting characters are a lively bunch, with a mixture of personalities and issues keeping things interesting. Romantic, yes most definitely, This Time Next Year is also an amusing, thoughtful, and friendly read too.
A wonderful game for all the family, this really would make the most beautiful gift to celebrate the wonder of nature. Based on the best-selling book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris this is a game for two to four players from the age of 8 and up. The Lost Words was one of our Books of the Year in 2017, and the more recent The Lost Spells is another LoveReading Star Book, these are books to celebrate and treasure. The card game has been created in conjunction with the authors, and is firmly embedded within the ideology found in the books. The cards are large (tarot size), feel luxurious to touch, and the pack contains the beautiful artwork of Jackie Morris (Nature Cards), spells of Robert Macfarlane (Spell Cards), and Special Cards which instruct an action, such as fishing for a Spell Card or sealing and protecting a completed pair. The aim of the game is to be the first player to place a matching Spell Card, on to all of your displayed Nature Cards. I would suggest you thoroughly read the instructions before starting, and perhaps form a few rules of your own, such as when you match a Spell and Nature Card, you read or chant or sing the spell! The game takes roughly 30 minutes, I was thoroughly beaten when playing for the first time. I would say there is a small amount of skill involved, but it is mostly down to the luck of the draw, which means all of the family can play together. The Lost Words Card Game would make the perfect stocking filler for Christmas, and comes with a celebratory thumbs up from me.
Huge, in fact, huger than huge klaxon alert as Cecelia Ahern has written a sequel to her truly wonderful debut, P.S. I Love You. It’s been seven years since Gerry died, and after Holly talks about his letters in a podcast, a group approaches her asking for help. I adore Cecelia Ahern’s writing, it just speaks to, and connects with my entire being. Confession time, I didn’t write any notes as I read, I just read for the pure pleasure of it. Which in itself, really makes a statement doesn’t it? Holly is honest, and entirely human as she initially tries to distance herself from the group. This is an older Holly, an altered Holly, she has moved on while Gerry and the letters have remained anchored in time. The other characters are absolutely fascinating, I grew to care about the group members and fell completely in love with Ginika. After reaching the end I found myself reflecting, the writing not only entered my heart, it also still sits in my thoughts. Postscript is just as brilliant, just as emotional, just as gorgeous, as P.S., and while linking so effectively to the past, grows into a truly beautiful novel in its own unique right. Explore our '80+ Books That Deliver a Hug' listicle for more feel-good or uplifting books.
An enticing relationship tale with a difference, and just a touch of magic! After several decidedly difficult years the fabulously named Luna Lark travels to a remote Scottish island to make a fresh start. I must confess (and I’m really very sorry) that I hadn’t read any of Carrie Hope Fletcher’s books before. I initially wondered whether this would be a sugary sweet confection, but there is so so much more on offer here. I don’t want to tell you too much, as it will spoil the story, so I’ll just say to keep a close eye on the chapter headings! As I stepped inside the pages, as I realised what was happening, I gripped the book more tightly and got carried away by the story. Oh, and by the way, I simply adored the ending, it is rather special! A wonderfully easy book to read, In The Time We Lost touches love, kisses magic, and serves up an appealing and wonderfully engaging tale.