Did you know that the first recorded reading groups were among women working in factories in the nineteenth century? And now, according to research undertaken a few years ago, there are tens of thousands of groups meeting regularly in the UK reading everything from literary classics to technical manuals! Of course, if you are in a book group, choosing what to read next can be a serious matter as not every book has subject matter that can really be discussed. So to help you LoveReading has decided to lend a hand by, each month, selecting a number of books we feel are perfect and will give your group a rewarding discussion as well as a rewarding read.
Any new story by Minette Walters is grounds for great rejoicing and The Swift and The Harrier, her fourth historical fiction, is an impeccable stand alone that, from the opening eight words “As the hour for the priests’ execution approached…” holds you in its thrall until the very last word of the final line. Set 1642, in Dorset, tensions between friends and neighbours reflect the mood of the nation, as allegiance to the King and Crown confronts the rising tide of Parliamentarianism and bloody war stalks the land. Jayne Swift is a trained and talented physician, from a loyal Royalist family, who heals without fear or favour. Dedicated to treating the sick and injured whatever their belief or politics, she wins the respect of all who know her through her diligence and professionalism, at a time when female physicians were barred from formal practise, and so being to medicine, albeit in fiction, what Sofonisba Anguisolla was, in reality, to art a century before. As counterpoint to Swift’s openness and straightforward morality is William Harrier, whose mysterious appearances, and apparent duplicity, mark him as a connected but untrustworthy character, for whom the war is but a means to achieve a greater good. Impressively imagined and so beautifully written, The Swift and the Harrier is a perfect story, full of Walters’ trademark sense of place and time, with characters that are so fully formed and natural you feel you know them, and all wrapped in a story so well drawn that the images it creates in your imagination will endure long after you finished reading it. It is a complete, perfect, triumph of a tale.
Through the finely-nuanced narratives of three Black women from very different backgrounds, Lola Akinmade Åkerström's In Every Mirror She’s Black is a remarkable feat of fiction. Teeming with hope, desire, struggle and love, this powerful page-turner pulls no punches as its engagingly three-dimensional characters strive for better lives in a world that makes it anything but easy for them to be themselves. It also dismantles any notion of there being a monolithic Black culture, and lays bare the unjust multiple standards by which Black women are judged - and all this through dazzling story-telling that will leave readers desperate to read the author’s next novel. The three female protagonists are linked by one wealthy man - Jonny Lundin, born into one of Sweden’s most privileged families, and CEO of the country’s biggest marketing company. Bored and frustrated by work, and by the men she meets on US dating apps, award-winning marketing executive Kemi is ripe for change when Jonny invites her to become his new Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion. While on a flight to woo Kemi from America to Stockholm, Jonny encounters Brittany, a former model who now works as a first-class flight attendant. Initially dismissive of Jonny’s attention, she finds herself drawn to him - he seems to worship the ground she walks on, and lavishes her with unimaginable devotion and wealth. Then there’s refugee Muna, who lost her mother and younger brother during a treacherous sea crossing, and now works as a cleaner in Jonny’s office, while dreaming of becoming an accountant and having a group of good friends. True to life, the women variously make mistakes, face excruciating decisions, and long to feel fulfilled. Their finely-drawn stories are equally as engaging as they struggle to feel at home in a city that’s supposedly egalitarian, but turns out to be rife with implicit racism, tokenism, and injurious stereotyping. Riveting, moving and stirring (with punch-packing endings you won’t see coming), In Every Mirror She’s Black is a magnificent must-read.
Rich with romance, mystery and family drama, Elisabeth Gifford’s A Woman Made of Snow is a delicious treat for readers who like their historic fiction seasoned with haunting atmosphere. It’s 1949 and Caro and Alasdair Gillan are newly married Cambridge graduates living near his Scottish family home. Though elegant, crumbling Kelly Castle has seen better days, and hides many secrets, as Caro discovers when she accepts her mother-in-law’s suggestion that she research the Gillan family history. Her academic career curtailed when she falls pregnant soon after marriage, Caro is glad to have something to occupy her mind, and the mystery of a missing bride is certainly intriguing. The woman in question was married to Alasdair’s great-grandfather, Oliver, whom we meet when the narrative slips back to the late 1800s. As a boy, Oliver resolved to explore the frozen north, and later read medicine at Edinburgh University. Then, as broken-hearted young man, Oliver signs up to board a ship bound for the Arctic. In the present, as a shocking find is made in the castle grounds, there are tensions between Caro and Alasdair’s family - she’s not the kind of woman they’d envisaged him marrying, yet she is the kind of woman who can uncover Oliver’s past, not least when she finds the diary of his voyage aboard the Narwhal whaling ship and pieces together a tragic and beautiful tale of love that exposes abhorrent Western notions of “savages”. With a fine evocation of time, place, and Inuit society, A Woman Made of a Snow is a moving, captivating read.
Critically acclaimed novelist Michael Farris Smith pulls Nick Carraway out of the shadows and into the spotlight in this exhilarating imagination of his life before The Great Gatsby. Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby’s world, he was at the centre of a very different story – one taking place along the trenches and deep within the tunnels of World War I. Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed first-hand, Nick delays his return home, hoping to escape the questions he cannot answer about the horrors of war. Instead, he embarks on a transcontinental redemptive journey that takes him from a whirlwind Paris romance – doomed from the very beginning – to the dizzying frenzy of New Orleans, rife with its own flavour of debauchery and violence. An epic portrait of a truly singular era and a sweeping, romantic story of self-discovery, this rich and imaginative novel breathes new life into a character that many know only from the periphery. Charged with enough alcohol, heartbreak, and profound yearning to transfix even the heartiest of golden age scribes, Nick reveals the man behind the narrator who has captivated readers for decades.
This is the story of a murderer. A stolen child. Revenge. This is the story of Ted, who lives with his daughter Lauren and his cat Olivia in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street. All these things are true. And yet some of them are lies. You think you know what's inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you've read this story before. In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, something lies buried. But it's not what you think...
An absolute little treasure! After the death of his grandfather, Rintaro finds himself on an adventure with Tiger the talking cat, to help books that desperately need saving. This incredibly quirky and beautiful novel highlights the importance of books, friendship, and self-belief. The simplicity of the story highlights the warmth, the love, and the true power of books. It also encouraged me to explore my own relationship with books. Sosuke Natsukawa painted images straight into my thoughts, simple, clear, vividly bright, they still sit in my minds eye. A shout out to the translation by Louise Heal Kawai, as I felt as though I was reading the original Japanese version. If you, like me, think of books as being more than words on paper, if you talk to them and pat them, are moved by them and have thoughts altered by them, then I recommend The Cat Who Saved Books with my heart and soul. Chosen as one of my Liz Picks of the Month, it really would make the perfect gift, either for you, or another book-lover in your life.
When Orenda Books decides to back an author, whether they write in - or are translated into - English, it’s wise to pay attention as they have an uncanny knack for finding and signing up writers of great quality in publishing’s busiest and most competitive genre. Rod Reynolds is no exception. Having gained plaudits aplenty for his excellent Charlie Yates 1940’s noir series; The Dark Inside, Black Night Falling and Cold Desert Sky, Reynolds then diverted to the brutal London-based stand-alone thriller, Blood Red City, and gained a long-listing for the CWA Steel Dagger for his troubles. Pivoting ‘back to black’ with Black Reed Bay, Reynolds introduces us to his newest creation, Detective Casey “Big Case” Wray, through a superbly crafted contemporary who-why-how-dunnit. Set in the fictitious Hampstead County - which bears a striking resemblance to Nassau County N.Y - on Long Island, with windswept Atlantic beaches and the cookie cutter beachfront McMansions of a comfortable community, each scene is imbued with a sense of location so real, you can feel the salt spray and neighbourly judgment sting your skin. On the face of it it’s a standard crime/thriller narrative: something bad happens and the police investigate. For some the female victim trope will rankle, but the story and cast are introduced with such nuance and style and then, credentials established, around the 100 page mark Reynolds moves up through the gears to deliver a beautifully paced, smartly plotted read that really delivers. And Wray? Well she is the real star of the story. Somewhere between Frances McDormand’s “Marge Gunderson” in Fargo and Helen Mirren as “Jane Tennison” in Prime Suspect; too good a human and too big hearted to be hard boiled, but à point cynical and with a great store of whip-crack one-liners. Mark these words, Reynolds is going to good places fast if he can repeat the magic of Black Reed Bay in his next few books. Join in and get reading, it’s going to be quite the journey.
Subtle and smart yet intense and thrilling, this story builds with each turn revealing another set of steps in front of you. Within a corner of London a murder sets questions hunting through secrets and the past. I was caught sleeping at the start and was given a huge shove, from that moment on my attention didn’t waver. This is all about the characters, yet the beautifully intricate plot more than holds its own. What Paula Hawkins does so successfully, is to allow you to see the inner being of people, the shadows that dwell within, without ever losing connection with their humanity. Every person in this story feels authentic, relatable, and that dreaded word, normal. It made me question what I would do in the same circumstances, could this in fact, be me. Oh, and just as an aside, great map! A Star Book and Liz Pick of the Month, A Slow Fire Burning wanders through the everyday, before reaching under the surface and pulling out darkness.
Faïza Guène’s Men Don’t Cry is an absolute triumph - wise, funny, enthralling, thought-provoking. At its heart, the novel explores the age-old (and sharply pertinent) pull between one’s land of heritage and one’s land of birth, in this case generational and family conflict between Algeria and France. It’s an incredibly powerful commentary on a very real conflict in contemporary France, perfectly summarised when the novel’s protagonist comments that “to be fully French you have to deny part of your heritage, part of your identity, part of your history, part of your beliefs, and yet when you succeed in achieving all that, you’re still reminded of your origins…So what’s the point?” Men Don’t Cry is also a superb coming-of-age story that sees an awkward young man, Mourad, find his feet, and his voice. He was born in Nice to Algerian parents, the youngest of three children. His eldest sister Dounia, a devoted feminist, leaves home without looking back, while his middle sister marries, has kids, and is happy. Mourad is between the two - neither desperate to leave home, nor especially looking to settle down. He’s insular, doesn’t have many friends, so he’s there when his dad has a hugely debilitating stroke. He’s there when his hypochondriac mum needs to vent (which she does a lot, about anything and everything, to comic and poignant effect). But then the time comes for Mourad to leave home too - he has a teaching job in Paris. A few weeks into his new post, he reconnects with Dounia, now a public figure feminist activist who’s stepped onto the political ladder. Her interviews in high profile publications and the book she writes about her upbringing and experiences rile Mourad. For example, she describes their dad as “authoritarian, change-averse, illiterate.” But, nevertheless, it’s Mourad who bridges the chasm between Dounia and the rest of the family, not least at the unexpected, heartrending end of this remarkable novel. Mourad’s voice is engrossing, and feels unfailingly authentic. On that note, deep appreciation must go to the novel’s award-winning translator, Sarah Ardizzone - rendering Mourad’s voice so dazzingly into English, is a tremendous achievement. The result is a novel that reads like a dream - vibrant, nuanced, thought-provoking, funny, and shot-through with Mourad’s wit.
56 Days is entertaining and fast paced - a tale of two strangers who make a hasty decision at a time of extreme stress, fear and anxiety. Multi-layered, brimming with suspense and with well-portrayed characters, this book certainly kept me on my toes. Set in present times, it felt very familiar, occasionally too familiar - a reflection of the early days of the pandemic, when no one could have predicted what was to come. The book has a dual timeline, focusing on a murder investigation in the present day and an exciting new relationship in the past. Occasionally, the two main characters give their persepctive on the same scenes, leading to some repetition, but I found myself trying to read between the lines - what they weren't telling each other, the secrets they were hiding ... 56 Days was a brave book to write (who could have known we would still be living in a Covid-19-filled world on publication day), but it doesn't come across as gimmicky at all. An engaging, unsettling and surprising domestic noir thriller - Brief Encounter with a rampant virus and decomposing body.
Taking in the cultural complexities of the Ottoman Empire through the compelling, criss-crossing stories of Levantine, Greek, Turkish and Armenian characters, Defne Suman’s The Silence of Scheherazade is an astounding feat of historical fiction - tremendously ambitious, and dazzlingly realised through the author’s exquisitely-threaded plotting and lush storytelling. It’s September, 1905, and one moment seals the fates of four very different families. This is the moment Scheherazade is born in cosmopolitan Smyrna to a mother numbed by opium. Though her namesake is the legendary storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, she’s mute. A silent girl who grows up to bear witness to the brutality that eventually besets her city - the death and destruction, the expulsion of communities, the impending outbreak of WWI, and the burning. The magic of the city is dazzlingly evoked and intertwined with both the socio-political context and the very moving, very personal stories of this novel’s vast cast of characters. This is a novel to savour, to be dazzled by, to learn from, and reflect on. It invites utter immersion. The LoveReading LitFest invited Defne to the festival to talk about The Silence of Scheherazade. You can view the event by subscribing to the LitFest programme for as little as £6 per month - or you can pay per view. For just £2, go, see Defne in conversation with Deborah Maclaren and find out why this is such a sumptuous tour de force of a book that everyone needs to read. Check out a preview of the event here.
The Durrell family and their writings have been a source of wonder and inspiration to book illustrator, Penny, since her Father read Gerald Durrell’s “Corfu trilogy” to, and with, her when she was young. Now an enduring bond between them as his life nears its end, when the dread day comes, Penny, grieving and needing time and space, embarks on the promise that she and her dad couldn’t fulfil together, a Durrells’ pilgrimage. Suffused throughout with the scent of flowers, lemon and garlic and the dual salves of sunshine and sea, Hewitt’s tale weaves the lives of fishermen, restaurateurs, holiday company representatives and more into a loving nurturing community, offering a balm to Penny’s spirits. Each character so perfectly drawn and credible, that you feel you know them, might even have actually met them. At heart this is a story of belonging, proof of the Edna Buchanan phrase that “friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Penny’s quest for the Durrells’ various homes and the restaurants they ate in, slowly revealing that while she can’t live their lives, she can and should live hers and live it well. There ought to be a better word for the way sunlight sparkles so brilliantly on the sea, thought “glisters”, as a conflation of “glistens” and “glitters”, gets close, and this book does exactly that, shining calmly and thoughtfully from beginning to end. This is such a enchanting, uplifting story of love for Corfu, for Corfiots and for life rediscovered, that one wonders why Hewitt has waited to debut. That she has done so with such a perfect story, written with charm, insight and an utterly captivating sense of humane sensitivity, augurs well for future novels. And yes, tissues are advised while reading, there may be tears!