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Each week our team of book lovers choose a selection of books they have loved and think deserve an extra shout out. Everyone fights to get theirs on the list. Here are this week’s faves…
Set in AD 74, Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den tells the enthralling tale of Amara, a prostitute enslaved to Pompeii’s lupanar brothel. Serving a rich feast of historic atmosphere with all the pace of popular drama, fans of spicy historic fiction will be left longing to devour the second course of this trilogy - think TV show Harlots set in ancient Pompeii. Educated doctor’s daughter Amara once lived free, but the poverty that came in the wake of her father’s death led to enslavement to the Wolf Den brothel, where her cell is adorned with a picture of “a woman being taken from behind” and a terracotta lamp “modelled in the shape of a penis” (the real-life lupanar brothel is famed for its erotic frescos). By day, the she-wolves visit the women’s baths and stalk the streets to draw business to the Den. By night, “the brothel passes like a scene from Hades: the endless procession of drunken men, the smoke, the soot, angry shouting,” until Amara lies in her cell, “unable to sleep, suffocated by rage”. When fellow she-wolf Victoria says how lucky they are, Amara’s retort is characteristically sharp: “Here we all are…Four penniless slaves sucking off idiots for bread and olives. What a life.” And a life she refuses to settle for when “the desire to escape takes hold, its roots digging deep under her skin, breaking her apart.” Harper’s style is exhilaratingly direct, with images lingering long in the mind’s eye. You smell the oil lamps and temple incense, taste sticky figs, feel physical blows, and the dialogue packs powerful punch too. It’s a vivacious piece of work, and all underpinned by a woman’s longing for freedom.
Honey & Co’s Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich have struck culinary gold in Chasing Smoke, a gorgeous grill-focussed cookery book that takes readers on a tasty tour of the authors’ favourite food locations - rural Jordan, Alexandria, southern Turkey, Israel, Thessaloniki - with all manner of dishes and eateries covered, from kerbside kebab joints to swanky grill houses. Organised by food type (fruit and veg; fish and seafood; birds; lamb and other meat; bread and unmissables), the recipes are wonderfully varied and easy-to-follow. Grilled peaches with almond tahini, chicken wings in spicy pomegranate molasses, classic Adana kebabs, herby cheese-filled griddle bread - from this small selection of recipes, it’s plain to see how beautiful banquets might be born from this book. With stunning photos of places and people alongside vibrant visuals of the delicious dishes and raw ingredients, plus lively accounts of the authors’ culinary journeys, this is so much more than a recipe book - it’s as much about exploration and friendship, and discovering the region’s culinary culture, though cooking remains at its heart, of course, supported by practical tips on techniques, such as how to start (and mellow) your fire, top tools of the trade, and to how to construct you own home-smoker. Bog-standard burger-and-banger-BBQs, your time is up!
Comedian Geoff Norcott’s Where Did I Go Right? How the Left Lost Me is an honest, amusing and thought-provoking account of how a working-class lad raised on a council estate by a unionised father and matriarchal mother ended up voting (wait for it…) Tory. Framed as his journey to discover how this unlikely turn of events came about (he was surely destined to be Labour red - how on earth did he turn blue?), this lively memoir is packed with engaging anecdotes and provocative reasoning. While I stand firmly at the other end of the political spectrum, it provided fascinating and well-considered insights into how the half think and, as such, should be read by both Reds and Blues. “Given my solid working-class background and performing arts job, it’s obvious to everyone I meet that I should be Labour through and through. I’m a comedian who grew up on a council estate with two disabled parents, and my dad was a trade union man. But that’s not how I voted.” So Norcott states near the beginning of the book, setting out his unusual stall before tracing his left-to-right swing back to his adolescence. “My dial was moving all the time”, he recognises amidst growing disillusionment with New Labour - though his first non-Labour vote didn’t go to “those Tory bastards”, to quote his dad. From the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers and credit crunch, through to Brexit, Norcott’s funny (and moving) personal experiences are smartly woven into his political musings and analysis.
Taut, intriguing and compelling, this story just flies as it weaves through the interwar years in Norway. A private investigator and his assistant take on what appears to be a straightforward case but their past haunts their present and they soon find themselves caught up in Nazi schemes. I adore Kjell Ola Dahl’s Oslo Detectives Series, and now his latest novels including The Courier, take a step into the past. He writes with an assured hand and translator Don Bartlett brings his world to life without you even realising he is there. The story flips between 1938 and 1924, each turn releasing information and tightening the connection between the two time periods. The plot is powerful, my thoughts spun, my feelings hesitated and altered as I read. It was fascinating to dwell in the time just before the Second World War, before the world experienced the full force and terror of the Nazi’s. A standalone novel, The Assistant is not only an action-packed, thrilling and chilling tale, it’s also smart and thought-provoking too. The LoveReading LitFest invited Kjell to the festival to talk about this thrilling and chilling tale. 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 Kjell in conversation with Paul Blezard and find out why you won't want to miss this cracking read. Check out a preview of the event here
A dramatic and enthralling relationship tale that captures emotion and takes you on a journey through the Second World War. When Sara and her parents flee their homeland taking refuge in the French Alps, the full impact of the Nazi oppression edges ever closer. Inspired by her visit to a small museum in the Lower Alps Carol Drinkwater has created the most captivating story of young love, and the courage needed to face the most devastating of times. She has the ability to focus on the things that make us human, to create a link that alters the focus from watching, to actually feeling the events that take place. A balance is created between the intimate moments of relationships and how they sit within the wider fields of battle during the horror of war. This is ultimately as much a story about Sara’s own relationship with, and understanding of herself as it is with the man she falls in love with. The ending came with beautiful words and tears welling up in my eyes, I just had to include this as a Liz Robinson Pick of the Month. An Act of Love will encourage emotions to dip and soar as it gives hope even in the darkness. The LoveReading LitFest invited Carol to the festival to talk about An Act of Love. 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 Carol in conversation with Paul Blezard and find out why everyone should read this book. Check out a preview of the event here
Telling the gripping tale of a Berlin-based writer’s appropriation of a stranger’s story, Chris Power’s A Lonely Man misdirects and seduces with a magician’s sleight of hand. Readers will teeter on the very edge of their seats as they - and the protagonist - are lured into a snare of distrust, with the novel simmering to an entirely unexpected end. Robert has moved from London to Berlin with his wife and two young daughters. While struggling to find his creative mojo, he meets drunk, charismatic, nervy Patrick. Patrick was ghost-writing a no-holds-barred book on behalf of an exiled Russian oligarch who was recently found hanged. Patrick believes it was murder, that he’s now being followed. Robert notes early on that “he had never known when to stop” and, true to form, despite deciding he’d only meet Patrick for one drink, it doesn’t stop there. Beers, whiskeys, and more for the road flow as Patricks explains how he met the mega-rich oligarch and the high-level secrets his book was due to expose. Though Robert he felt “like he had spent the evening walking into some kind of trap” and he’s not sure if it’s true, Patrick’s story has slithered under his skin and he secretly sets about transforming it into a novel. Highly recommend for readers who like their thrillers laced with chilling intrigue, the novel operates as a kind of puzzle, raising questions around the ownership of stories, and uncertainty planted with elegant aplomb.