What to read next: 16 contemporary fiction books that have kept me turning the pages during lockdown
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I’m finding reading a great comfort right now. It’s time away from the constant pinging on my phone and the never-ending social media posts and news that leave me feeling over-anxious and worried. Getting lost in a book is a little bit of escapism for me amid such unprecedented times. Where once I might have scrolled through Facebook or Instagram for 15 minutes throughout the day, instead I’m clicking straight onto the books app on my phone, and going to bed early with the sole purpose of reading. As much as I hate the Covid-19 situation, this is one silver lining I’m taking from these weeks of lockdown. I’ve even launched an online book club, discussing one title per week on my Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page. You can find out the next four books for discussion in this post.
I’ve rounded up 16 books I’ve read and enjoyed recently, all reviewed below. I know from previous posts like this that many of you are bookworms too, so I hope this is useful inspiration. As always, I love hearing your suggestions too so let me know anything good you’ve read recently too.
Would you recommend any of these books or what else would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your suggestions either in the comments below, on the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page or you can tweet me on @cardiffmummysays
You can see all my reviews and round ups of books for children and grown-ups, plus the latest reads for the Cardiff Mummy Says bookclub on the Books section of Cardiff Mummy Says.
*All Amazon links on this page are affiliate links, This means if you make a purchase via this link, I will receive a small payment, at no extra cost to you.
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (Two Roads)
They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but it was the artwork on the front of The Keeper of Lost Things that drew me in initially – the bright yellow cover, pink roses and assorted random objects that made me purchase it spontaneously from the shelves of The Works just before lockdown. I was instantly intrigued and although it took me a few chapters to find myself immersed in Ruth Hogan’s novel about love and loss, I’m so glad I took a chance on it. It’s an endearing and engaging read with lots of emotion and a feel-good vibe. The Keeper of Lost Things tells the story of Anthony Peardew, mourning the loss of his wife many years on. He has spent his life collecting all the random things he finds while out and about, in the hope of one day reuniting them with their owners as a way of atoning for a broken promise that he would never be parted from a precious necklace given to him by his wife. When he dies, he bequeaths his assistant Laura not only his house and all his possessions but the task of trying to reunite the room-full of objects with those who lost them. The prose is so gracefully written and full of tender observations of life, it reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop, both by Rachel Joyce. Written with a dual narrative between the present and 40 years earlier, I was intrigued to see how the two would join together. It did take quite a surreal turn half way through, which I wasn’t expecting, but, actually, it worked in adding a new dimension to the book. This tale of friendship, love, loss and grief makes for lovely escapism.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Hodder Paperbacks)
This was the first book I discussed on my Cardiff Mummy Says online bookclub, and what a powerful read it was, with so much to think about. It’s not always easy to read – I found myself holding my breath at points and reading with a knot in my stomach at others – but it was so compelling; a real page-turner that I could hardly put down. It’s about a newborn baby who dies after a routine hospital procedure and the woman facing a murder charge for that death – the black nurse who had been forbidden from touching the baby by his white supremacist father. It’s told from the viewpoint of three main characters, Ruth, the African-American nurse with more than 20 years of experience on the labour and delivery ward; Turk, the white supremacist father of baby; and Kennedy, the white lawyer assigned to defend Ruth. It’s a legal drama, yes, but more than that: it’s a hard-hitting exploration of racism in modern America where the author challenges her audience (who, as she says herself in the fascinating author notes at the end of the book, are mostly white and middle class) to look at their passive racism. They might not consider themselves to be a racist like the brutal supremacist Turk, but their acceptance of and failure to question societal norms, and the fact that they have no idea what life is like for people of colour, is racist in itself; their privilege is down to someone else’s lack of privilege. There are some who may say this isn’t her story to tell because she’s white and again this is something that she addresses in the author notes; as an author she’s been on as monumental a journey as her characters. The book is very well-researched, from the intricate medical and legal knowledge to the experiences of Ruth as a black woman, and Turk as a white supremacist. It’s a book that has stayed with me long after reading it two months ago, and which I’ve found myself thinking about a lot again recently given the recent awful events in America.
The Binding by Bridget Collins (The Borough Press)
Another Cardiff Mummy bookclub choice. The reviews are divided on Amazon, between those who absolutely loved it and those who thought it didn’t live up to its initial premise, instead becoming a coming of age story typical of the author’s young adult fiction background. I fall into the former camp – while it wasn’t perfect, I loved it. The Binding is a historical-fantasy-romance set in a parallel Victorian era, where books are not books as we know them; they are people’s memories, taken from their minds by a ‘binder’ and held in the pages of books so that the person they belong to forgets about them completely. In the first of the book’s three parts we meet Emmett, a farm boy recovering from some kind of illness who is told he is to leave his family home to become an apprentice binder due to his innate ability. And then one day, Emmet discovers a book with his own name on… The second part of the book reveals just what has been wiped from Emmet’s memory; I don’t want to give anything away but I thought the story unfolded beautifully. The third section involves a change of narrator, which worked really well in developing the plot. The writing is so beautifully descriptive throughout, as we discover more about this mysterious world of binding. People choose to have memories wiped so that they are free from the pain of remembering. But we also see a divide between the rich, who can illegally obtain others’ memories and read them for pleasure, and the poor, selling their cherished memories because that’s the only way they can survive. Others misuse the technique to cover up their crimes or to force people to forget things they don’t want to, or to taunt those who have been bound with suggestions of awful things they may have done. It’s such a clever concept. There are a few characters who I was left wanting to know more about – a sequel or prequel would be well-received by readers, me included. Overall, I loved the concept of this book; the writing is tense and atmospheric, original and thought-provoking.
Messy, Wonderful Us by Catherine Isaac (Simon & Schuster UK)
After two longer and heavier reads in the form of Small Great Things and The Binding, I was in need of some escapism, something a little lighter, and this definitely hit the spot. I whizzed through it, quickly finding myself absorbed in the life of main character Allie as she stumbles upon a secret that threatens to derail everything she thought she knew about her family. After she accidentally finds a letter in her grandmother’s house, Allie attempts to uncover the truth about what happened to her late mother in the summer before she was born. She finds herself heading to Italy on a voyage of discovery with her best-friend since childhood Ed, who must also do some soul searching of his own. The story was predictable in some ways, but I loved the twists and turns we were lead through to get to the inevitable conclusion. On a few occasions, I thought I knew what was going to happen but then plot developments totally derailed me. Most of the book is written from the first-person point of view of Allie, a character who I liked despite her flaws. Her narrative alternates with third person chapters about Ed, which help move the story along, as well as flashbacks from what I thought was one person for the first few chapters but turned out to be someone else. The book is set in Liverpool and also Northern Italy, and I loved the depictions of Lake Garda and surrounding areas. We’ve been to Italy for the last three summers and it looks like we won’t be going again this year due to the current global Covid-19 crisis – but it was wonderful to transport myself to the sights, sounds and sunshine of one of my favourite countries. The book was emotional in parts. One of the flashback chapters at the start had me in tears, while one dramatic chapter near the end, I could feel the adrenaline rising in me. This is a book about friendship and family, complex relationships and unconditional love. No, it’s not a literary masterpiece, but I enjoyed losing myself in the lives of these interesting characters.
Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay (Sphere)
Newly released in April in hardback, and not due out in paperback until September, I managed to get this for £3.99 as an e-book, having been hooked in by the incredible reviews. The reviews weren’t wrong… I loved this thriller and devoured it in two evenings. It takes toxic friendships to a whole new level, with the most compelling of narrators in the form of Jane. She’s been best friends with Marnie since she they were 11 years old. Both fell in love and got married in their early twenties. But Jane never liked Marnie’s loud and obnoxious husband, although she never told Marnie that. We know from the back cover of the book that Marnie’s husband is dead, and also that if Jane hadn’t lied to her best friend then perhaps he might still be alive… but I’m not going to tell you anything else about the plot because I want you to have the same heart-in-mouth reading experience as me as the chilling plotline unfolds. What a compelling journey we are taken on as we discover the seven lies of the book’s title, and are slowly drawn into Jane’s complex mind. Jane’s narrative is written to make it seem as though she is talking directly to the reader, which just adds to its intensity. Along the way it touches on the changing nature of friendships, as well as grief, rejection, mental illness, dementia and strained family relationships. It kept twisting and turning all the way through, and just when you thought it was going to end in one way, there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming at all. An incredible debut from Elizabeth Kay. I can’t wait to see what she publishes next.
How To Stop Time by Matt Haig
I love following Matt on Twitter – he always sums up life so profoundly and succinctly – but had never actually managed to read any of his books, so I was keen to include something by him on the Cardiff Mummy Says book club. He’s the author of five novels, the bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, plus several children’s novels including A Boy Called Christmas, The Girl Who Saved Christmas and Father Christmas and Me, all of which my 10 year old daughter loves. How To Save Time was first published in 2017. It’s about Tom Hazard, a 439 year old man who looks about 40, He has a condition called anageria, which means he ages about 10-15 times slower than other people. It’s a lonely existence; even though he has discovered others like him, outliving loved ones is tough, He carries the grief of his first love with him for centuries. It’s dangerous too, with persecution in the middle ages replaced by a fear of scientists discovering him in the modern day.
I loved this book, it’s beautifully written with an unusual storyline and gave me such a lot to think about. The narrative switches between the late 1500s/1600s, mid 1800s, 1920s, and the modern day, although it’s to Haig’s credit that the narrative is never confusing. In the modern day we meet Tom as a history teacher, the perfect role for someone who has seen so much over the centuries, trying not to fall in love, because he can’t share his secret and can’t bear the heartache and unending grief when he inevitably outlives her. There’s drama, danger, romance and more in this unusual and gripping novel where it’s clear the author has given much thought about what such a condition would be like – Tom says he’s played so many different roles in his life he’s not a person, he’s a crowd in one body. It makes you think about the privilege of aging too. Modern day Tom finds his second grey hair. He got his first in 1979. “It gives me a thrill like no other when I notice such a change (hardly ever).” This was a real favourite when we discussed it as part of my online book club. Highly recommended.
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (Penguin)
I don’t think I would have picked up this book if it hadn’t been suggested by one of the book clubs I’m a member of, but I’m so glad I read it. It’s written with such understated beauty, and the plot unfolds gracefully as the reader explores the Jewish Orthodox faith, a religion and community I knew very little about. First published in 2007, and made into a film in 2017 starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, Disobedience is a fascinating exploration of an orthodox Jewish community. Ronit and Esti are two women who grew up in the orthodox Jewish suburb of Hendon, north London. They had a teenage romance, but while Esti left London and is now a New York career woman, Esti remained behind and is married to a man who is a pillar of the community. When Esti returns home following the death of her father, both women find themselves confronting the choices they have made – rebellion and turning your back on your community and the religious beliefs you have been brought up with, or being someone you’re not in order to conform and remain a part of that community. I haven’t read Alderman’s bestselling and award-winning The Power, but Disobedience also looks at issues of gender roles and inequality. I found myself feeling quite angry at parts. This book gave me such a lot to think about.
One More Lie by Amy Lloyd (Arrow)
‘Charlotte’ is a notorious former child killer, released from custody and given a new identity. She wants a fresh start; to forget the past that turned her and her only friend into national hate figures. She doesn’t remember much of what happened that fateful night when she was 10 and wonders whether she’s a bad person, or a person who did one bad thing. But then the friend she committed the crime with finds her… and she’s dragged deeper into a past she cannot confront.
I couldn’t put this book down and read it in less than 48 hours. Amy Lloyd’s second novel is a fast-paced psychological thriller full of scenes so tense they are almost claustrophobic. There’s an underlying atmosphere of inevitable foreboding and there were so many times where I wanted to intervene. The characters are so complex but Amy gives you a real insight into their minds. The reader is taken on so many twists and turns, each time you think you know what’s going to happen, you’re proved wrong. The final few chapters are incredibly chilling. If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller that will keep you turning the pages, then this is it.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber and Faber)
I’d been put off reading this book because the reviews had been so divided. For every person hailing it a modern-day masterpiece, another was calling it out for being juvenile and not living up to the hype. I’d picked the book so many times pondering as to whether I should give it a chance… but always put it back because I didn’t want to waste the precious time I have to read on something I wouldn’t like. But then I read an incredible review in The Guardian of the new 12-part BBC television series calling it a ‘small screen triumph’ and ‘near perfect’ which made me desperate to watch it… but I knew I’d regret watching it if I hadn’t read the book first.
Initially the lack of speech marks and other punctuation put me off (I’m a journalist and former editor) but once I got past that I became so absorbed I read it less than 24 hours, staying up later than I should and sneaking off when my children were watching TV to devour a few more pages.
Normal People follows Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell, who we first meet whilst they are at sixth form and who we then follow on to university. Connell is popular; Marianne is not and bullied because of it. They soon start a secret relationship, secret because Connell is embarrassed of Marianne and worried about what others think should they find out. Marianne pretends not to care, but we soon realise just how little self-worth she has, not helped by strained family relationships. Love, for her, is bound up in submission and control and it’s painfully sad. When they both head off to the same university, Marianne is the popular one whilst working class Connell struggles to fit in. Their friendship and on-off-relationship-that-isn’t-really-a-relationship continues through betrayals, humiliations, other relationships, failure to explain what they are really feeling. The two of them are so elf-destructive. It took me back to my own teenage years and early twenties and all the emotional ups and downs as you try to figure out your place in the world and desperately seek the approval of others. I found the book so well-written and incredibly emotional and affecting. I’m half way through the TV series now and although there are subtle differences to the book, it’s so well written and acted and just as emotional as the novel.
Half A World Away by Mike Gayle (Hodder)
Oh my goodness, what an emotional read! I absolutely loved this book – I cried buckets during the final section and was still processing the lives of these wonderful characters days later. Half A World Away is so beautifully written, touching upon privilege and class, nature and nurture, family and friendship, and the strength and determination of one mother to ensure the best for her son despite their tough life.
I’ve only read one Mike Gayle book previously, My Legendary Girlfriend around 20 years ago, which was a chick-lit style read that wasn’t anything special. I’d always dismissed his other books but then this one showed up as a recommended read on Amazon and the reviews were all so positive that I was intrigued. I’m so glad I took a chance because it’s one of the best books I’ve read during lockdown.
It’s told from the view points of Kerry, a single mum raised by a drug addict mother and put into care, and Noah, a successful barrister, with a wife and daughter, who happens to be Kerry’s younger brother who was adopted into a life of privilege and love aged two. He has no idea Kerry even exists, but her entrance into his life changes it no end. The book is so well structured, with Kerry’s letters from the past padding out the narrative, and such depth and detail to the characters and their lives. I adored the character of Kerry, who despite her tough start in life is an amazing mum, a loyal and protective friend, with an incredible work ethic – it feels so unfair that she has to deal with so much, especially as the book unfolds and we learn more about her incredible actions as a child. Mike Gayle is such a skilled writer – and it definitely won’t be 20 years before I read another of his books.
Has Anyone Seen My Sex Life? by Kristen Bailey (Bookouture)
Someone asked me in a recent Cardiff Mummy Says bookclub for recommendations of something funny to read… and my mind went blank as I hadn’t read anything humorous in a while… and so I decided to remedy this. Has Anyone Seen My Sex Life? came top of the list when I searched on Amazon, with 79% 5 star reviews and as it was only 99p I decided to give it a whirl. Although it was cliched at times, and more like a 3 star book for me than 5, there were pages that made me laugh out loud, with parts of it so relatable, and it was an enjoyable and easy-paced read that I whizzed through pretty quickly. The book opens with Meg and Danny meeting in a pub, going home and having amazing sex. The next chapter, they are married parents of three having an awkward quickie in the morning, complete with lactating boobs and kids shouting for breakfast. There’s the chaos of the morning school run, the stereoptypical mums on the playground, Meg feeling self-conscious about her post-baby body, and wondering where her old life as a beauty journalist on a glossy magazine went. And then the discovery of an unusual package in the kitchen leaves her questioning her relationship. I have to say, I wasn’t quite prepared for where this plot was going to go. It’s rather risqué at times but in a humorous rather than erotic way. I loved the character of Danny, full of Northern charm and with an incredible talent that no one could have guessed… Has Anyone Seen My Sex Life? is a little far-fetched at times but overall it’s a fun and flirty read, a bit of escapism and a reminder of the importance of family and love. Fans of Gill Sims’ Why Mummy Drinks/Swears/Doesn’t Give a ****! will enjoy this one.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Little Brown)
Everything I Never Told You is a wonderfully-written story of family dynamics, secrets and grief. We know from the opening line that Lydia is dead but what we don’t know is how or why the favourite child of parents of three James and Marilyn died. The story unfolds gracefully as we learn more about James, Marilyn, Lydia and her siblings Nath and Hannah, the relationships between them, their secrets and lies and how often you don’t know someone as well as you think you do. This isn’t a thriller; in fact the pace might feel too slow for those who prefer a pacier and more dramatic read, but I loved how detailed the characters and descriptive prose were as we learned more about the struggles within each of their lives. Against a backdrop of 1970s America, Ng weaves in issues of race and gender, as the family members struggle to find their place in society. I particularly liked the mother-daughter dynamics, both between Lydia and Marilyn and Marilyn and her own mother, and how both mums hope for a different life for their daughters without appreciating that their daughters may want something different entirely. The ending was particularly poignant. Although I didn’t love this quite as much as Ng’s other novel Little Fires Everywhere the TV adaptation of which is now screening on Amazon Prime), it’s still a moving and emotional read which I highly recommend.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador)
I loved this dark and atmospheric historical thriller. It took me a few chapters to fully get into it, but once I did, I was captivated by the vivid language bringing to life all the sounds and smells of Victorian London, the tension and the sinister plot. The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, twin sister to Rose, who works painting china dolls in Victorian London. Iris yearns for more in life. She wants to escape the monotony of her job and the hold of her sister – once the most likely of the two to succeed until her face was badly disfigured by smallpox. When she meets Pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost and he asks her to become his model, she agrees, on condition he teaches her to paint so she can fulfil her dreams of becoming an artist – even though this arrangement means her family disown her. A brief encounter with Silas Reed, taxidermist and collector of curiosities, however, leads to a growing obsession that puts Iris in danger. Silas is a compelling character and Macneal gives us a wonderfully dark look at how his mind works in all its delusional glory, tapping into his that Victorian obsession with ‘curiosities’ perfectly. The second half of the book is a real page-turner as events escalate and Silas’s obsession becomes ever-more real. Amid all the suspense and thrills, the book portrays the reality for women during Victorian times, as well as class and hierarchy even among the working classes, with Iris bound by both.
In Five Years by Rebecca Searle (Quercus)
I noticed this one at number three in Amazon’s contemporary fiction chart, saying it was perfect for fans of One Day (David Nicholls) and Me Before You (JoJo Moyes) – both of which I loved – and as it was only 99p on my Books app, and accompanied by great reviews, I couldn’t resist. It’s a story about Type-A Manhattan lawyer Dannie Kohan, who nails the most important job interview of her life and gets engaged to the perfect man on the same day. She’s well on her way to fulfilling her life goals. However, that night she falls asleep and then wakes up in a different apartment with a different ring on her finger, and in the company of a very different man. It’s the same date but five years in the future. She wakes to realise it was just a dream, despite it feeling so real. She files the experience to the back of her mind… until four and a half years later, when Dannie turns down a street and there, standing on the corner, is the man from her dream. However, this isn’t the love story you’re expecting and the book takes us n various twists and turns before its conclusion, which isn’t how you might have expected the book to end but works perfectly.
Initially I found it difficult to warm to main character Dannie, she has an air of arrogance to her and is quite controlling of people on her life. Although in hindsight, perhaps that’s the point as she undergoes something of a transformation throughout the book, learning more to listen to her gut feeling and go with her instinct, rather than let her life be controlled by order, planning and logic. The book is very beautifully written in parts; the last few chapters had me sobbing. The friendship between Dannie and her life-long bestie Bella is central to the book, with many ups and downs along the way. This book isn’t perfect by any means but it’s an easy and heartwarming read, filled with love.
The hardback was released last month, along with the e-reader version, with the paperback due to be released in October.
No Run Intended by Hannah E Phillips (self-published on Amazon Kindle)
Merthyr’s Hannah Phillips is something of a local celebrity in South Wales running circles. Known as Hannah the Runner on Instagram and YouTube, her incredibly witty and charismatic posts are relatable and honest. I read this book as part of a book club I hosted with She Runs: Cardiff, the running club I’m a member of. We all loved it. Self-published a few years ago, the book charts Hannah’s journey from overweight couch lover to half marathon runner. She wrote it mostly as a personal project for family and friends to read, never expecting it to explode in popularity like it did, so there are typos and formatting issues throughout, but once you get beyond those, this is a humorous yet moving exploration of how one woman fell in love with running and became happier and healthier as a result. She was inspired to run after realising the fat girl wearing the same top as her in the pub was in fact her reflection, and set off on her first run in the dark wearing a balaclava and almost getting arrested by the police. Slowly but surely she loses weight, gains confidence, and achieves distances she once thought were impossible, including Cardiff Half Marathon. As a runner myself, it was all very relatable; that sheer elation when she achieves a milestone distance and can barely believe it. At times I was laughing out loud, when she’s chased by geese or Jack Russells. Other times were painfully sad, like when she talks about miscarriage and mental health. If you’re someone who runs but struggles to call themselves ‘a runner’, or if you’re someone thinking about running, you’ll love this book. It’s worth watching the videos on Hannah’s Facebook page where she reads the first two chapters to hear it in the voice in which it was written. I’m looking forward to part two of Hannah’s journey, Run Intended, also available on Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry, you can download the app for free on a smartphone or tablet and order books via the Amazon website.
The Mercies by Kiran Millward Hargrave (Picador)
What a book! This is an absolutely incredible read; I loved it. It’s dramatic, emotional, harrowing at times, and so compelling. It’s set on the remote Norwegian island of Vardø in 1617, when a freak storm kills pretty much the entire population of men, who were at sea fishing. As the women – including the story’s protagonist Maren – begin to rebuild their lives without their husbands, brothers and sons, rumours in other villages start that the storm wasn’t a freak of nature, but rather an act of witchcraft, to rid the island of its men so that the women could be in charge. A year or so after the storm, Commissioner Absolom Cornet arrives from Scotland, along with his new bride Ursa – who knows nothing of her husband’s role in persecuting ‘witches’ – keen to hunt out the evil. As suspicions are cast around the village, the women turn on each other, and religion is used as a means of persecution as ancient customs and beliefs are called out for being the work of the devil.
The two central characters of Maren and Ursa are both complicated and multi-dimensional and as their friendship develops throughout the book, each of them grows because of the other. I enjoyed the portrayal of strong and independent women in this book, at a time when the male patriarchy didn’t believe women could be independent at all.
Although it’s not a true story as such, it is based on real events. As Millwood Hargrave explains in her notes at the end of the book, the storm actually happened and, as we all know, so did the persecution and murder of women thought to be witches. It’s emotionally disturbing at times, not least because you know events like this actually happened and can’t help but think about the real-life victims. The prose is so vivid and descriptive, but it’s understated too, resisting the temptation to over-dramatise. It’s not a book you can rush through, because there’s so much detail in the writing. However, it doesn’t feel slow either. The final quarter of the book is utterly gripping,
I loved half a world away. Just lovely. I have a few of the others on my list already but will add the rest x