I’ve read a lot this year! I’ve always been a book lover but my reading has gone into overdrive this year with lockdown. Losing myself in books is helping to keep my mind in check; it’s an escape from the strange and uncertain times we are living in, keeping me away from the rolling news and social media.
I know Cardiff Mummy Says is read by lots of book lovers – my round-up posts always get a good response both via the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page and on my Instagram page. The last one I wrote was back in June when we were in the height of lockdown so I figured it was about time for a new one.
I hope it provides some inspiration if you’re looking for some new reading material. Let me know if you’ve read any of the books listed below and what you thought of them. Also, I love to hear your recommendations too, so pop in the comments any page-turners you’ve enjoyed recently.
For more book recommendations, see the Books channel here on my blog, or the Bookworms Instagram Stories highlight reels on the Cardiff Mummy Says Instagram channel.
The New Girl by Harriet Walker
(Hodder and Stoughton)
Margot Jones is the glamorous fashion editor at glossy women’s magazine Haute, pregnant with her first child. She’s struggling with a huge loss of professional identity and fears that her replacement will be better than her. Maggie is the not-so-glam freelance journalist covering Margot’s maternity leave. Having had a taste of living Margot’s high life, she isn’t sure she wants to give it up. Winnie is Margot’s best friend since high school… but there’s a sinister secret that has bonded the two together since their teens. There’s suspicion and paranoia aplenty in this fast-paced debut from Harriet Walker, fashion editor at The Times, The New Girl taps right into complex female friendships, insecurities of new mums, grief and more. It’s rare to find a book which exposes these inner worries so explicitly as we see the darkest thoughts of the three lead characters laid bare. It’s tense and atmospheric and has a few twists along the way. It felt unsettling at times, but very readable too. I related to Margot’s feelings of isolation and anxiety that so many new mums experience, not to mention the flashbacks to the complicated teenage friendship and bullying in Margot and Winnie’s past. Plus it’s all set amidst the glamour of a leading fashion magazine, which given its author you imagine to be pretty accurate. One word of warning though. This book should have a clear trigger on baby loss as there’s a very harrowing storyline that is a huge part of the narrative that will be tough for some to read.
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
I adored The Penguin Lessons. First published in 2016, it’s a charming, beautiful book recounting the true story of the author’s unlikely friendship with the South American penguin he rescued from the brink of death. It’s set in the mid 1970s where Tom is teaching at a prestigious boarding school in Buenos Aires. He takes a road trip to Uruguay where he finds just one survivor on a beach-full of penguins killed by an oil slick. Not wanting to leave the creature to die, he takes him with him and cleans him up in the bath in the place he’s staying. He tries to return him to the sea, but the penguin doesn’t want to leave his side… and so he smuggles him back across the border to the school in Argentina. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the unfolding personality of Juan Salvador Pinguino and the life-changing bond he forms not just with Tom but others at the school. I loved the way Tom imagined what the penguin was thinking, writing out little conversations between the two and interpreting his looks and gestures.
The book is laugh-out-loud funny at times, for example when Tom tries to transport the distinctive black and white bird across international borders in a string bag. But it’s also really sad as we are reminded of the devastating impact humans have on the natural world around us. As well as depicting the unlikeliest of friendships, Tom takes us on a journey into what life was like in 1970s South America, as we learn about how the collapse of the Peron government affected life for the ordinary people, as well as recounting his various trips around the varied landscape of Argentina. I have a slight bias with this book in that I love penguins and Argentina is a country I travelled to around 15 years ago. But even without an interest in either, this is a lovely heart-warming read, the perfect antidote to life right now.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where The Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, who we first meet as a little girl living in the marshes of North Carolina. Her mother and siblings have all fled from her abusive, drunken father, who himself soon disappears too, and Kya is pretty much left to fend for herself. Shunned by the local townspeople, she lives a lonely existence but somehow learns to survive, finding comfort in the rich habitat around her. Running parallel to Kya’s past narrative, is the present-day discovery of the body of the popular and handsome Chase Andrews. Suspicion immediately falls on the ‘marsh girl’ – but is she capable of such a thing or do they just want to believe it’s her because she is different? Part coming of age story, part murder mystery, the book is tied together with vivid descriptions of the natural wildlife of the marshes (the author herself is a wildlife scientist and I definitely learned a lot throughout this book). It is a little far-fetched at times and I felt the description slowed down the flow of the book (although I have friends who adored the book precisely because of its descriptiveness), but it’s a good and enjoyable read with twists throughout. After an opening chapter that hooked me straight in, I thought it was a little slow-going to start, but then the pace picked up and I found it hard to put down in the second half. The ending had me re-examining a lot of what I’d read, as I realised the significance of little plot subtleties, and it played on my mind for days. I posted a picture of this on my Instagram Stories when I was about to start reading it and I don’t think I’ve ever had such a response to a book, with dozens of messages calling it “brilliant”, “amazing”, “best book I’ve ever read”.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
You can guess from the blurb on the back cover – “Tiffy and Leon share a flat. Tiffy and Leon share a bed. Tiffy and Leon have never met…” – exactly where this book is headed and yes, it’s predictable at times, but I enjoyed the journey that took us there. Tiffy, who works in publishing, and nightshift-working palliative care nurse Leon, embark upon an unusual flatsharing agreement whereby she has the flat from evening until morning while he’s at work and he has it in the day when she’s at the office. The two have never met – it’s a condition from Leon’s girlfriend that they can never be in the flat at the same time – but they build up a friendship from little notes left around the flat and soon find themselves entwined in each other’s lives. The plot has a bit more depth than I was expecting, with Tiffy’s manipulative ex boyfriend and Leon’s brother in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but ultimately this is a comforting and easy-to-read book, a perfect bit of escapism.
Blood Orange by Harriet Trice
There’s been a lot of hype around Blood Orange – and the reviews are divided. Some say they couldn’t put it down, others that it’s predictable with some uncomfortable, even disturbing, themes. With domestic abuse, gaslighting, rape, murder, and even auto-erotic asphyxiation featuring, it’s not always an easy read. But it’s so full of secrets, twists and complex characters that I found myself turning the pages late into the night desperate to know what was going to happen next. Alison is the main character, a barrister who has just landed her first murder case. Married to therapist Carl and mother to Matilda, she’s having an affair with her colleague Patrick. She also drinks a lot. Trice really plays with our feelings towards Alison: do we like this self-destructive woman or not? She’s certainly a frustrating and unreliable protagonist at times, but slowly we begin to learn more about what’s behind her behaviour, seeing it even before Alison sees it herself. As Alison prepares to defend Madeline, a mother accused of murdering her husband but whose story doesn’t quite add up, she begins receiving anonymous, malicious messages making it clear someone else knows her sordid secrets. Can she regain control of her life, or is she set to lose everything? Trice spent 10 years working as a barrister meaning there’s a realism to the courtroom side of this domestic noir. Coupled with its chilling storyline or revenge and obsession, it had me completely gripped.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Without a doubt one of my favourite books of the year so far, Daisy Jones and the Six tells the story of a fictional 1970s rock band from their rise in the LA music scene to becoming one of the world’s biggest bands, and their shock split at the height of their fame. Loosely inspired by Fleetwood Mac and their Rumours album, the book is written in a documentary style where we hear from so many different voices – band members, managers, producers, journalists, friends and family, as they reflect and share their recollections. The interview style the book is written in worked really well. It all felt so vivid and real and easily jumped to life in my mind as a rock documentary. (In fact, more than one friend who has read this book has told me they had to search online to see if the band was real or not because it’s so convincingly written.) I loved the way the plot unfolded through the different voices and the different takes on the same situation from different characters. I love the character of Daisy, such a complex girl who falls into the trappings of the rock’n’roll lifestyle but who refuses to be content with being merely a muse, and is so fed up of men stealing her ideas and taking credit for them she takes back control.
It’s no surprise to hear that an Amazon TV series of the book is on its way, produced by Reese Witherspoon and starring Riley Keogh – daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and granddaughter of Elvis – as Daisy. The format lends itself so well to TV. Taylor Jenkins Reid has even provided the lyrics to the entirety of the band’s album at the back of the book. I can’t wait to see and hear them being brought to life.
Beach Read by Emily Henry
I was drawn to this because of the five star reviews on Amazon and although it was more of a three/four star read for me, I really enjoyed it as a light and heartwarming read with a bit of substance. It’s about two authors – January, from the school of Happily Ever Afters, and Gus who pens more bleak literary fiction. They each have reservations about the other’s genre but with both struggling to finish their current works they strike a deal to each write a novel in the other’s style and see who can get published first. There are a few predictable elements but I liked the character development as we learn more about their vulnerabilities. Both are dealing with different hurts and betrayal, and there are secrets and truths throughout as both learn to trust and understand. I enjoyed the author’s musings (through her characters, of course) on the double standards in literature by which books written by women are classified as women’s fiction and deemed to appeal to women only whereas books written by male authors are more often classified as fiction to be read by all.
Three Hours by Rosamund Lipton
This is a real chiller of a book, uneasy to read at times but so compelling and thought-provoking. We discussed it as part of the Cardiff Mummy Says online bookclub back in the summer and it generated some really interesting discussion. The setting is a school under siege – the book opens with the headmaster having just been shot, students are bandaging him up, teachers and children are barricading themselves into classrooms, a gunman is on the loose. The action takes place within three hours which adds to the tension, as police terrorist teams and psychiatrists try to identify and stop the siege and parents anxiously await. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away but one of the hardest-hitting storylines for me was one mother’s realisation that she barely knows her child. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, some I saw coming, some I didn’t at all. It’s a hard novel to read as a parent but it’s a really good read, full of tension but also hope and strength from some of the younger characters in how they deal with the awful situation in which they find themselves too.
The Catcus by Sarah Haywood
This New York Times bestseller is soon to be a Netflix Original starring Reese Witherspoon as control-queen Susan Green who, aged 45, falls unexpectedly pregnant. The book has been likened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (although I didn’t think The Catcus was quite as good), with both lead characters displaying poor social skills, and Susan as prickly as the cacti in her beloved collection. As well as coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, Susan and her brother, who she has never really liked, fall out of over the contents of their recently-deceased mother’s will. As we learn more about Susan’s difficult childhood, we begin to understand and empathise with her more, and we see how her relationships with those around her begin to change as she lets people into her life. The Catcus is a book about friendships and relationships, about love and loss, and about learning to let people in.
My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
This is a real treat of a book, fast-paced with plenty of dark humour, and a brilliant lead character in the form of Korede, sister of the serial killer of the book’s title. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. The short chapters make it really easy to read, some are just half a page, giving it a real filmic quality (in fact, UK-based production company Working Title have already snapped up the rights). Korede is elder sister to Ayoola, her far more glamorous and beautiful sister. Ayoola has a habit of killing her boyfriends, calling on her big sister to (literally) clear up her mess. But when Ayoola sets her eyes on a handsome doctor who works at the hospital where Korede is a nurse, Korede tries her best to stop the inevitable There are some quite awful moments in the book, but the humour completely changes the tone of the narrative. At times I thought I knew what was going to happen, but actually I was wrong, with the book questioning loyalty, motives and morality. Set in Lagos, the Nigerian culture adds such a wonderful element to both the dialogue (a friend of mine listened to the audio version and said it was brilliant) and the relationships between the characters, in particular the girls’ mother. I read this with one of my ‘real-world’ book clubs and it provoked so much discussion and moral questioning. Overall we loved it. Our only criticism was that we wanted more. Its shorter length makes it feel like more of a novella than a novel and we were left wanting to know more about some of the characters and sub-plots.
The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley
I loved this beautifully-written book and read it over a couple of days, I couldn’t put it down. Café owner Monica finds a pale green exercise book whilst cleaning up the tables, it’s called The Authenticity Project and inside Julian Jessop, an elderly local man, writes how lonely he is and how invisible he feels. “What happens next is up to you,” he writes, and luckily Monica decides to befriend the old man and share her own secrets, setting in motion a chain of events that sees a cast of complex characters searching for their own truth and helping others find theirs. The story is told from the perspective of several different characters which worked really well, with each bringing something different to the narrative. I cried a couple of times but ultimately it’s a feel-good read about honesty, mistakes, making amends, forgiveness, friendship, community and love. A real heart-warmer of a book that is perfect for these uncertain times in which we live.
The Saturday Morning Parkrun by Jules Wake
(One More Chapter)
A heartwarming tale of finding friendship and community in the unlikeliest of places, I read The Saturday Morning Parkrun over two evenings and loved spending time with these likeable and complex characters. Claire and Ash are both high flying career people with little time for much outside of work, but a chance meeting leads to a steamy fling. However, dramatic changes in both their lives means things end before they’ve really begun… until they meet again in very different circumstances and both learn to appreciate the truly important things in life.
The book is written from Claire’s first person perspective. She’s a relatable, complex character who really develops throughout. I also loved the character of Hilda, an eccentric and kind old lady with a love of neon tracksuits, who befriends both Claire and Ash in the park and who has a knack of helping people realise what they should be doing in life before they even realise themselves. Aside from the romance, this is very much a book about friendship and the blossoming relationship between Claire and Hilda, two unlikely friends, is beautifully executed.
As you might have guessed from the book’s title, running, and Parkrun, features throughout and it is this which ultimately brings the community together and helps Claire and Ash work through their issues. As someone who has seen this happening through my own running group She Runs: Cardiff, I loved this element and related to it a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fiction book where running features so much. The book discusses mental health, loneliness, abandonment, and so much more and although it’s a little sugar coated at times, it’s a life-affirming tale that will leave you smiling.
Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah
(Hodder and Stoughton)
I’d been intrigued by the synopsis of this book for a few weeks before I finally downloaded and read it. It’s the story of mum of two Beth, who can’t resist driving by the house of the former best friend she hasn’t seen for 12 years while in the area. As she watches from her parked car across the road, she sees Flora, her old friend, step out of her car along with her children Thomas and Emily. However, while Flora looks the same, albeit older as expected, Thomas and Emily are still just five and three years old. The same age as they were 12 years ago. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt – Beth hears Flora call them by their names – but they haven’t changed at all. Why haven’t they grown? And where’s their younger sister Georgina?
I whizzed through this book over a weekend, intrigued to know the reason for this impossible scenario, my own theories quickly overturned as protagonist Beth becomes obsessed with trying to figure out just what is going on in the lives of Flora and her husband Lewis. In fact at times her obsession is so strong you wonder if she is the one with the problem. The plot takes us through many twists and turns, it’s a little far-fetched at times, but compelling nonetheless, as we realise the lengths some will go to to preserve a perfect image and to keep control.
I’ve seen other less-favourable reviews on Amazon, so it’s clear not everyone is a fan, and I haven’t read any of Sophie Hannah’s 15+ other books, but I enjoyed this page-turner which kept me guessing almost until the end and I had a few of my Instagram Stories followers mention they loved it too.
Currently available in hardback, the paperback is due for release next February. I was lucky enough to download it for 99p.
Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan
(Simon and Schuster)
Although not quite the ‘typical thriller’ I thought this book was going to be, Little Disasters is a compelling, gripping book, well constructed, highly emotional and tackles some important subjects too. It’s about Liz, a senior registrar in paediatrics, called down from children’s ward to A&E to examine a baby with a head fracture. The baby is Betsey, third child of her good friend – although they have drifted of late – Jess. But Jess’s explanations of how Betsey got her injuries don’t add up. Despite Jess being one of the most maternal and patient women she knows, Liz has to fulfil her professional duty and inform the police and social services… As the novel unfolds, present day events are juxtaposed with elements from the characters’ pasts as dark secrets and repressed memories help us understand why the characters behave as they do. We wonder whether events from Liz’s own past are clouding her judgement and why Jess is so scared to tell the truth. Written from the perspective of Liz, Jess and on occasion other key characters, this is a story of friendship, the hidden pressures of motherhood, maternal mental health, forgiveness, letting go and so much more. It immediately drew me in and although some parts are hard to read, it’s full of tension and emotion as we try to piece together just what happened to Betsey, with twists and turns along the way that keep you guessing. Sarah Vaughan is also the author of best-selling Anatomy of Scandal, which is about to be made into a Netflix series. It’s the story of an aristocratic British women whose life is turned upside down after her husband admits an indiscretion to her, and then is accused of a terrible crime involving sexual consent.
The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver
I loved Josie Silver’s previous novel, One Day In December and although The Two Lives of Lydia Bird isn’t quite as good, it’s still one of those books that you can find yourself completely absorbed in and can whizz through in few days. It takes you through the full range of emotions, and brought tears to my eyes on a few occasions.
Lydia and Freddie have been together since they were teenagers and now, aged 27, they are engaged to be married. But tragedy strikes and Freddie is killed – we know this from the back cover, it’s not a spoiler! As the title suggests, Lydia finds herself living parallel lives. In one world she’s consumed by grief; in the other Freddie is still alive and life is carrying on as normal.
You do have to suspend your disbelief slightly to read this book. Is Lydia really living parallel lives as a result of her medication? Or is this her mind’s way of helping her to cope? The book is a raw exploration of grief and its complexities as Lydia finds herself increasingly wanting to spend time in the parallel life where Freddie hasn’t died, neglecting her ‘real’ life. Written from Lydia’s first person perspective, it’s an emotional read as Lydia struggles to process her feelings of guilt and is torn between clinging to the past and facing the future.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another one of my favourite books of the year so far, I absolutely adored City of Girls. I was torn between not being able to put it down but also not wanting to read it too quickly because I didn’t want to leave behind the incredible characters and the world in which they lived. Written by Elizabeth Gilbert – most famous for Eat, Pray, Love which was turned into a film starring Julia Roberts – this is a beautiful exploration of life for women in 1940s New York. The narrative is so detailed and descriptive, conjuring up the theatre scene of 1940s New York as Vivian, our narrator, is sent away by her disappointed parents, to live with her Aunt Peggy at her ramshackle theatre, the Lily Playhouse. At first in awe of the glamorous showgirls, Vivian soon finds herself befriending them and living their lifestyle – until one incident sends her life crashing down around her. The book is written as a letter, from Vivian, now in her 90s, to a character whose significance becomes clear much later in the book, and is a real voyage of self-discovery as she reveals all about her life. Women’s sexual liberation is a huge theme, and double standards abound. War and post-traumatic stress disorder feature with harrowing detail. Love and friendship are important throughout. I adored the character of Vivian who is flawed and complicated but also a very likable woman who ultimately finds the strength to live her life on her own terms, breaking the conventions and expectations of the times.
The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright
The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright is a tender tale of soul-searching, friendship, love, motherhood, grief and suppressed family secrets as one woman walks out on her marriage after 29 years. It’s told in turns by Kay, who shocks her husband Richard by packing a bag and leaving him without any prior warning, her daughter Stella as she moves out of the family home and tries to make her own way in life, and letters in reverse chronology between Kay and her best friend Ursula, known as Bear, who lives in Australia. It’s a tearful read at times, although slightly far-fetched in others, but is ultimately a life-affirming story of courage and resilience.
I loved that the story featured an older woman as its central character and also that it showed her growing confidence, independence and trust in her own decisions. Her character is complex and multi-dimensional and I wondered at times if she really knew what she was doing or what she actually wanted from leaving Richard.
Her friendship with Ursula, the childhood best friend who moved to Australia, adds a lovely dimension to the story, with the two having communicated predominantly by letter for decades.
At one point I thought it was going down a slightly predictable conclusion but I love that the author took the harder path and actually preferred that it ended this way.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
When I chose this for the Cardiff Mummy Says book club back in May, I had no idea just how relevant it would be by the time we discussed it in June amid global anti-racism protests. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read in years and undoubtedly worthy of winning the 2019 Booker Prize, a title it shared with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.
Girl, Woman, Other is not your traditional novel. There’s no major plot line, no central character, with the book instead featuring 12 beautifully written stories, each focussing on a different woman, and all interlinked somehow, creating a diverse look at black heritage in Britain, over the last hundred years.
The women are all interconnected somehow, some are different generations of the same family, some are teachers and pupils, others are friends. Some we don’t find out the connection until the book’s final pages. All have a story to share about what it means to be a black woman in Britain. It’s written with such observant characterisation and intriguing detail I found myself double-checking that it was a work of fiction and although it very much is, I know from listening to and reading interviews with the author that several of the events in the book come from the author’s own experiences, which makes the book all the more poignant.
I loved the character of Amma, the first woman we meet in the book and whose new play provides an arc for the majority of the other characters to come together in different ways. Through her, we learn about the racism in the theatre world with Amma and her friend Dominique both so disillusioned at the only parts being available to them being slave, servant, prostitute, nanny or criminal they set up their own theatre company. Elsewhere, we see younger women feeling they have to reject their heritage to succeed, competent businesswomen being judged on the colour of their skin,
Race and racism are a huge part of the book, but Evaristo also writes so eloquently about sex and sexuality, friendship and motherhood. She tackles more complex subjects including abusive relationships, gender identity, adoption, childhood neglect, rape and more.
The lack of punctuation will irritate some; it certainly took me a while to get used to it, but the flowing style gives the book a poetic feel about it.
This is a book that everyone should read.
The Flip Side by James Bailey
I noticed this one in the number one spot on the Apple iBooks app and as it was only 99p, and the reviews pretty good, I thought I’d give it a chance. It’s an easy-to-read rom com that, despite being a little cheesy at times, I found hard to put down. The concept of someone making all his decisions based on the flip of a coin intrigued me and I also loved that it was a male author writing in the female dominated rom com genre. Josh is our main character and we join him on what should have been the happiest night of his life so far – proposing to his fiancé in a private pod on the London Eye on New Year’s Eve. Except she says no and Josh has to spend the next 29 minutes alone with her until they reach the ground. Not only is he jilted, but as he lives in her flat and works in the hotel owned by her father, he’s also homeless and unemployed. Dismayed by his own lack of judgement, he decides instead that every important decision for the coming year will be determined by the flip of a coin.
Josh is a very endearing character who I quickly found myself rooting for, and I liked the supporting characters too. There were some funny moments, some sad, some cringeworthy, but ultimately this is a book of romance, friendship and sometimes doing something a little spontaneous and crazy in the name of love. The book is set mostly in the author’s home city of Bristol and I loved the references to notable landmarks (it’s where my husband is from so it’s a place I know well). The action also takes us to London, Munich, Amsterdam and Paris, and I loved the descriptions of these cities too. There were a few twists and turns along the way which helped the pace, and although you know these kinds of books always end with a happy ending, I enjoyed the journey that took us there.
A feel good novel that left me wondering if I need to be a little more spontaneous on life too. It would make a great film.