The Seven Sisters, by Lucinda Riley
Yes, shivers run down spines and everyone is fabulously rich, mysterious and beautiful so put aside all hope for a literary experience, embrace the superlatives and read this for the sheer joy of a long and complicated story, well told.
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Master & Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
I felt a huge sense of relief to get through this ordeal of a book without being scuppered or broadsided and blasted by a thirty-six pounder or court marshalled and shot by my own side. I kept a furtive lookout for the massing enemy French fleet showing the tips of their masts over the horizon. The thought of comforting myself with several bottles of wine with dinner occurred to me, and a tot of rum a day wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Much of the detail of the action went right over my head and I know that’s the truth for most readers, though there are men who swear they understand every manoeuvre (who you really should not engage in conversation if you have somewhere else to be in the next, say, five hours).
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The Secrets of Strangers, by Charity Norman
Next time you are in a café, pretend to be Charity Norman and imagine a backstory for everyone in the room. I heard her talk last week and she explained that this was how she came to write the The Secrets of Strangers, just looking around patrons in a café and imagining their stories. One customer knows she has just failed IVF again and is waiting for the confirmation, she’s on a timeline for court and has four minutes to pick up a coffee. Another is an ex-teacher with a gambling addiction, sleeping rough. A boy comes in for breakfast with his grandmother and he will need saving first. There’s a woman who has escaped such atrocities in her homeland it is hard to believe she still functions but she is rock solid and kind to strangers. The girl behind the counter plays too easily with others’ emotions; one man gaslights and manipulates and is about to get shot and one is so traumatised he will pull the trigger.
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The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
They’re not old. Early fifties is not old. But after sleeping rough on the trail for a few weeks they are often mistaken for a pair of old tramps. True, they have lost their house and are living hand to mouth, sleeping in a tent on waste land and often going without meals. Ray talks of her birds-nest hair and filthy clothes and Moth’s illness makes him frail and tentative. They kind of are tramps. Don’t judge the homeless, is a refrain throughout the story.
This is the journey of a couple who find themselves homeless. It’s a six hundred and thirty mile journey. Unable to secure a flat and with no income (their home-stay business lost with the house), they pick up a copy of Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path and decide to walk through the summer, freedom camping, a burden on no one. They have £115 topped up with a small weekly benefit, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, a copy of Beowolf. Not much else. Oh, and the complication that Moth has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and been told to get lots of rest, take occasional gentle walks, not too far, and be careful on the stairs.
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State Highway One by Sam Coley
State Highway One is a disturbing read. Gripping, though. As fast paced as the car roaring down those familiar NZ roads at death defying speed with the deranged, drunk, sleepless boy at the wheel and his harpy twin sister lighting his cigarettes and talking in his ear. He loses her occasionally but she always finds him again. Weird, that.
They’re both selfish, unlikable kids. They’re made that way by their selfish, unlikable parents who are Auckland mega-celebs: rich movie moguls who trot the globe and abandon their kids in the swanky party pad to finish their private schooling free-range. Do people like this really exist? Feels very LA, but perhaps Auckland is heading that way and growing a generation of rich, entitled brats.
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To kindle or not to kindle?
I know, I know, — holding a paperback is lovely. It’s full of nostalgia for your lost childhood, it seems more authentic, somehow, than reading from a screen, there’s the weight of it in your hand that tells you how bloody big the book is and you know when you’re nearing the end. You can flick back to the name of the bloke you’ve forgotten which was on the top left a few pages back and balance it on it’s spine to see if it falls open at the saucy bits (everyone does that, right?)
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Two books by Eileen Merriman
Get hooked onto Eileen Merriman for some fast, compulsive reading. These are page turners, books for which you need a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door. Believe me, Merriman will disturb you enough. Don’t worry about the categorisation, read the YA books, too.
I first dipped into Merriman’s writing with A Trio of Sophies. Young adults must be into pretty dark stuff these days. The main character, Sophie, is a school girl with two other Sophies in her group, but there’s nothing Sweet Valley High about them. Plenty of rocks below those schoolgirl smiles. The main theme is a teacher/pupil power imbalance, a subject that probably could use talking around before giving this to your teenage daughter.
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Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owen
Go jumpin’ in this book, gonna get yo’ boots muddy. Ain’t no warming up. Git your ear in. Ma’s gone wearin’ her gator shoes. It’s a sho’-nuff mess.
In Where the Crawdad Sings, Owens transports you with a splash straight into the marsh on the Carolina coast where nature rules and life is determined by instinct and genetics. If you observe the marsh closely, the patterns of the fireflies and rituals of the preying mantis, we’re not so different to the critters.
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The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
I’ve included Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop because a dear friend says it’s her favourite book ever, and I am pretty sure she’s not alone in that.
It’s set in a fading record shop in a bypassed street where the owner, our Frank, magically recommends exactly the music that people need to make them feel fine. Nice idea. Bit of a fantasy.
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Before we were yours, by Lisa Wingate
This novel contains two stories that we know will connect. We can guess, but don’t know the full details until the end. It is based on shameful historical fact that makes us keep reading through the slightly klutzy text in the hope that, bloody hell, if this is true let’s make sure it never happens again. It goes on my “good holiday read” shelf. Probably wouldn’t take it to book club.
The interesting story is the one of a twelve-year-old river kid in Tennassee in 1939. Her mother is birthing twins on the houseboat and the black midwife walks out because she doesn’t want a dead white woman on her hands. When her father leaves for hospital in the skiff, the girl and her 4 siblings are kidnapped. This is a retelling of a bogey story as old as the hills (stabs me in the heart every time), with an orphanage, cellars, beatings, gruel, death and starvation until the cute blond kids get sold off to wealthy but infertile couples. The kids’ past disappears like the river and there is no psychological help for them ever apart from what they can cobble together themselves. It’s horrible.
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