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Saturday 22 June 2024

Latest Books Reviewed

A woman reading during a picnic. Picture by Sueda Dilli for Pexels

Dear friends.  I'm back with another batch of new books which hit the shelves this month.  They were all provided by NetGalley, except any marked*.  NetGalley reviewers allow publishers to gather comments and early feedback on books, ahead of publication, via the NetGalley website. 

As I mentioned last month, I'm putting myself under less pressure by not requesting too many books.  I revisited quite a few favourites from my library on holiday. And it's a quiet time of the year for publishers because the summer blockbusters were shared several months ago.

Without further ado, here's the June selection. A very varied selection. 

Sandwich by Catherine Newman (5 stars)

The most luminous, passionate account of family love I've ever read. Rocky is the Sandwich. A self confessed narcissist aged 54, she's the filling in the annual holiday sandwich that has her devoted elderly parents on one side, and her two grown up, and moved away, children, plus a girlfriend, on the other. Not to mention the huge old cat Chicken, who comes with them.

As they drift back into their usual routine - the beach tram at 1pm, fresh lobster, ice cream - the family shimmers with life, joy and sadness. Huge secrets are finally released. Ricky's mom has a health incident, which shows the fragility of life. The possibility of new life points to the perpetuation of life.

Rocky is going through menopause with disbelief and hilarity at its embarrassments. Her husband Nick, the analytical sort, is not prone to sharing his feelings, and it causes occasional friction. Rocky swims, she loves, she grieves. What a wonderful portrait of mid life.

I gulped down this sandwich in two very satisfying bites.

The Chamber by Will Dean (3 stars)

A locked room thriller which gives a glimpse into the the challenging and demanding world of the saturation diver. They are isolated in a chamber for several weeks and totally dependent on their support team for food, hot water, medication, even flushing the loo.
I couldn't devour the first few chapters quickly enough. Ellen's first dive, a long shift starting at 4am, was full of danger and menace, particularly with the spectre of a huge unknown predator nudging her as she scrambled to get into the diving bell. I wondered why this environment had not been explored much in thrillers.
The reason became clear. The divers undergo a long decompression period before being released, and to fill time we spent a long time reading about their back stories. After sinister developments and the decision to return to Aberdeen, it was a long time before the climax was reached. The final few hours of decompression were tense and edgy but the ending somewhat inconclusive. I would have rated as a 4 but there were too many gaps between the shock incidents which threw us back into the doldrums.

This is Fine by Poorna Bell   (5 stars)

A wonderful book which gives a warm glow of female love and understanding.
At the start I was sceptical. It seemed a stretch that Padma was being entrusted with looking after a wayward 15 year old niece she hardly knew. 
But the story developed beautifully. You could see the bond developing, in a natural and organic way, between Padma and her niece. There are several other sub plots. Padma doesn't get on very well with her ambitious and controlling sister Daisy, who seems to have turned her back on her Indian ancestry. Her boyfriend Wallace wants them to "take a break" because he's expecting Padma to conform to his wish to have children.
The topic of racism is handled sensitively. Small seaside towns like Harkness are not always the most welcoming.
I loved the friendship between Padma and Guyanese cafe owner Selina. The recipes and food were a joy and added so much to the book. I was inwardly cheering when both of them started to realise their dreams.

Garden of her Heart by Zoe Richardson (4 stars)

A very predictable story but well executed. I predict a big summer hit.
Holly Bush is in a bad way when we first meet her. She has been off work for months after a brutal and traumatic incident. She has no friends and rarely goes out. I would say she's depressed. After being made redundant she goes to a nearby retreat for crystals, yoga, smoothies and so on. Rescuing the garden, making friends and finding love restore her to her old self. As her nan would say, the garden of her heart has been cleared of weeds and is full of growth and new shoots. If you like uplifting and happy endings, this one is for you. 

The Secret History of Audrey James by Heather Marshall (5 stars) 

I read this on my recent holiday. An epic and gripping novel from WW2. Run against two timelines, we first meet Audrey James, a British pianist, in 1938. She's preparing for her performance at the Conservatoire in Berlin where she is a student. In heart breaking scenes a shopping trip for a dress turns to tragedy for Audrey, her best friend Ilse and Ilse's family, with whom Audrey is lodging.  The family home is requisitioned by German officers and Audrey is forced to become their housekeeper as she doesn't want to leave without her friend.

We switch to 2010 and find Kate Mercer preparing for a a new job, hundreds of miles from her home. Her new boss, Audrey James, has been running a hotel more or less single handedly for the last few decades. In her 90s, she's not happy to find that the part-time housekeeper has hired Kate. 

I normally find split timelines irritating but Heather Marshall kept the story line gripping throughout. I welcomed the returns to Alnwick and the unfolding story there in 2010 as much as I enjoyed the subterfuge and intrigue in Germany as Audrey infiltrated a resistance cell.

The characters are deeply memorable. I loved how Audrey was an indefatigable and determined old woman in her 90s as well as in her 20s.

Highly accomplished historical fiction. 

The Night Owl Sings by Judy McConnell (4 stars)

It's rare to find short stories where the characters are older people. The Night Owl Sings is a remarkable collection of stories by Judy McConnell. She introduces us to the bombastic Uncle Basil, travelling with his sister and her passive, single 50+ daughter.

We also meet Lila, a 78 year old whose benign indignation at being sidelined by her son and his wife is concealing some unpalatable truths. 

The stories are unusual, in the true spirit of short stories, but memorable. Each one is perfectly crafted with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Relationships end, characters question their past actions, some confound or delight us. 

Thanks Judy for giving the over 60s a bright, shining voice when we are normally portrayed as people in decline with outdated views and nothing to contribute. 

Amy and Isabelle* by Elizabeth Strout (5 stars)

This is not a new book, it's one of US writer Elizabeth Strout's earlier novels. It was the only one I hadn't read. If you haven't discovered Strout before, you're in for a treat. She writes about two towns in Maine, Crosby, by the sea, and Shirley Falls.  Her books feature the same characters throughout,  with a focus on particular people, such as the redoubtable Olive Kitteridge,  and the skittish writer Lucy Barton. Each book can be read independently.

In Amy and Isabelle, history repeats itself when teenager Amy has a fling with a married man. Isabelle, who tells everyone she is a widow, has her own secret history. The awkwardness and unhappiness of their relationship is deftly handled by Strout, who can make a sigh significant.  We meet up again with both women in later books. Isabelle becomes a friend of Olive's in their retirement home. Strout won the Pulitzer prize for Olive Kitteridge. 

There's a new Strout coming out on 19 September, and I'm privileged to have read it.  Tell Me Everything is a 5 star read - and wonderfully, has Olive Kitteridge meeting, and getting to know, Lucy Barton! 

I hope you found at least one book to pique your interest.  What are you reading? Any good recommendations? Do tell in the comments.

Youthjuice by E.K. Sathue (4 stars)

Has HEBE, a cosmetics company for the GOOP generation, solved the problem of ageing forever? Testing a new moisturiser, recent hire Sophia thinks they have. But she discovers that ageless founder Tree is hiding something sinister. And interesting. Sophia gets involved in crime after falling out with a school friend and her flatmate, but she's determined to keep her supply line of the new moisturiser open. 

Juxtapose Gen Z's obsession with healthy and trendy eating against gore and blood, and you get a novel that's deliciously different.


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