I started 2017 with determination. I was four and a half months pregnant and had been absolutely sick as a dog since day one. Reading had taken a serious back seat – and no doubt would be right out of the car once Miniature Meakin made their appearance in May. I started off with something I thought would be a fluffy read, but surprised me with a deep charm. Love Song by Sophia Bennett follows a One Direction-esque boyband called The Point, and protagonist Nina, who is completely immune to the hype. She takes on the role of PA to the reality TV star fiancée of one of the band members and suddenly finds herself in the middle of the whirlwind that is on tour with The Point. An addictive, effortless read with a sensible, mature and smart protagonist, I definitely need to add more of Sophia Bennett’s titles to my TBR.
I don’t often add non-fiction to this yearly round-up (although I read quite a few per year), but I couldn’t let this recap go by without adding Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, English and How It Got That Way. Bryson presents “the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants” that grew to become one of the most spoken languages in the world. Weirdly interesting and genuinely quite funny at points.
Ages ago I did a HarperCollins event with Lucy Holliday, who was so charming and funny I resolved immediately to read her books, the A Night In With… series. I duly collected the paperbacks but life got in the way and so I only got around to the first one, A Night In With Audrey Hepburn, in February this year – and I loved it! Libby Lomax is unlucky in love, work, life in general, until one night she is visited by Audrey Hepburn. Hallucination, ghost or severe mental breakdown? Either way, Audrey is there to give advice, advice that might just turn Libby’s luck around… The follow ups, starring Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, are on my TBR; I’m saving them for when I fancy cheering up with a warm-hearted, funny read.
Contender for downright funniest book of the year, in March I read The List by Joanna Bolouri. A raunchier than usual romcom, The List follows singleton Phoebe, who – when faced with another new year – resolves to concoct a bedroom-focused bucket list: ten things she’s always wanted to add to her sex life. Not quite chick lit, not quite erotica, somewhere in between – this book is its own beast, and it’s a marvelous one. Fresh and funny, filthy but with a heart of gold (that’s describing both the read and the protagonist, Phoebe), with a positive message about modern women’s sexuality – this book made me literally LOL, gasp, toe-curl and cringe, sometimes all in the same moment.
The Other Us was my first book by Fiona Harper. Touted as “essential reading for those who came of age in the 90s”, I was really interested to read it (for all I’m really a decade too young, I do love me some nineties pop culture references). There’s been a bit of a flavour for these “Sliding Doors” type plots in recent years, but The Other Us felt fresh and sufficiently different. Protagonist Maggie is facing an early midlife crisis; her only child has gone away to uni, her best friend is acting strange and her marriage feels stale. She sees a Facebook post about a university reunion and gets to thinking about the man who she turned down to marry her husband; would her life be better now if she had run away with him, like he’d asked? Wondering turns into fantasising, and then one morning fantasising turns into reality. Maggie wakes up and discovers she’s back in 1992 and twenty-one again. Maggie / Meg lives three different timelines, hopping between them, hopping forward in them, but I was never lost. Thought-provoking and compelling with a strong, mature message of how ultimately it’s not who you love, but how you love, and the dangers (and opportunities?) of wondering “what if?”.
The most surprising book of my year – perhaps even THE book of my year – was one I’d had half an eye on for absolutely ages. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. A retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale against a backdrop of the Renaissance court of the Sun King at Versailles, Bitter Greens follows three women, three threads; one is the true scandalous exile of a distant cousin of King Louis, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a novelist who was one of the Rapunzel tale’s first tellers. She is comforted by an old nun who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years ago, was taken as payment after her desperate father stole a handful of bitter greens from the walled garden of the mysterious Venetian courtesan, Selena Leonelli. Held captive in a tower, her hair woven together with the locks of all the girls before her, Margherita grows to womanhood under the shadow of Selena, also known as La Strega Bella – the beautiful witch. At over 500 pages, it’s a longer than average read, but the chapters absolutely fly by. Part historical fiction, and part fantasy: entirely brilliant.
Every year I rave my love for Sarah J. Maas and have had both the first and second instalments of her A Court of Thorns and Roses series on these Best Of lists in previous years. The final book, A Court of Wings And Ruin, was released at the beginning of May and I grabbed up a copy immediately. I only had to work one week in May before going on maternity leave, so I just about kept myself from reading it straight away, thinking I would treat myself when I was lounging and resting; I was adamant my baby was going to be late and I had great plans for my “pre-baby break” in between finishing up at work and going into labour. That first weekend I went to bed early with A Court of Wings and Ruin and stayed up as late as I could keep my eyes open reading it. About ninety minutes after I put it down and went to sleep my waters went and contractions started – the book is just that good! Ha! As usual with a series continuation I can’t discuss the plot for fear of spoiling, but suffice it to say it was the best instalment in an amazing series and it kept my attention all through the long, long nights of sitting up with a newborn who refused to sleep unless he was on my chest. One day I am going to do a marathon binge read of all three books – the series is a definite forever favourite.
I’ll be honest – there was very little reading done in June (aside from an embarrassing amount of parenting tomes). I needed something pithy that could keep my attention for the short bursts I was able to give it, taken up so entirely with my new little son as I was! The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel was perfect; I read it for ten or fifteen minutes at a time when I had my morning bath and it was easy to dip in and out of. Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and cousin at the Roanoke family’s rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls has obvious benefits – but Lane soon discovers it also carries a terrible legacy: Roanoke girls either run, or they die. A dark, disturbing and dysfunctional read.
By July I was starting to get back into my reading stride, and I wanted to get stuck into something meaty and lengthy. I’ve had the entire Outlander series by Diana Galbadon waiting on my Kindle since watching the series on Amazon Prime, so I got started on the first book, Outlander (aka Cross Stitch). In post-war 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is newly reunited with her husband and enjoying a second honeymoon when she touches a boulder in an ancient stone circle. Suddenly she finds herself a Sassenach — an “outlander”— in eighteenth century Scotland. Claire finds herself fallen in with Clan MacKenzie and the intrigues of a Scotland chaffing under English rule. Necessity finds her remarried to a gallant young Scots warrior – and so Claire finds herself torn between two vastly different men and two irreconcilable lives. Pure escapism at its best.
I’ve always loved, loved, loved Stephanie Perkins’ releases – adorable contemporary YA – and so I was intrigued by There’s Someone Inside Your House. A YA thriller with a merciless body count – someone is killing off the students at Osbourne High, and protagonist Makani and friends are growing ever closer to finding out who the murderer is. An entertaining gore fest with a few good jumps.
An interesting concept, The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn was an diverting journey. Two travellers arrive in a field in 1815 England, dishevelled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. They aren’t the first team of time travellers, but their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen. For a time travel book this was very light on the science, and was more about the people – and quite unashamed fangirling over Jane Austen, not that there’s anything wrong with that! An authentic feeling nineteenth century adventure.
There was a lot of hype around Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine this year, and normally hype is a turn off for me, but I absolutely loved this smart and quirky story. The eponymous Eleanor Oliphant is a recluse who simply cannot appropriately function in social situations. Everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the pavement, the three become sort of friends; and Raymond’s big heart will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. A one-of-a-kind read; brilliantly paced – you start off agreeing with those in Eleanor’s world that she’s exceptionally hard to like, but you end up in love with her. She’s a protagonist that will stay with me for a very long time.
Kirsty Greenwood’s The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is one of my all-time favourite reads, and so it was with no small amount of expectation I started her new book, Big Sexy Love. Olive Brewster is middling in every way except for one: her best friend, Birdie, is dying. And Birdie has one wish – she wants to track down her first love, and as she’s bedbound in the hospital, it seems scaredy-cat Olive is going to have to do it for her. Suddenly Olive finds herself roaming the streets of Manhattan, contending with one disaster after another. Sparkly and hilarious – I genuinely laughed until I cried.
A horrifying, riveting read, I couldn’t put Daughters of the Dragon down. This book by William Andrews is inspired by a part of history I had had no knowledge of. During World War Two the Japanese forced 200,000 young Korean women to be sex slaves or “comfort women” for their soldiers. The novel follows the sweeping life story of Ja-hee, from comfort woman to the pressures of increasing Communism in the newly formed North Korea, while she attempts to both flee from and come to terms with the terrible injustice and dishonour that was done to her when she was really still a child.
I needed something a tad more relaxing after Daughters of the Dragon so lucky for me that the new Rosie Blake had recently been released! I’d intended to hold The Hygge Holiday back for Christmas, but instead I dived right in. The utterly charming Clara Kristensen arrives in the little village of Yulethorpe during a miserable autumn, when the last independent shop on the high street – a lovely little toy shop – is about to close its doors. Clara can’t bear the thought, and so rolls up her sleeves and gets to work revitalising the shop – and along with it, the village itself. Seemingly thwarting her attempts at every turn is Joe, the son of the shop’s owner, a city bigwig whose ear is seemingly welded to his phone and his fingers to his keyboard. Clara makes it her personal crusade to introduce her own Danish “hygge” lifestyle – the importance of cosy, comfyness! – to highly-strung Joe before it’s too late. A warm-hearted, warm-hug of a book that had me embracing all things knitted jumpers, hot drinks and tea-light ambience!
I always know I’m in for a good time when I pick up a Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison book. They just absolutely “nail” that mythical ‘New Adult’ space, in a uniquely British way. In their new book Freshers, protagonists Phoebe and Luke are off to university. Phoebe can’t wait, especially considering she’s had a crush on Luke for years and years. But Luke’s oblivious, and still reeling from the fallout of the break-up with his long-term girlfriend. Thrown head first into a world of new friends, parties and social media disasters – can Phoebe and Luke survive the year, let alone find each other? A brilliantly funny read with bonus points for a great central female friendship and copious Harry Potter references.
Another go-to favourite author of mine is Taylor Jenkins Reid; I’ve been parcelling out her back catalogue to myself one at a time, as I always want to know I have one in reserve! In November I treated myself to Forever Interrupted, which was actually her debut. As special and as heart-rending as the rest of her works, the book introduces Ben and Elsie, a newly-wed couple who fell head over heels for one another and eloped a mere six months after they met. But before you get too comfortable, Ben is dead, and Elsie finds herself thrown together in grief with the mother-in-law she never met, Susan. Interspersing Ben and Elsie’s six month love story with the first six months of Susan and Elsie’s healing process, Forever Interrupted made my heart ache – in a good way! Taylor Jenkins Reid unfailingly impresses me again and again with her beautiful, bittersweet stories.
In an attempt to ramp up the festive feeling, I decided to mainly read Christmas books in December. I started off strong with Katey Lovell’s utterly charming Joe and Clara’s Christmas Countdown. Clara works at a Manchester youth club, but as Christmas approaches they’re facing the reality that without funding they may be forced to close in the new year. New volunteer Joe steps in to try and help – he has fond memories of his own youth inside those in-need-of-redecoration walls. Yule-lover Clara can sense Joe’s humbug approach to Christmas, whilst Joe takes the mick out of Clara’s extreme Christmas spirit, and so a experiment is born: alternate days, Clara gives Joe a festive gift to try and re-spark a love of the season, whilst on the other Joe takes Clara out to various seasonally-appropriate destinations. Gloriously satisfying and sweet, like enjoying a whole Christmas Yule log to yourself! I can definitely see this lovely little book being re-read for many, many a Christmas to come!
I finished off the year with some sparkly Giovanna Fletcher magic. Her latest book Some Kind of Wonderful wasn’t very Christmassy, but definitely filled me with good cheer. Lizzy has been waiting for a marriage proposal for about a decade, but when it comes it actually precipitates a break up and the dismantling of her life as she knows it. She decides to seek opportunity in heartbreak, and to rediscover the girl she once was before her long-term relationship inevitably changed her. A gentle and fun story about growing up, finding yourself and looking forwards, never backwards.