Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Be kind to yourself and pick up a copy of Lessons in Chemistry, it is a joy.  

Elizabeth Zott is a character to fall in love with – clever, direct and (often unwittingly) very funny.  A born scientist in a world that struggles with the very idea of a woman in the job, she is as surprised as anyone to find herself a single mother starring in a cookery show.  Not everyone is happy with her style – educating and empowering her female audience.  

Top tip, try not to read it too quickly, you will miss Elizabeth.

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

Aged four, Christabel meets the arrival of her stepmother with a sceptical expression and a mouthful of grubby snow, standing in front of her home, Chilcombe Manor.  Their relationship never really warms, but it is the love between siblings, Christabel, Flossie (aka ‘the veg’) and Digby that is at the heart of this glorious novel.

The children bring themselves up in an eccentric country house populated by oblivious, partying grown ups, finding education and entertainment in creating their Whalebone Theatre in a world soon to be broken apart by WWII.

Perfect for fans of William Boyd.

The Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott

I have to confess I was at first put off starting this book by its length and seemingly bleak subject matter.  Luckily a mild dose of Covid gave me the time to dive in, and I’m so grateful I did.  Invisible Child is one of those eye-opening, life-changing books that you want to press into the hands of everyone you meet.

Journalist Andrea Elliott, has done a remarkable thing in telling the story of Dasani Coates and her family living in poverty in New York.  As the eldest girl, she is, to a large extent, parenting her seven siblings before she even starts High School. 

Over the course of almost ten years, Elliott bore witness to the family’s struggles with addiction, homelessness and poverty, always showing a clear-eyed honesty but no judgement.  At times, she uses the Coates extended family to explore the history of slavery, through to the great migration north to New York, and the process of gentrification in Brooklyn, but always brings the reader back to Dasani’s story.

Bright and fierce in equal measure, Dasani wins a funded place at the Milton Hershey Boarding School in Pennsylvania.  There she must submit to the school structure, but her love for her family in New York is never far away and a phone call home is often a trigger to derail her progress. 

Heart-breaking, frustrating, and inspirational, this is a deeply personal journey into the realities of navigating a life in poverty, often dictated by the labyrinthine dysfunctional bureaucracy of social care in NYC.

If you loved Educated by Tara Westover, please read Invisible Child, you won’t regret meeting Dasani or her family.

Trespass by Louise Kennedy

It’s very hard to believe this novel is Louse Kennedy’s first,  she writes with an immediate precision, bringing the stark realities and choices of that time shockingly to life.

Cushla Lavery is a Catholic primary school teacher living in a garrison town where she also helps her brother, working nights at the family pub which is often frequented by British soldiers. The everyday reality of the Troubles is all around, from Cushla’s care for her vulnerable ‘mixed-marriage’ pupil, Davy, who is a frequent target for bullies, to the regular checkpoints endured on a night out in town. But Cushla’s burgeoning attraction to Michael Agnew, a married prominent barrister who has outspoken views on justice and civil rights, puts everything she knows in danger.

Louise Kennedy explores the inevitable grey areas within a polarised society, but she does so with direct, clear-eyed language, short, sharp sentences, often polished with sharp humour. There is a visceral tension to the story, which, when combined with the wonderful writing, achieves that rare thing, the literary thriller, and one where you truly know and care about the characters. Highly recommended.

The Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner (trans. Adriana Hunter)

‘Guild is like a snake … you don’t always know when it will lash out and paralyse you. My guilt is my twin.’ Camille Kouchner

This book caused a sensation when it was published in France in 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. Camille Koucher was in her forties before she felt able (or at liberty) to write her story of family abuse, suicide, shame and guilt. But stay with me, this is an extraordinary memoir, one to read in a single, transfixed sitting; it is hard hitting, although the most painful episodes are ‘off-camera’.

Only after her mother’s death in 2017, when she was buried without any of her five children in attendance, did Koucher feel able to tell the story of her familia grande. She describes a childhood that was full of glamorous, sun-drenched holidays at the family house, Sanary-sur-Mer, surrounded by cousins, and including much of France’s left wing intellectual elite, most particularly, her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel.

Written with such love and pain, La Familia Grande lays bare the last taboo of incest, sparking a national debate in France and the hashtag #metooincest. While the subject matter may be sensational, the writing is direct, elegant, and heartbreakingly honest. You have to keep looking up to remind yourself it’s not a novel, but very much reality.

Reputation by Sarah Vaugh 

Another excellent, completely gripping political thriller from the author of Anatomy of a Scandal. If anything, Reputation felt a more nuanced, interesting story.

Emma Webster is a respected, straight-talking MP who has sacrificed a great deal to get things done, not least, her marriage. She has put her head above the parapet on sensitive political issues and we witness the immediate, and entirely believable, social media fallout. Meanwhile the impact of her move, from teacher to MP, on her teenage daughter, is at the real heart of the story. The visceral bullying she experiences leads to a split second decision with terrible results.

If you like your thrillers all-consuming with plenty of twists and turns, this is a brilliantly satisfying read

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

When we think of environmental novels, or speculative fiction, it often conjures up the feeling of something distant, distinct from our time. Jessie Greengrass’s triumph is her ability to bring the threat of climate change right into our own all too familiar spaces.

The High House sits above a village by the sea, it has a tidal pool, a vegetable patch, and a barn full of supplies. Designed to be future-proofed by Caro’s stepmother (fierce environmental campaigner, Francesca), it is cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sal. When Caro and her much younger half-brother, Pauly arrive to live there, they must try and shape into a family of sorts.

The beauty of Greengrass’s language perfectly captures the stark reality of this waterlogged world. She quietly and relentlessly examines the notion of loss, family and the joy of a bringing up a child, all against the unavoidably bleak understanding of what has been lost and the chilling notion of the future. This is a book that you feel deep in your bones, it’s one we should all read.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

When people talk of a quiet book, it’s usually the kiss of death to me, Small Pleasures has changed my mind. It’s a precise, witty, delicate pleasure of a read.

On the one hand the story of a woman, conscious life is passing her by, on the other, a touching, funny and tender love story. With not a word out of place, it lingers in the mind, you can hear the clock ticking in the hall.