My Top 5 Books of 2023 – Fiction

Best fiction books of 2023For me, this year has been both immensely exciting and unbelievably challenging, in more ways than one, and through it all, these novels have kept me going. I struggled to pick my top five fiction books, so I’ve added a special mention at the end. These books were not all published in 2023, but they are all fairly new…  Continue reading

Creative Women: Matrix by Lauren Groff and Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Matrix by Lauren GroffI’ve not managed to post many book reviews recently, as I’ve been struggling with chronic fatigue while completing my PhD and getting my own book ready for publication. So I’m going to post a few mini-reviews over the summer, reflecting on some of the incredible books I’ve read over the past year. The first two books are very different but they both focus on the experiences of women.    Continue reading

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia OwensWhere The Crawdads Sing is full of despair, poverty, prejudice and loneliness beyond all imagining. But it is also a book that delights in the wonderous gifts of the natural world. It tells the heart-breaking story of Kya, the ‘marsh girl’. Her mother walks off when she is still a young child, walking away without saying goodbye or even waving. She’s too young to understand what’s going on, but then her older brothers and sisters leave too, and soon she is left alone with her father, a veteran of the war, drinking his way steadily through their small income, unpredictable in his rages.   Continue reading

Recent Summer Reads: Historical Fiction

historical fiction booksI’ve been busy lately (with PhD work etc.) so rather than reviewing lots of books in separate blog posts, I decided to review a few of them together. I love historical fiction, both as time travel and escapism. It’s also a genre that makes you compare your own attitudes to those of others – other people living in different times and different cultures. And though it’s difficult to pinpoint how, I am sure that some of these characters and ideas are subsumed into my subconscious and resurface, often years later, in my own poems.    Continue reading

Book Review: Salt by Catrin Kean

Book - Salt by Catrin KeanBased on a true story, Salt begins in Cardiff, in 1883, where young Ellen lives a dull and lonely life, working as a domestic. She longs to escape, but is forced to witness her mother’s daily turmoil, as she confronts the ghosts of her past. Then, one day, Ellen meets Samuel, a ship’s cook from Barbados. Despite the disapproval of some, they fall in love and get married, and Ellen is able to fulfill her childhood dream of running away to sea. Together, they set sail for San Francisco, working their way across the Atlantic Ocean, getting to know each other along the way.   Continue reading

Book Review: Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces by Sebastian FaulksI read Human Traces several years ago, and it is no less incredible on a second reading. Set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the story begins when Jacques Rebière (from France) and Thomas Midwinter (from England) meet each other at the age of sixteen. They discover that they share a common fascination with the growing field of psychiatry and its quest to solve one of humanity’s greatest mysteries: the complex workings of the human mind.    Continue reading

Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Book - Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine EvaristoOn opening Girl, Woman, Other, I was immediately struck by the simplicity of its verse form – the text on the page looks like poetry, and it flows too, with line breaks instead of full stops. It is easy to read, easy to become immersed, one by one, in the lives of these twelve women. And what makes this book exceptional is the intricate way in which each individual’s story weaves in and out of the stories and lives of the other women. We get the perspective, for example, of the mother, and then the daughter, the pupil, then the teacher, nearly all of whom are black or mixed-race, women whose voices often go unheard, even in fiction.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Book - The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale is full of gothic mysteries and ghosts, stories and secrets. It is a tale of sibling rivalry and love on many different levels, yet it is also a story of loneliness and unimaginable grief.

It begins in a fairly ordinary way, with a young woman who likes books. Margaret Lea works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop, and she writes biographies. She hides a secret – a secret that brings great sorrow, a secret that follows her everywhere she goes.    Continue reading

Revisiting a Classic: Evelina by Frances Burney

Novel: Evelina by Fanny BurneyIf you like Jane Austen, then you’ll love this book too. I certainly visualised the protagonist, Evelina, as a kind of Jane Austen character. The novel was first published in 1778 – yes, I am over 200 years late with my review! That’s around 33 years before Austen’s first novel came out, and we know that Austen was influenced by Frances Burney’s work. Evelina is a strong character – blunt, honest, and full of common sense, rather like Elizabeth Bennett. But the plot is more elaborate and entertaining than anything Jane Austen has given us, full of disastrous scrapes and misunderstandings.    Continue reading

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Book-HamnetA Guest Review by Mary Le Bon

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a tender and haunting portrayal of the emotional trauma Shakespeare’s family suffered when his son, Hamnet, died suddenly aged eleven. O’Farrell reveals that their all-encompassing grief is the background to Shakespeare’s writing of the play ‘Hamlet’ four years later (as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Hamnet’ are different versions of the same name).     Continue reading

Book Review: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Book - The Mirror and the Light by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series is a triumph of historical enactment in book form. When The Mirror and the Light (the third and final book) was published, I was still recovering from post viral fatigue, and didn’t have the strength to hold a normal paperback, never mind this giant brick of a book, so I left it a few weeks before ordering a copy, and, as my strength returned, I was able to sink back into the sixteenth century as if I had never been away.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Book - The Dreams of Bethany MellmothA Guest Post by James Fenchurch

When I saw The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, a book by William Boyd that I had not yet read, I seized it without even looking inside, only to discover that it was a collection of short stories. I have not always appreciated this literary form, but I found the collection entirely absorbing.    Continue reading

Book Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Book - Once Upon A RiverIt was the beautiful cover design that attracted me to Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield and, as soon as I began to read, I was hooked. It’s a wonderfully mysterious, ghostly tale, set in a time before people travelled far, and centred around The Swan Inn, on the edge of the Thames, at Radcot, where the age-old tradition of storytelling holds sway.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christi Lefteri

Book - The Beekeeper of Aleppo

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is, without doubt, one of the saddest books I have ever read. It is told from the perspective of Nuri, a man who is fleeing the horrors of war with his wife Afra, who was blinded when a bomb exploded at their home, killing their young son. They leave Syria, hoping to join Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa, who has already made it to England, and their journey is fraught with danger.

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Book Review: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

Book - The Italian Teacher by Tom RachmanWhat makes someone a great artist? The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman provides a fascinating answer to this question, as it tracks the life of Charles Bavinsky, known as ‘Pinch’, son of the great artist, Bear Bavinsky. It begins in Italy, when Pinch is just five years old, watching his father entertain the crowds, desperate for his affection and approval. His mother Natalie is also an artist, working with ceramics, but she is eclipsed by Bear’s extravagant personality, and her work always comes second to his.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Book: The Overstory by Richard PowersThe Overstory is an epic tale which moves at an incredible pace, following the stories of disparate people, and trees, over several decades. I was uncertain, to begin with, what to make of the present tense omniscient narrator style, but soon became swept along, mesmerised by the way in which the lives of people and trees are intertwined:    Continue reading

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Book - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineThe title of this book – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – has intrigued me, ever since I saw people reading it when it first came out, and yet something put me off – I think it was the knowledge that it was about loneliness, and I was afraid that it would challenge my perceptions of others, and perhaps even my perceptions of myself. But it does far more than that. It is a fascinating, beautifully told, incredibly gripping tale about one young woman who is just about coping with life.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik

Book - The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie MunnikThis is a quiet, beautiful novel which stretches across time, rooted, to begin with, in an open, wild Scottish landscape on the North East coast. It follows the lives of three women. First there is Jane, newly married and learning to survive small-town life alone, with her husband away, fighting in the Second World War. She seeks refuge in walks along the shore, but is unable to escape the harsh brutality of war, or to defend herself against the local gossips, forced to do everything she can to protect the man she loves.    Continue reading