The latest edition of Sam Baker’s book column, keep reading for her top picks of the month. Sign up for the next Noon Book Club, taking place on July 27th.
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Everyone Is Still Alive, Cathy Rentzenbrink (Phoenix, 8/7)
Have you ever wondered how you become friends with the people you do? I don’t mean your lifelong pals, more the casual acquaintances of the school gate or the accidental proximity of the person with whom you share an adjoining wall. When Juliet, her husband Liam and their young son move into her late mother’s house on Magnolia Road, they form a multitude of such friendships. Well, Liam does, while Juliet grieves and worries and tries to hold down her job and does childcare and remembers everyone’s birthdays and wonders why there aren’t more hours in the day. Then Liam decides to make his next book all about the comfortable lives of the middle class couples who live in a community suspiciously like Magnolia Road…
This could have been a standard “what goes on behind the picket-fence-perfection” novel, but Rentzenbrink is an accomplished memoirist – if you haven’t read her heart-wrenching memoir, The Last Act Of Love, you must – and that hard-won emotional insight takes this quiet but compelling novel about growing up, grieving and motherhood to a new level.
Cecily, Annie Garthwaite (Viking, 29/7)
Since the age of 15, 55-year-old Annie Garthwaite has been obsessed with Cecily Neville. (If your history lessons were as non-existent as mine, she was Duchess of York during the Wars of The Roses and mother to Edward IV and Richard III, amongst many other things.) So I love that, after a thirty-year business career, Garthwaite has devoted her first novel to reimagining the life of this powerful but unknown (surprise!) woman. In Garthwaite’s hands, Neville proves as Machiavellian, manipulative and era-defining as any man. “Faith and courage can accomplish anything,” Neville’s mother tells her. She wasn’t kidding.
Songbirds, Christy Lefteri (Bonnier, 8/7)
Nisha has travelled to Cyprus in search of work and a better life for the child she’s left behind. When she goes missing, no-one is interested in finding out what happened to her except her lover, Yiannis, and Petra, the woman she works for. In a world where the lives of migrant domestic workers have less value than the tiny songbirds Yiannis poaches and sells as a delicacy, Christy Lefteri’s timely second novel packs the same Trojan horse punch as her bestselling The Beekeeper of Aleppo.
People Like Them, Samira Sedira (Bloomsbury, 8/7)
When Bakary and Sylvia Langlois – replete with kids and top of the range cars – build an ostentatious new chalet in the remote mountain village of Carnac, the locals are at first suspicious, but they are soon drawn to the charismatic and generous Langlois. But when financial tensions start to emerge, violence erupts in the most horrific way. An insular community. Affluent incomers. Class. Race. Simmering prejudice. And tension that winds so tight that even though you know the outcome you forget to breath. Samira Sedira’s disquieting first novel (to be translated into English) has them all.
The Year Of The End, Anne Theroux (Icon Books, 8/7)
Marriage is such an individual thing. Divorce, even more so. So, let’s be honest, the opportunity to snoop through someone else’s is a treat. Journalist, broadcaster, and now therapist, Anne Theroux was married to American travel writer Paul Theroux for 22 years during which time they had two children, Louis and Marcel. When they separated in 1990 she kept a diary – the only year she did. This is that diary, complete with contemporary annotations and reflections on the year that undid her life and her journey (I hate that word but it’s the one that applies here) to rebuild it. Completely addictive. It made me want to go and hang out in her kitchen!
Windswept, Annabel Abbs (Two Roads, out now)
It may sound ridiculously obvious to say that, over the past 18 months, walking (as a pastime, rather than a means of getting from A to B) has had a renaissance, but it has. With so much of our activity restricted, it seemed instinctive to turn to nature for solace. But despite “wild walking” being a traditionally male preserve, women have long taken to the hills in search of freedom and inspiration. Using her own lifelong passion for walking as a start point, Annabel Abbs tells the story of six incredible women and the paths they walked – from Nan Shepherd and Simone De Beauvoir’s mountains to Georgia O’Keefe’s Texan Plains. This memoir meets feminist history is an absolute treasure.
Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband and My Hair, Lucy Kellaway (Ebury, out now)
Several years ago I had a friend who jettisoned almost everything from her life before she finally realised the problem was not the life but the husband. That’s not exactly what happened to Lucy Kellaway (a member of Noon’s advisory board), but it’s close. Kellaway, like so many women in mid-life, woke up one morning in her mid-50s and realised the life she’d spent so long building – the one that looked happy, successful, enviable from outside – no longer worked for her. And so, she left. The husband of 25 years. The gorgeous family house. The comfortable, well-paying job on the Financial Times. (Oh, and the hair dye.) And swapped them for a new-build, no man and teacher training. If that’s got your heart racing, Re-educated may well inspire you to do the same.
Rebuild: How To Thrive In The New Kindness Economy, Mary Portas (Bantam Press, out now)
Of the many things lockdown has made us reconsider, the way we do business is near the top of the pile. For retail guru Mary Portas, the pandemic signalled the end of an era of rampant consumerism and a very masculine way of doing things. In just one year, her 21-year-old business went from 20% down to “lucky if we’ll survive” and the experience made her rethink everything. This follow up to her no-nonsense manifesto, Work Like A Woman, challenges all the things we thought we knew about business and takes a practical look at how work could look if we put people and planet before profit.
A Touch of Mistletoe, Barbara Comyns (Daunt Books, 15/7)
I am loving the resurgence of neglected mid-20th-century novels by women. Barbara Comyns (born in 1909, the product of a now-rare sort of ramshackle upper class family) was a writer, artist, antique car dealer, poodle breeder and got through a couple of husbands. In short, she sounds like my kind of woman. And this off-beat personality wholly plays out on every page she touches. On the face of it, A Touch Of Mistletoe, first published in 1967, is a coming of age novel in which sisters Blanche and Victoria escape their family home when their grandfather dies and their mother “replaces drink with housework” and set out to make their own lives in very different ways: Blanche by way of a rich husband, Victoria by way of adventure and chaos. In actual fact it’s an astute, off-beat perspective on two very different ways of living. Slightly odd and wholly engaging, think Nancy Mitford meets Muriel Spark and you’re in the right ballpark.
FIVE PAPERBACKS TO LOOK OUT FOR
How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Cherie Jones (Tinder Press, out now)
Women’s Prize shortlisted, this hard-hitting Barbados-set debut tells the story of three marriages and the sacrifices women make to survive.
The Consequences Of Love, Gavanndra Hodge (Penguin, 8/7)
Gavanndra Hodge had an unconventional childhood, to say the least but, when her younger sister died suddenly, the precarious edifice collapsed altogether. This memoir was one of the most compelling reads of last year.
The Idea Of You, Robinne Lee (Penguin, 8/7)
Nurturing an inappropriate crush? (Or wish you were?) This lockdown sleeper hit about a middle-aged mother embarking on a global affair with a Harry Styles-esque figure is your summer escapism sorted.
Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art, James Nestor (Penguin Life, 8/7)
This book will quite literally make you reconsider every breath you take.
Magpie Lane, Lucy Atkins (Quercus, 8/7)
An atmospheric, Oxford-set psychological thriller about a nanny, a missing child and an obnoxious family, that asks, not so much whodunnit, as why. (Or maybe, given some of the characters, why not?!)
Book Club July 2021: Ruth Jones
Sign up for our July Noon Book Club feauring bestselling author Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey. Plus you get a copy of the book
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Reading can get your though the tough times in life, says Sam Baker, including menopause.