Five Star 🌟

Here is a roundup of the first five, 5 star books I’ve read this year. Three are debuts released this year – Open Water, Madam and Tall Bones, one is from an old favourite – Sweet Sorrow and one is from a new favourite – Memorial.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“It is one thing to be looked at and another to be seen” Some books you just know within a few pages, you’re going to love, and this was one of those books. It’s also one of those books where my words feel inadequate and you’re just going to have to read it for yourselves to see how blooming brilliant it is.

Open Water is a celebration of friendship and love between two unnamed young black characters. They both live in London, he’s a photographer and she’s a dancer, who also studies in Dublin. We go through the seasons as their relationship changes, with London providing the perfect backdrop.

It is effortlessly cool, exciting and intimate. I got lost in the sumptuous poetic prose and it’s beautiful ebb and flow. This is simply a dazzling debut. I fell in love with this book. The author is a refreshing new voice and I’m very excited to see what’s next.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

Set in the summer of 1997, Charlie Lewis is 16 and just left school. He’s at that awkward age where he’s not sure what to do next after being pretty average at school, and coming to realise his friends might not actually be that great to be around. Then he meets Fran Fisher. She’s spending her summer playing Juliet in an am dram production of Romeo and Juliet. And since Charlie wants to impress her and spend time with her, he joins the company too.

“Charlie, many of the young people I work with, they know they’re good, they’re told they’re good and they will continue to be good. Good, competent and able. Well, bravo to them but really, what’s the point in that? To be no good and then to get so much better – that’s why we do it. You are why we do it. Without you – what’s the point?” This was just so sweet. I loved these teenagers trying something new, being taken out of their comfort zones and learning important life lessons. They’re all so different, but all come together. There’s romance between Charlie and Fran and also an important back story with Charlie’s family and Dad in particular. This book is joyful and triumphant. Brimming with nostalgia. It made me happy and cry at the same time. I loved it. David Nicholls does it again.

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

After all, this is more than just a school – it’s an institution” Welcome to Caldonbrae Hall, a boarding school that has promised to educate girls for the past 150 years. Rose Christie, a young Classics teacher takes a job at the mysterious Scottish school. But all the staff and even the pupils seem to be keeping secrets from her, especially what happened to the last Classics teacher who was dismissed suddenly. Caldonbrae has a specific way of doing things. In a place where men are addressed as Sir and women are Madam, it slowly feels like Rose is having her identity taken away from her to fit in with this institution. She’s a bit too outspoken and independent for their liking.

I adored this book. I really loved it and Rose and Caldonbrae will stay with me for a long time. Caldonbrae itself is so atmospheric and imposing. Full of long corridors and secret rooms. You never know what could be happening behind each door. The reader, along with Rose never knows who to trust. And as more shocking revelations are revealed our heroine gets caught deeper and deeper in the lies. The way the younger students start to think for themselves is a joy and I loved the relationship between Rose and Daisy, Nessa and Freddie. I love the way everything unfolds over 435 pages and we are as shocked as Rose at each new discovery. This is a powerhouse of a dark academia, gothic, feminist novel. “That’s the best thing a woman can do – learn how to rescue herself, without the need of a man; without the need of anyone”

Memorial by Bryan Washington

I was lucky to read Bryan Washington’s Lot last year. I really enjoyed it and was excited to read more of his work. And in some ways Memorial has some similarities. It’s set in Houston, there’s a fantastic mix of interesting and diverse characters and there’s no punctuation when characters speak, which can be a bit confusing to begin with, but doesn’t really bother me.

Memorial concentrates on two men, Benson and Mike who have been dating for 4 years and now live together. Things are a bit strained and it feels like they’ve fallen into this life together without actually thinking if it’s what they really want. They no longer seem to make each other happy. Things come to a head when Mike finds out his dad, who he hasn’t seen in years, is dying. Mike flies to Japan to help his dad. But in the meantime, his mum is visiting the US and is left in their apartment with Benson, a man she’s never met before. After a few awkward encounters, they actually bond over food and cooking becomes their thing. This book made me so hungry, all the dishes sounded delicious! The first part of the book is told from Benson’s point of view. And the second part of the book is told from Mike’s point of view.

A book full of complex family issues, modern relationships, what it means to belong and reconnecting with places and people. I have to say, Bryan Washington knocks it out the park with this one. I loved it immediately. I thought this book was brilliant.

Tall Bones by Anna Bailey

“By the end of the week, Abigail’s face will grin emptily from a hundred flyers tacked to telephone poles and church billboards, flapping in the Rocky Mountain breeze” Where do you start with Tall Bones without giving too much away? At its heart, it is a missing persons story. But it is SO much more than that.

Seventeen year old Abigail Blake goes missing after attending a party in the woods one night. We then spend the next few weeks trying to figure out what happened to her. Did she run away or did something more sinister occur?

Set in Whistling Ridge, Colorado, this is very much a god fearing town with a pack mentality, while turning a blind eye to the real sinners. The small mindedness and ignorance of people is infuriating at times. It’s like a throwback to the 50’s, only Americans are welcome, no outsiders and homosexuals don’t exist. There are so many characters to hate once you realize how wicked and toxic they are. And then there are other troubled characters who soften throughout the book and you just want to save them. This had so many ingredients to make my perfect book. Short, snappy chapters. Fast pace. Dual timelines. Small town America. Satisfying ending. I LOVED this book. The way it is written, there is something to ponder and savour on every page.

Bring your own book

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Between The Covers – a programme about books, on BBC 2 every Friday night at 7.30. Expertly hosted by Sara Cox, she and four guests chat all things bookish. It’s like a cool, relaxed book club we’re all invited to. And I love that a TV show about books is on prime time telly.

In one part of the show, Sara asks her guests what book they have brought along as their favourite. And so far we’ve had answers ranging from The Iliad to Harry Potter. It’s also got me reaching for a pen as I take notes to add to my ever increasing TBR list. And it’s also got me thinking – which book would I choose? Some people say picking your favourite book is like picking your favourite child (something you shouldn’t do) Well, lucky for me, I don’t have kids.

I have many favourite books, but the one I ALWAYS come back to, like a comfort blanket or a warm hug, with the cracked spine and well thumbed browning pages is One Day by David Nicholls. And I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but to me it is everything. Some snobby readers may dismiss this as chick lit or rom com, but it is so much more than that.

I love the concept. We follow two very different people, Emma and Dexter on one day – the 15th July, for two decades. Emma and Dexter meet at university in Edinburgh and the book follows them on a twenty year journey of will they, won’t they. I love that we follow them and get to see them grow. Get to see all the good and bad points. The failed relationships, the changing careers. And we see their relationship change as things realistically do over time. It isn’t perfect, sometimes we don’t get the happy ending no matter how hard we try.

David Nicholls has such a knack of making real, relatable characters that you get emotionally invested in. I adore them and this book so much. Em and Dex are like friends to me and I laugh and cry no matter how many times I read this book.

The wonder of Maya Angelou

How gorgeous are these Virago Press editions of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies? I read and finished the first of her autobiographies I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings this week. And it is one of those rare occasions where you read something by an author and then immediately want to read everything they’ve ever written. Once I read the final page, I went online and bought the next two books in the series.

I’m going to hold my hands up and admit my ignorance. I had no idea Maya Angelou had seven!! autobiographies and numerous poetry collections. She’s one of the all time American greats and I’m only discovering her now. I’m going to be busy. I enjoy a strong female voice and Maya Angelou may just be the strongest.

A civil rights activist who was seen as a spokesperson for black people and women. When I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, she was one of the first black, female writers to write a memoir. Unapologetically writing about black culture, putting herself at the forefront of the story, rather than being marginalized.

Her debut is a truthful depiction of life in the American south in the 1930’s and 40’s. There is poverty and discrimination. Never shying away from the difficult topics, we are shown the true extent of the racism she, her family and her peers had to deal with.

Other titles include The Heart Of A Woman, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, A Song Flung Up To Heaven and Mom and Me and Mom. I am going to savour these special books.