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.

Top 10 2020 part 2

I have read 72 books this year and out of those I have rated 18 of them 5 star. There’s some familiar faces from last year – Backman and Jenkins Reid I’m looking at you. But there were also a great deal of new authors to me.

I’m paraphrasing, but I remember one of my favourite bookstagrammers say, “I’m sick of reading sad stories about white women in London” This year I sought out different voices and different stories. And I have been rewarded, educated and empowered.

In what has been a difficult year for us all, I have once again found great joy and comfort in these books. So thank you to all the authors and publishers who make this possible.

5. The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I read Daisy Jones And The Six last year and it was actually number 5 in my 2019 list. And here she is again. I’d also just watched the Netflix series Hollywood and this fitted perfectly.

What I said: Taylor Jenkins Reid produces interesting characters you want to know all about, you want the gossip. She has such a knack of transporting us to a different time and getting the feel just right.

Monique is an up and coming writer for a New York magazine. She’s surprised one day to be told that the reclusive and ageing Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo wants her to write an article about her. But once she meets Evelyn she realises she’s been sent there under false pretences and actually Evelyn wants her to write her biography, a book that could earn her millions.

Evelyn was quite the star, always making the headlines with her sultry looks, numerous husbands and Oscar winning talent. We are transported to the halcyon days of Hollywood in the 50’s and 60’s. We find out the truth behind the headlines and the husbands and who her one true love was *spoiler* it wasn’t any of the 7 husbands. I absolutely loved this book and couldn’t get enough.

Published: 2017

Read: April 2020

4. The Phonebox At The End Of The World – Laura Imai Messina

I was very lucky to receive an arc from the publisher Manilla Press before release. My love for this book was instant. It feels very special indeed.

What I said: This book deserves to be huge. I can’t fault it. It’s perfect.

Yui lost her young daughter and mother in the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. She has struggled with the grief and guilt for many years. And then she hears about a place, Bell Gardia. Set in beautiful gardens is a phone box. A disused phone box where people come to speak to the dead. People travel from all over to make the pilgrimage to the wind phone, and Yui does too, but she doesn’t speak on the phone, she can’t bring herself to do it. Here she meets Takeshi, a widower, who is bringing up a little girl, Hana, on his own. They start to make it a ritual, once a month they travel from Tokyo to Bell Gardia together. Here they meet other grieving people, families and realise that life must go on.

For a book about such a heartbreaking matter, the subject of death is handled so delicately. Each page is filled with beautiful storytelling. There is something so comforting about this book. I wanted to wrap myself in it like a comfort blanket. I didn’t want it to end. This book was a real revelation.

Published: 2020

Read: June 2020

3. Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

With no holidays on the horizon, it was a dream to spend a summer in Italy with good company again.

What I said: I originally read this book in the summer of 2018 and fell in love with it. I saw the film for the first time this year (then watched it again) and wanted to re-read the book immediately. And I have to say, it’s even better the second time around.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, Elio is 17 and falls in love with his dad’s 24 year old student Oliver, who is a guest at their Italian house for the summer. Both curious about their sexuality, over the next 6 weeks they experience an unforgettable friendship and lust that will last them a lifetime.

It is lush, dreamy, sensual, risque and might just make you blush. But it is also an awkward and aching voyage of self discovery. Bathed in the Italian summer sunshine, at only 248 pages it is so easy and enjoyable to read. You are immersed in the experience and location. The scenes in Rome are so vivid and atmospheric you can almost smell the Vespa fumes and taste the grappa. Call Me By Your Name is a place. It is a feeling. It is true love.

Published: 2007

Read: August 2020

2. Know My Name – Chanel Miller

THIS BOOK!!! Everyone needs to read this book. For so long it was my number 1 book, I didn’t think anything would beat it, but it has just been pipped at the post.

What I said: In the summer of 2016 Buzz Feed posted a victim impact statement from a sexual assault survivor, known only as Emily Doe. I, along with 18 million other people read it and wanted to weep. This is her story. And her name is Chanel Miller.

There is so much power when you speak the truth. I listened to this on audiobook which is narrated by Chanel herself. I looked forward to listening to this everyday, which may seem weird given the subject matter. But it felt like Chanel was a friend and I wanted her to let me in. She has such a soothing voice. I also bought a physical copy of the book straight after I finished, as it needs to go on my bookshelf and will be one I return to again and again.

This book is about male toxicity, entitlement, consent and makes your blood boil. But it is also humourous and full of courage. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, how the media reports these crimes, how social media treats victims, how it took 15 months to come to trial, Chanel and her family in limbo, treading water all that time. And the 2 Swede’s who restored my faith in humanity.

Thank you to Chanel Miller for writing this book, sharing her story and making everyone find their voice.

Published: 2019

Read: March 2020

1. The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

This stunning book took my breath away. The minute I finished it I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again. I wanted to shout from the rooftops “Please read this book”

What I said: The Nickel Boys has already won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction 2020 and been named in TIME magazine’s best books of the decade. Some stories need to be told and this is one of those important occasions. No matter the difficult subject matter, this is a book I will read again and again. And please, do yourself a favour and read this too. I want to place this book in every single persons hand.

We meet Elwood, a bright, young black teenager in 1960’s America. He lives with his grandmother, is a straight A student and works hard at his part time job in the local store. He listens to Dr Martin Luther King speeches on vinyl and starts to go to civil rights protests himself. He dreams of college, and it is all possible, because Elwood is a sturdy, stand up guy.

Then, one split second decision changes all those hopes and dreams. And through no fault of his own, Elwood is arrested. He is sent to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform centre. Although these characters are a work of fiction, it is based on the real story of Dozier school in Florida. As the story opens in the modern day to archeological students excavating a secret graveyard, you know nothing good has happened in this place.

Back in the 60’s, Elwood makes a good friend in Turner. They try to stay out of trouble and serve their time. But this is hard when the place is filled with bullies, sexual predators and the adults tasked to look after them are the biggest criminals of all. The Nickel Academy is filled with evil, corrupt, racist men. The boys don’t stand a chance. Another building on the complex is called the white house and the boys pray they don’t have to visit there. Because some boys don’t come back from a trip to the white house. Their families are told they ran away.

This book will fill you with anger, rage. It will bring you to tears. And the scariest thing is, this isn’t that long ago, this is modern history. This is stunning storytelling. I was bereft when it was finished. I can’t stop thinking about this book. Elwood is a character that will live long in the memory.

Published: 2019

Read: November 2020

Top 10 2020 part 1

I have read 72 books this year and out of those I have rated 18 of them 5 stars. There’s some familiar faces from last year – Backman and Jenkins Reid, I’m looking at you. But there were also a great deal of new authors to me.

I’m paraphrasing, but I remember one of my favourite bookstagrammers say, “I’m sick of reading sad stories about white women in London” This year I sought out different voices and different stories. And I have been rewarded, educated and empowered.

In what has been a difficult year for us all, I have once again found great joy and comfort in these books. So thank you to all the authors and publishers who make this possible.

10. Normal People – Sally Rooney

2020 will always be known as the year of Paul Mescal and Connell’s chain (or Covid, you decide) The BBC 3 adaptation was a bit of a phenomenon (62 million views and counting) and like a good bibliophile I needed to read the book first.

What I said: We follow Marianne and Connell from their late teens to early twenties. From high school to university in Dublin. Connell’s mum is Marianne’s family cleaner. Marianne doesn’t have any friends at school, but slowly opens up to Connell. They start having an intimate relationship, but only if they can keep it a secret as Connell doesn’t want his friends finding out. We are voyeurs being let into the intricacies and complexities of this relationship. It’s an exploration into the torture and angst of first love. No matter what happens, there will always be that one person you call when it matters most. And Marianne and Connell are that to each other, even if they don’t always see it.

Connell is a brilliant mixture of modern masculinity. He’s smart, sporty, sensitive and loves to read. And then there’s that connection with Marianne. It’s easy to see why readers and viewers alike are falling in love with him.

Published: 2018

Read: May 2020

9. Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano

I expected this to be huge, but it seems to have flown under the radar (excuse the pun) I’d highly recommend giving this book a chance.

What I said: The year is 2013 and 12 year old Eddie is moving with his mum, dad and 15 year old brother Jordan, all the way across the states, from New York to LA. It’s a big move and a big opportunity for all of them. But they don’t make it. They are in a plane crash and out of the 191 passengers, Eddie is the only survivor. This is the crazy but brilliant premise of this book and I was hooked instantly.

The book is told in alternating chapters between the present day and the plane journey in real time. We know the plane is going to crash, but because of the build up and each chapter getting to know about the passengers on the plane, getting an insight into the lives of all these different individuals, it ranks up the tension and emotion, that by the time we get to 2.12pm the time of the crash, I was a mess.

On the ground and in the present, Edward starts to rebuild his life and deal with the trauma. It’s a long road ahead, filled with grief, growing pains and struggles but one that we get to go on with him as he grows older and stronger. We also learn more about the victims and the victims families. And how Edward deals with being the lone survivor. Brilliantly written and executed with a satisfying ending.

Published: 2020

Read: January 2020

8. Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton

This book got a lot of love from the bookstagram community and quite rightly so.

What I said: Three Hours tells the story of a liberal English high school under threat from gunmen one ordinary morning. When the kids go to school that day they don’t imagine they will be building a barricade from books in the library, or making pottery tiles to protect the windows. They don’t think they will be taking their clothes off to stem the blood from their headmasters gunshot wounds. But they do all this and more in this evocative novel which showcases the strength of the human spirit.

In extraordinary circumstances we never know how we would react, who would be the hero? I loved all the different characters and all the different reactions to the terrible actions that are going on around them. You really feel the will to survive and protect. Especially the teachers towards their pupils. I loved the characters of Rafi, Basi, Hannah and Neil.

They have no idea why they are under threat or who is doing this to them. But as time passes they get information from the police and social media. It is soon a race against time before anything worse happens. I thought the use of social media was really clever and makes you think about the messages that are put out there from the media and certain individuals. I think this is very much a book for the moment.

Published: 2020

Read: February 2020

7. A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Welcome back Mr Backman, one of my favourite authors and the man who wrote my favourite reads of 2019 – Bear Town and Us Against You (because really, you can’t have one without the other)

What I said: Ove comes across as a grumpy old man, old fashioned and stuck in his ways. He’s very particular and likes things done in the right way, which usually means Ove’s way or no way.

In the beginning you think he’s a bit of a loner and how could anyone possibly like him. But we are shown even working at a builder’s as a young man, when he’s shy and doesn’t really fit in, his work colleagues endearingly call him ‘the puppy’ because he’s the youngest and it’s their way of showing they like him. And as the book progresses he becomes a grandad figure and he touches everyone’s lives without realising it. And they all care for him deeply and depend on him. I loved the sense of community all these different and diverse characters build and stand up for what is right, not, what is easy.

I cried, of course I cried because Fredrik Backman is a genius. He has a knack of making you fall for these characters, who, on the surface may not seem like the greatest people, but over time they open up to us and we see their weaknesses and vulnerability and that makes them loveable and you root for them. You want them to win at life.

This book is about having a life worth living. Bad things happen, but never give up, never stop living.

Published: 2012

Read: October 2020

6. The Cat And The City – Nick Bradley

I’ve not read a lot of short story collections, but this was the book that changed my mind.

What I said: I loved and adored everything about this book. We are in Tokyo in the run up to the Olympics in 2020 (which of course have now been postponed) and are gifted a whole host of interlinked short stories. I loved the same characters popping up in different stories and figuring out how it worked together. The main thread running through the whole book is a beautiful young woman with piercing green eyes and a tattoo of the city across her whole back and a Calico cat that pops up throughout the city.

The stories I particularly loved were Fallen Words, Copy Cat and Hikikomori, Futoko and Neko. I loved reading about a different culture and really got a feeling for the city. I could read this book again and again. There were so many stories to be told. This felt like the tip of the iceberg.

Published: 2020

Read: July 2020

The big 3

Welcome to my new feature Blether About Books Big 3 (or Babs big 3 for short) Every quarter I will shine a light on 3 books I reckon will be BIG in the coming months. There are so many awesome books already announced for 2021. I have a feeling it’s going to be a brilliant year for book lovers. Here are 3 debuts I have my eye on.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Published by Viking Books on 04/02/21

Synopsis: Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

Published by Transworld Books on 18/02/21

Synopsis: An imposing, isolated hotel, high up in the Swiss Alps, is the last place Elin Warner wants to be. But she’s taken time off from her job as a detective, so when she receives an invitation out of the blue to celebrate her estranged brother’s recent engagement, she has no choice but to accept.

Arriving in the midst of a threatening storm, Elin immediately feels on edge. Though it’s beautiful, something about the hotel, recently converted from an abandoned sanatorium, makes her nervous – as does her brother, Isaac.

And when they wake the following morning to discover his fiancée Laure has vanished without a trace, Elin’s unease grows. With the storm cutting off access to and from the hotel, the longer Laure stays missing, the more the remaining guests start to panic.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on 04/03/2021

Synopsis: Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface.

Happy reading folks!

One By One readalong

Strap yourselves in people because this is a terrifically terrifying rollercoaster ride of a book. Full of suspense, surprises and freaking out.

The employees of Snoop, a cool, hip music app have booked a chalet in the French Alps to discuss a very important business deal, one that could make them multi millionaires. But not all are on the same page, causing tensions to run high. At the chalet we are also introduced to Danny the chef and Erin the chalet girl, whose job it is to look after them all week, no matter how pompous or annoying they are.

The cast of characters are interesting. All seem to come from privileged backgrounds and not all are likeable, especially Topher the co founder of Snoop. One character is different from the rest, Liz. She comes across as shy and quiet and is actually an ex Snoop employee. The story is told in alternating chapters from her point of view and Erin’s. I love that in a book and the chapters are short, you just want to read on and find out what happens next.

As this is a Ruth Ware book you will not be surprised to know that the relaxing, luxurious holiday does not go to plan. On the first day of skiing, one of the party goes missing. Then, when the others are in their chalet, there is a massive avalanche, trapping them. And then they start getting picked off One By One.

I definitely got Agatha Christie And Then There Were None vibes. I loved the scenario of them all in the one location, trapped, knowing one of them is a killer. You will suspect them all. And even when the murderer confessed, I was still convinced there was going to be another twist. The last 100 pages or so are a double header and absolute perfection. It is so dark and there is an epic chase scene, your heart will be in your mouth. ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you so much to Tandem Collective, Ruth Ware and the publisher Vintage Books for allowing me to be part of this readalong, I absolutely loved it. So much fun trying to be the detective and work out the clues.

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.