Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

My IRL book club has chosen ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent for the month of June. The choices were all based on the ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ back list but it was ‘Burial Rites’ that won the book club vote.

‘Burial Rites’ is a a truly brilliant read. I was hooked from the moment that I picked it up. It is haunting and beautifully written, based on a true story, a tale of the last execution to take place in 1830. And that execution was that of a woman, Agnes Magnusdottir (apologies: the spelling is missing some of the symbols needed on the letters). Now, this is no spoiler, as you can imagine her crime must be one of the worst if the punishment is execution – and it is; she is charged with being complicit in the murder of Natan, a man she has been in love with, and who she believed, or maybe hoped, loved her too.

This book is a fictionalised exploration of Agnes’ exprience as she awaits her execution, and the people who are responsible for her care, spiritually and physically, until that final moment. It also slowly reveals what had happened on that fateful night, and leaves us considering the morality of the execution.

I felt fully immersed in this world. I could feel the cold of 1830 in Iceland, and the isolation that Agnes felt in those final days. It evoked anger as I read about the moment that led to the crime with which she is charged, and the inequality of society as nobody appears to relate to Agnes and what happened because of her social background and her gender. She is labelled by her ‘guilt’ until others start to see past that, as they spend time together, and the sense of injustice starts to build.

The final pages are some of the best that I have read: I cannot share more than that as I do not want to spoil it for readers. But I almost felt like I was there in the final moments of the story, feeling all the emotions as the story drew to a close.

I am not sure I can do this book justice because I do not want to spoil the experience for other readers but this is a book that is going to become one of my auto recommendations when people ask for something to read. It will satisfy those who enjoy historical fiction; it will satisfy those who like a great story with fantastic writing, and it will satisfy those who enjoy crime fiction. To be honest, it will be a satisfying read to anybody who admires a well-constructed story with fascinating characters – whatever your usual genre taste is.

Doing the Double with Lisa Jewell

It is not often that I will read the first book in a duology, trilogy or series and then instantly pick up the next, but Lisa Jewell made me do exactly that. I bought ‘The Family Remains’ last summer but had not picked it up, as someone told me it was actually a sequel to ‘The Family Upstairs’, so I, of course, had to find a copy of that first. And, as usual, my favourite charity bookshop saved the day, not just having a copy of ‘The Family Upstairs’, but having a lovely hardback edition.

So, at the start of this month, I decided it was time to read ‘The Family Upstairs’, as I was pretty certain a thriller by Lisa Jewell was not going to disappoint and was going to be exactly what I needed, as my brain was in the thriller mood. My goodness, it did not take me long to get through this book, as I basically was reading at every opportunity, including staying in the car as Mr Bookwormandtheatremouse did the weekly shop, as I had to know what was going to happen next. This thriller had everything that I love about this genre. There was a dual timeline, as those in the present were trying to find out the mysteries of the past and the history of the house on the Thames and the mysterious family (and their ‘friends’) that had lived there. There is an unreliable narrator, in amongst all the other characters, who is so cleverly constructed that even when you know the truth, you are still not sure it really is the truth. And, of course, there are a number of mysteries and fascinating characters that just leave you wanting more all the time.

In fact, I think it is safe to say that this book is a masterclass in thriller writing. As all the readers want is more, this was certainly proved by the fact that for the first time I was willing to immediately pick up the next book – which, of course, I did.

‘The Family Remains’ mainly focuses on searching for one of the characters that we do not meet in the previous book, although we know that they are out there somewhere in the world. Phinn/Finn is missing but Birdie has been discovered (I cannot say more than that, as we know my feeling on spoilers appearing in blog posts). So, in this book, we find out more about the characters that we met in the first book and we are on a knife edge throughout, as we do not know if the darkest secrets of all will be revealed.

For the reader, this book holds more of a moral dilemma, as it does for some of the characters. Are the worst possible actions ever acceptable in the name of survival or protection? And, this follows you all through the book, and probably stays with you even after you have read the last line – and it is quite a last line! It would be interesting to see if a reader responds differently to ‘The Family Remains’ if they have not read ‘The Family Upstairs’. Would they have the same connections to the characters? Would they have the same responses to some of their actions? In fact, it would make such a brilliant book club discussion if both books were read – there is so much to unpick and work out.

If these books have been on your wishlist or your tbr pile a little too long, then I recommend that you pick them up as soon as you can, because they are a truly brilliant read, and so worth reading together.

The Last Paper Crane by Kerry Drewery

Miss W (who we all know I share books with on a regular basis) offered me the chance to borrow ‘The Last Paper Crane’, which I jumped at as I have seen so many people love this book. And, Oh My Word, I can see why so many people love and treasure this book. In fact, it is a book that I am going to be encouraging everybody to read because I think there are so many lessons that can be learnt from this book, about the past, the present and the future.

I was also told that I would read this book quickly and that prediction was not wrong as I could not put this book down from the moment I started it. If it was not for the fact that sleep is fairly essential I think I would have read it in one sitting. And, it is not just the story that keeps you reading, it is the fact that this book is so beautifully illustrated and written that you become drawn in from the moment you start reading.

This book is about the tragic events in 1945 in Japan, when the USA dropped the two atomic bombs. This book is about the people and the places that were damaged and harmed after this terrible act of warfare and violence. But, this is most importantly a book about survival and hope.

Mizuki is worried about her grandfather, his wife has recently died and he seems to be struggling as she was the one person that he shared his hardest memory with from his past. Mizuki soon finds out that her grandfather is a survivor of the attack on Hirsohima, but that he lost so much in that attack and feels that he let down his friend Hiro because he did not save his friend’s younger sister, Keiko. Mizuki’s grandfather recounts his tale and how, when he gradually recovered from the attack he kept searching for Keiko, leaving paper cranes with his contact details anywhere he thought Keiko may be. Mizuki is inspired to try and help he grandfather ease the survivour’s guilt he has carried around him for so many years and help him understand that he has always done all he could.

This book is one of the most moving pieces of historical fiction I have ever read, and is a very special book that I would encourage young people and adults to read as it is a really special book. It is a book that readers will treasure for a long time and often return to. This is a book full of lessons for us all and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

I think this book has been on my shelf for about 3 years – which is terrible. However, it was picked as my May read for the ‘Twelve Days of Bookmas’ – and I am rather glad that it was.

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to pick up this book, but I think it may be because it was a book that slightly intimidated me. The title, the cover and the fact that it is historical fiction made me avoid it when it was sitting on the shelf, because I think I thought it would be something that I would find hard-going. However, I was wrong.

This book is incredibly readable as it immerses you in the world of the American West (a theme of a couple of my book choices this month, I wonder if I am missing teaching the topic – haha) but from a very different perspective to the usual tales. This is told from the point of view of a Chinese migrant family to the West – and this is something that really makes this book stand out – but it also sets up what you believe to be one story: the story of an ambitious but possibly slightly foolish man who believes that his fortune will be made in the American West, and that the next job, plot of land, or big gambling win will be the one. Yet, this is not the full story for this family and it may not have been Ba who had made all the choices after all, and established the situation that Lucy and Sam now find themselves in.

Lucy and Sam are orphaned and forced to embark on quite the journey, so that they can find the perfect place to bury Ba and work out how they will survive now that they are alone in the world. This journey becomes quite the adventure, and it becomes clear that, as the siblings try to find their new normal, they have different ideas about the past, and the memories that have formed who they are and how they see the world.

This book is beautifully written. The characters, and the wilderness and towns, are so vividly brought to life that you feel immersed in the world of the American West – and you can feel all the emotions that the characters are experiencing as they embark on their path of self-discovery. There are also some twists to the tale that keep you reading on – a couple of moments caused me to read past my bedtime, as I just had to find out more about the characters and the events of the past and present.

So, if this is a book that you have been considering, then take this as your sign to pick it up. And if it is a book that is new to you, I suggest you take a chance on it, because it is really quite an epic piece of historical fiction.

A Game of Lies by Clare Mackintosh

When I spotted that ‘A Game of Lies’ was a bargain price on the Kindle, I knew that I had to read it. I discovered the books of Clare Mackintosh last year when I read ‘The Last Party‘ And as ‘A Game of Lies’ is the second book featuring Ffion Morgan, I thought it would be an excellent read to satisfy my thriller/crime fiction genre need.

‘A Game of Lies’ did not disappoint. I absolutley loved the concept of the Exposure reality TV show which eventually revealed the contestants’ deepest secrets and how horrendous this would be if it was a real show. But it fed beautifully into the backdrop of the murder mystery that was about to unfold on the pages. The contestants create quite a rogues’ gallery of potential perpetrators of the crime, and potential victims. But are they victims of a crime, or their own vanity and desire to have their fifteen minutes of fame?

I absolutely cannot reveal any spoilers as it is a thriler, but I can assure you that Ffion Morgan is still a fantastic lead female figure for this book. And her relationship with Leo is still something as a reader you are fully invested in until the very last page. This is as much part of the twists and turns as the mystery unfolding at the foot of the Welsh mountains.

This is a well-constructed, thrilling read; I did not solve it until Ffion Morgan and her team did, and I am okay with that, because I do not read these books to solve the crime – I read these books for the escapism from the real world. And if you want the chance to do the same, then pick this book up. I hope that we are going to meet her and Leo again, because they are a rather fantastic crime-fighting duo.

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

The May Book Club from ‘The Book Taster’ was ‘How to Build a Boat’ by Elaine Feeney. This is a book that I had half an eye on, so it being the monthly pick for book club meant that I would definitely have to read it. I also love the paperback cover, as it is very similar to a watercolour painting and, as my Grandad was a watercolour artist, it added an extra appeal.

‘How to Build a Boat’ is a slow burn of a book, but it is certainly worth it, and that adds to the beauty of the story. (Warning: there is a lack of speech marks, but this does not bother me as it does some other readers). Jamie’s mother died when he was born and he has been brought up by his father and his grandmother. As he has got older, he is becoming worried that maybe he is forgetting her and he wants a connection to her that will stop that from happening at the same time that he is dealing with starting a new school.

This leads him to forming a connection to his teachers, Tess and Tadhg, both of whom are also feeling a little lost, for different reasons. Together, with some help from others, they build a boat – and this project and the new friendships and relationships formed along the way take them all on some journeys of self-discovery. In fact, they may end up on their greatest adventure.

This book reminded me of ‘The Colony‘, which we read at book club last year. A beautifully constructed story, very well written, that touches on so many important topics and stays with you a long time after you have finished reading the book. I am still thinking about Jamie O’Neill and his friends, and hoping that they are still forging their paths to happiness, after some struggles along the way.

I am not always interested in books which make longlists or shortlists, but this is deserving of its place on ‘The Booker Longlist 2023’, as it is a special book. It was also one that was chosen by ‘Between the Covers’ on BBC Two, and I hope that also brought it to a wider audience, because it is a book that deserves to be read by everyone.

Goodbye Birdie Greenwing by Ericka Waller

As we all know, I loved ‘Dog Days‘, which I read earlier in the year in preparation for ‘The Book Taster Live’, so I was very excited to meet Birdie Greenwing and see what adavntures we would go on next.

This book was absolutely beautiful. I fell in love with all the characters and their stories. To me, this is a book about friendship, community and fantastic, strong female characters (even if they do not always realise it). Sadly, Birdie has terminal cancer and she knows her life is coming to an end, but that does not mean she cannot make the most of the time that she has left, even if she does not realise it. Enter Jane and Frankie (and Min), Birdie’s new neighbours, and Ada, Birdie’s doctor, who keeps a little bit of an eye on Birdie from a distance and learns more from her relationship with Birdie than she can ever realise.

These women’s lives become entwined and, together, they each learn a little bit more about who they really are, and learn to maybe let go of some of the baggage that they have been carrying around with them, that might just need sharing with a friend – and how they can each make a little more of life, rather than just going through the motions.

This book is written with so much warmth and humour that it is difficult to put it down; I took it everywhere with me for a week just in case I could sneak a few extra moments with Birdie and her friends in. And, because I just needed to know what mug each character was going to get next from the WRVS cafe in the hospital – these moments of humour are scattered throughout the pages and will certainly make you smile.

I also admire how Ericka does not shy away from some topics that maybe are a little taboo, or that people bury their heads in the sand about. There was a really strong theme of loneliness in this book, and not just loneliness for the older generation (which is something that I think is not talked about enough) but how loneliness can maybe creep up on so many, as they just carry on with their lives and other things take over or seem more important. But, it is also showed how easy it can be to reverse such situations by showing a little kindness or finding relationships in the most surprising of places.

This book deserves all the love that it is getting in the book world as it is just a joy, and will probably teach us all to be a little more kind and check in with those around us – especially our neighbours or those in our community who may seem a little isolated.

Conviction by Jack Jordan

I have again had it proved to me that it is worth giving an author another go. ‘Conviction’ by Jack Jordan was a thrilling page-turner and I am so glad that I did not let it pass me by after ‘Do No Harm‘.

I have wondered why I found ‘Conviction’ a better read for me, and I think it is because I felt that we were thrown into a thrilling situation that could well be happening as we speak. Do not get me wrong, there is of course the extraordinary drama added to make the read as thrilling as possible, but there is a level of possibility throughout the pages that keeps you hooked.

The moral dilemma in this book is all around the justice system: can a lawyer misrepresent their client in order to keep their own dark secret? Moral dilemmas make for such a fantastic read, because, I like to think, we assume that everyone woud make the right choice – but do we really ever know if they will? This book hooked me in from the moment I started reading, and I really could not put it down. I found myself picking it up at every spare moment, because I had to see how the story was going to turn out.

And a book that makes you gasp at a couple of twists is a well-constructed thriller. The last sentence of the last page was not something that I was expecting, and I am still thinking about it now.

So, this again proves that you should not read an author once and form all your judgements, because sometimes they have another story to tell that might be the story that you need to read. Or sometimes, their story might be needed a different time. This is a lesson I have certainly learnt recently; I am going to make sure that I keep my mind open, especially when it is authors from my favourite genres. And this does mean I am definitely going to be keeping an eye out for Jack Jordan’s next book, which seems to be already making a splash on social media.

A Love Letter to The Book Taster

In 2020, when the world seemed a very different place, I took the plunge and joined an online book club – as a total introvert, this was not easy for me, but as we had all been shut away for quite some time, we all craved some normality. That online book club was created by Jenna, who owns The Book Taster – and that moment (this may sound a little dramatic) changed my bookish life.

Fast forward to 2024 and Saturday 11th May was the fourth annual ‘The Book Taster Live’, which has genuinely become a highlight of my year – and this year was no different. From the moment you arrive, you know you are amongst friends, many of whom started as friends in the little squares of Instagram or Zoom, and you know you are going to have a great day.

This year, we started off with the fantastic Kate Sawyer, author of ‘The Stranding‘ (which I have gifted to so many since reading it) and ‘This Family’ (which is on the tbr pile – I am sure nobody is surprised). Kate spoke to us about her journey to becoming an author, what inspired the fantastic ‘The Stranding’, and her newest publication, ‘This Family’. A very different theme to ‘This Family’ but it is true that relationships between people can be absolutely fascinating and it is always interesting to think what brought people to this moment that they are now living in. It was a joy to hear her speak about her varied careers and inspirations that had brought her to this moment.

Following hot on her heels we heard from Susan Fletcher as she spoke about her new book ‘The Night in Question’, which has been on my wishlist for quite some time. I absolutely cannot wait to pick this up and read it, but I have also ended up with another title on the wishlist, as I was not aware of the book ‘Let Me Tell You About the Man I Knew’. This is a book inspired by Van Gogh and one of the women he painted. As a huge fan of the art of Van Gogh and fascinated by the man himself, this sounded like a book I would really enjoy. And it reminded me of another joy of The Book Taster Live, that you discover books you may never have come across without this great event.

Ericka Waller followed next, and I would just love to sit and chat with her all over again (and if I could possibly be taught crochet, that would be great, too). Listening to her talk about the reasons she writes, the experiences of her life and the inspirations for her characters (George will always be a favourite character of mine) and stories was just beautiful. This woman is an inspiration and a truly beautiful soul. I am pretty sure that she had the whole audience in fits of giggles and tears and back again within seconds – and it was just a highlight of the event for me. Also, I love the idea of rescuing books from car boot sales and charity shops – that must be why I have so many, haha!

Now, I am often surprised by how long ago I have read a book, so when I picked up my copy of ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ that I realised how long I had been a fan of the books of Kiran Millwood Hargrave (the sticker on the front of the book referenced 2017). It will be no surprise that it was an absolute pleasure to hear her speak about what inspires her to write, as she has such a varied collection of titles to share with us all. The most recent, ‘In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen’ is (yes, you have guessed it) on my tbr pile, but I am certainly bumping it up after having heard Kiran talk about it – I mean, who knew there had been a rainforest in Wales; I certainly did not.

Fifth, we heard from the man who had brought us all togther as the OG Book Taster fans four years ago – Mike Gayle (‘All the Lonely People‘ was the first ever book we read as the book club). Mike summed up the importance of the event and community that Jenna has brought together from the moment he stepped on the stage – simply by saying how brilliant the whole event is. Mike talked about his new book ‘A Song of Me and You’ (which I have two copies of, as I could not miss out on the stunning paperback copy, too) and his writing career as a whole – and I can certainly assure him that he definitely makes his readers feel when they are reading his books (Mr Bookwormandtheatremouse can identify when I am reading a Mike Gayle by the tears).

Daisy Buchanan came next. A journalist, public speaker and author, it was brilliant to hear how she made the decision to write the books that she wanted to read, and that is what sparked her career as an author. But, also how important reading and books are to her, how they are a chance to bond with family and friends, and I love the idea that we can read ourselves happy, as books are a very special thing that can be enjoyed by so many. Daisy was so correct when she said that many of us bookworms are introverts who can become extroverts around the bookish community, as we all know that books bring us togther. This is a concept that has really stuck with me since the event.

And, finally, Matt Coyne, author of ‘Frank and Red’, which has been on the wishlist for quite some time and I saved for the event. Matt spoke about his inspiration for Frank and Red, which just sounds a joy (I can not wait to pick it up) and the transition he made from writing non-fiction as a ‘Dad blogger’ to writing fiction. There was so much humour and warmth as Matt spoke about his career and his family that he had the audience in stitches – and I am pretty sure I am going to be a big fan of both Frank and Red when I read the book. And, also, hearing him talk about his friendship with fellow author Sarah Turner (which does mean I now have another book on my tbr pile) was just lovely.

In fact, that is one of the best things about the event; Jenna is definitely the hostess with the mostess, and the conversations that take place on stage are so natural (and not always about books – pants and Cardi B were definitely not topics anyone was expecting – haha) that you feel like you are listening to two friends having a chat over coffee and cake. And, we would all like to sit and have coffee and cake with all of these authors.

But, you do not have to just sit and listen to these authors speak, you can meet each one, too, and have your books signed. And, as someone who is painfully shy,this can sometimes be something that I overthink and make myself nervous about, but each and every one made you feel welcome and had time for a chat, a photo – and even a hug (thank you Ericka). Because, let’s be honest, we are all a community of book lovers who just want to share the love of books at every opportunity.

So, this is a massive thank you to The Book Taster for creating such an incredible event and community (and for all the treats in the fantastic goody bags, which could be a whole other post). And this is a thank you to each and every author over the last four years who have been to speak to us and share their love of books – and thank you to each bookish buddy that I have made along the way. I have definitely found my tribe.

Queen Macbeth by Val McDermid

As part of Stratford Literary Festival (which is officially one of my favourite events of the calendar), I went to listen to Val McDermid talk about her new book, ‘Queen Macbeth’. And we were lucky enough to hear this talk in Holy Trinity Church – right next to the grave of the Bard himself, Shakespeare. Val McDermid offered a great talk about her writing process and how she constructs her crime stories, for which she is probably most famous, but also shared her writing process for her new novel – and how Shakespeare got it wrong.

I found ‘Queen Macbeth’ a fantastic read. It is interesting to have a chance to try and understand some of the complex history of Scotland. It did take me a little while to understand which character was which (other than those who are famous or infamous). However, the storytelling itself was beautifully constructed and easy to understand once you got the thread. I enjoyed the fact that it was told through a dual timeline so we could see what had led to the moment we were reading about, which really added to the context of the story.

I am not going to give away any spoilers (other than that Shakespeare clearly constructed the story for his audience, which we all know is true; he wrote what he knew would be appreciated at the time), but I would really recommend reading this to give yourself some understanding of the actual Scottish history and who those important figures were. Plus, Queen Macbeth is a fantastically strong woman, and not the fanatic that we may have been introduced to before.

If you enjoy the writing of Val McDermid, then you will enjoy this book, and I would recommend you pick it up and try something a little different.