Tin Man by Sarah Winman

I think Sarah Winman has done it again. I think she has given me my book of the year in January, just as she did in 2022 with ‘Still Life‘. ‘Tin Man’ has been on the wishlist for quite some time, so when I spotted it at a bargain price, I knew I had to give it a go.

And, oh my word, this book was just stunning. Beautifully written, emotional and a real gem of a novel. Another book that, despite its emotional storyline, makes you want to pack your bag and go on an adventure – and, this time, to France and the land of Vincent van Gogh.

Ellis has been living a quiet life since the death of his wife Annie and his first love Michael in a tragic road accident – the two people he had loved most in the world. After an accident on his bike, Ellis reflects on his past, the time he spent with Michael before meeting Annie, his time with Annie and Michael, and a time in which Michael seemed to disappear from their lives. All of which leads him to make some decisions about how his life could move forward.

Michael shares his story with us, too – to fill some of those gaps that Ellis can’t, ncluding the tragedy of the Aids epidemic in the UK during the 1980s.

This book is just beautiful as it celebrates love and all the forms that love can take. It celebrates friendship, and it celebrates acceptance and kindness.

I am not sure that I can do this book justice; I think the only thing that will do it justice is that you read it yourself, especially if you were a fan of ‘Still Life’. ‘Tin Man’ is a short and beautifully formed story that I will be recommending to everyone. It has cemented Sarah Winman as one of my favourite authors, and I can not wait to read more of her books.

Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

This is a case of bookstagram made me do it. Fantasy or magical realism is not my usual go-to genre, but this book seemed to be getting so much love that I felt I needed to give it a go. Especially as it was a bargain price on Kindle (yes, I have one, no it is not substitute for a real book, and yes I am pretty sure I will still be buying just as many physical books).

This was just a fantastic story. Two rival journalists who seem to wind each other up, Iris and Kitt, both have the ambition to be the best at what they do, yet neither is satisfied with the current hand that they have been dealt. However, they have both been finding solace in the letters that they have been writing to ‘strangers’, thanks to their magic typewriters. Kitt is expected to make a match arranged by his father. And Iris has recently lost her brother to the war (is he still alive?) and her mother to an accident. So, both make the decision to become war reporters, and report on the war raging between the gods – bringing them closer together and forcing them both to re-evaluate their relationship.

Kitt and Iris are fantastic characters, and this is a wonderful story – I can see why it has become quite the success it has. This is not heavy fantasy, and it is as much about the relationship between Kitt and Iris as it is the fantastical world in which they live, and, of course, the war between the gods. This is a book that will appeal to those who like a good story as much as those who like a good fantasy. It has definitely left me keen to read the second book of the duology, and I can be a nightmare for remembering to do that (I have still only read 2 of the 3 ‘Shadow and Bone’ stories – and I really enjoyed those, so I have no idea why number 3 is still sitting on my shelf).

Do not fear the hype; give ‘Divine Rivals’ a go – especially if you want to dip your toe into the world of fantasy – this could be a great place to start.

One Last Secret by Adele Parks

Book and Pudding Club’s pick for January was ‘One Last Secret’ by Adele Parks. This was the first book that I had read by this author.

This was quite an intense thriller, and was certainly not quite what I expected (as someone who does not read blurbs) – Dora has been working as a high-class escort in London; a career path she chose after the birth of her child, Dottie. But now Dora has met Evan and it is time for her to make a change: she is engaged and there is no need for her to work any more. However, she is asked to do one last job: fly to a Chateau in France and pretend, just one more time, to be the girlfriend of one of her clients. What sounds like an idyllic weekend away soon becomes a nightmare for Dora – and, slowly, secrets are revealed and everything starts to unravel.

This is quite a claustrophobic read (and does need to carry a few trigger warnings), and it all adds to the intense atmosphere of the story. I am not sure that it is a book I would have picked up without book club, but I did find it a compulsive read – and it would certainly make a fantastic TV series.

As a book club discussion, we realised how invested we actually all became in the story, as we wanted a prequel and a sequel to the story, and we think there is so much more we could find out about Dora and some of the truths that came out in this book. So, this is certainly a book that makes a great discussion point – even if you are not a huge fan of the story, it creates so many points that are worth discussing.

I am not sure that I would necessarily read more books by Adele Parks, as, although I did enjoy this one, I would not have picked it up without book club – and, with so many books to read, I am not sure they will ever necessarily be at the top of the wishlist. Sometimes it is good to end on a high.

The Woman Who Lied by Claire Douglas

The Book Taster got us off to a thrilling start for 2024 with the January pick of ‘The Woman Who Lied’ by Claire Douglas. This is my first book by Claire Douglas and I am pretty sure that it will not be my last.

This was a fantastic page-turning thriller (yes, I have used that cliche phrase) and a great concept for a thriller too. Emilia Ward is an author of detective fiction and she is about to publish her final book with her famous chracter, Detective Miranda Moody. However, this does not quite become the celebration it should, as she suddenly seems to be living the story she created in her book. Was this story really from her imagination? Where did the inspiration for her final Detective Moody story really come from? And is Emilia’s perfect life about to come crashing down around her?

I found this a very well-plotted thriller. There are some fantastic red herrings woven into the plot. You are led down all sorts of paths, just like Emilia, only to find that you are completely off course. And, for me, that is the sign of a fantastic thriller. I did not reach the correct conclusion, and actually really enjoyed how this book ended, as I had not seen it coming. Although I admit that I do not read these to attempt to solve them, I read them to be able to have some complete escapism from the real world, and that is exactly what this book was for me.

I am looking forward to hearing Claire Douglas talk about her writing and her books at our book club meeting. And I will definitely be reading some of the backlist, because I always enjoy a good thriller.

The Wake-Up Call by Beth O’Leary

I chose this book as I decided that everyone needs a feel-good read in January. Again, surprise, it has been on my shelf for a little while, as I purchased it because I just loved its cover and all its colours.

However, ‘The Wake-Up Call’ was not my favourite Beth O’Leary novel (I am sorry to all the die-hard fans). Something just slightly missed the mark for me. I enjoyed the concept of the overall story, working to save something you love with a fun group of characters around you. However, I think, for me, there was not enough of this, and there was too much of the Izzy and Lucas central characters and their ‘will they, won’t they’ storyline. Which, of course, is a classic and much-loved trope in a romantic-comedy, but I think it was a little long, and I am not sure I believed that a miscommunication would go on for quite so long between two people who work together pretty much all day, every day.

I finished the book, and I am glad that I did, as it was nice to spend some time in this world – but I could also just spend a little less time in the world. One thread throughout the book about lost property (all I can say without giving too much of the story away) and the sentimental attachment we can have to different objects was a joy. In fact, at moments, it was beautifully emotional.

In conclusion, I think this was a miss for me, because I just did not gel with it in the way I hoped. I was not always keen to jump back into the world of ‘The Wake-Up Call’; however, do not get me wrong, I will still be excited to read the next book from Beth O’Leary when it hits the shelves. This one just has not stolen the top spot.

What is your favourite Beth O’Leary book?

Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

I borrowed the idea of the ‘Twelve Days of Bookmas’ from a fellow bookworm to help me pick a book that I am going to read each month of 2024. ‘Mr Loverman’ was the first book that I unwrapped to read in January; this has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long, so definitely deserves to have been read before now.

‘Mr Loverman’ was an interesting read. It tells the story of Barrington Walker, a 74 year-old dapper gentleman who loves knowledge, who moved to Britain in the 1960s from Antigua. To all intents and purposes, he is your regular Caribbean gentleman who has worked to create a successful life in London with his wife and children. However, he has been living a double life, as the love of his life is in fact his best friend, Morris. Something that he has struggled to be open about, as it is not something that has been accepted for so much of his life.

This is such a fascinating study of Carribean culture, and how it can be so difficult to break away from the expectations that can be held over you by society. How hiding your true self can create other problems and hurt those that you love the most, or breed a resentment that some can not see past. It certainly makes Barrington Walker a man that you want to love, but you can also see how it may have created some less favourable character traits in him too. Yet, it is clear that fear is something that haunts him and Morris – fear of being discovered, fear of punishment and fear of hurting those that they love.

This book is beautifully written – I would not expect anything less from Bernadine Evaristo – and it is incredibly thought-provoking. ‘Mr Loverman’ is certainly a book I should have read sooner, and I will be recommending it to other readers, especially if they read ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, as this deserves the same amount of recognition.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

When I attended ‘The Book Taster Live’ in May last year, Nikki May recommended ‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron as her book of choice. So, I of course picked up a copy, as I had loved ‘Wahala’, so felt that Nikki May probably had a very good taste in books.

Now, I know you should not judge a book by its cover, but I feel the covers of these books possibly make you feel like they are stories aimed at a male audience. This may be an unpopular opinion, but that is how the cover appears. However, do not let the cover put you off, because this book was excellent and I am really keen to read more of the series.

It is such a fantastic idea that ‘Slough House’ (nicknamed ‘Slow Horses’) is where those who have made career-damaging mistakes are put out to pasture. Some may have made mistakes in the line of duty, some have made some poor personal choices, and some may well have been set up to fail. However, they are some great minds from MI5, who maybe just need a little more guidance to ensure that they remain on the correct path. Jackson Lamb leads this team of misfits; he may not be the most conventional mentor, but he has a wit and sharp mind that shows what a great agent he must have been, and still is.

This is a story of kidnap and intrigue. A thrilling spy story, which, if I am honest, is not my usual genre – but it had me gripped. Some secrets of the team are revealed, but some are still left unanswered, which clearly means that I need to read more of this series (honestly, why can we not just dedicate all the time to reading!). I am really looking forward to finding out more about Jackson Lamb and his team.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Now, I am very late to the party with reading books from the pen of Kristin Hannah. (I only started watching ‘Firefly Lane’ last month – so, I have been late to that party too). But I have seen so many people reading the novels of Kristin Hannah, and enjoying them, that I thought I should give them a go, and it appears I had ordered a copy of ‘The Four Winds’ – so, that seemed like that would be my starting place.

I was intrigued by this book (as you know, I do not read blurbs) as it was clearly about America and its west – a historical fiction novel about something that has always fascinated me seemed like a good choice to me – and, oh my word, it was.

This is a beautifully constructed novel. It’s a stunning piece of historical fiction that takes you straight to the Great Plains of America as families struggle to farm the land during times of extreme drought known as ‘The Dust Bowl’, and against the backdrop of the great economic depression of the 1930s. Elsa makes a decision that the best way to save her family (after her husband has made the decision to abandon them) is to move them to the ‘promised land’ of California – a place that is guaranteed to offer them salvation. But does it?

This is a stunning book about strength, tenacity, family and love (of so many kinds). You feel you are there with the family; that their experiences are your experiences. You feel all the emotions as you understand the injustice of so many of the situations, but also the hope that so many had to keep them surviving every day. This is a slow-burn story that you can’t help but keep reading, as you just have to know what happens to Elsa and her family, and you are rooting for them at all times.

I suspect that you will also be ready to find out more about this chapter in American history too, as Kristin Hannah explains herself she has researched it and fictionalised the events, but there is so much out there to help you find out more.

This was my final read of 2023 and it was great one, although this is another author with a backlist that I need to investigate (including ‘Firefly Lane’). So many books, so little time…

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is an author (as usual) I suspect I should have started reading a long time ago. In fact, my ‘100 Books Bucket List’ prompted me to pick up ‘Tell No One’, as I thought it would probably be something that I would enjoy – after all, I have watched the various Netflix adaptations of Coben’s work.

I found ‘Tell No One’ an absolute (cliche, I know) page-turner. There was so much going on in this thriller and it was cleverly constructed. Harlan Coben sends you down one road, feeling as though you know what is afoot, only for things to never be quite as they seem. Characters who seem insignificant suddenly become incredibly significant, and those that you have written off as surely not being involved are suddenly more involved than you could ever imagine.

As a thriller, I can not give too much away in my post. But very briefly, David Beck’s wife, Elizabeth, was murdered, and her murderer has been convicted. However, eight years later, the events of that tragic night are thrown into doubt and David’s life is turned upside down as he seems to be in the spotlight for her murder. What did happen that night eight years ago? And why is it all coming back to haunt David and his family?

This was as thrilling as I expected it to be, and I honestly found myself not being able to put the book down – even reading it until the very last minute that I stepped off the train on my commute each day. I can see why this book is on the poster of 100 books that are worth a read, and I will definitely be seeking out more of Harlan Coben’s books, especially when I am seeking out a clever thriller.

Educated by Tara Westover

This is a book that I had seen around for quite some time and I had been intrigued about it. So, when a friend offered me the chance to read this memoir, I jumped at the chance.

This book was such a fascinating memoir, it really opens your eyes to the difference that can so easily be established around the world. How religion, politics and education can so easily be manipulated, misunderstood and used as excuses and reasons for behaviour that many of us may find strange and unusual.

There has to be praise for Tara Westover for being brave enough to share her story. But this journey has made her who she is and has spurred her on to become the woman that she is. This memoir, at moments, is absolutely heartbreaking as you can see how Tara Westover struggles with the conflicting ideas she has developed about the importance and opportunity that education appears to be offering, yet her family appear to not accept it at all. However, when she realises that education is probably the only way she will break the cycle of how she is living, she does make a brave decision to embrace education rather that continue to live as she has.

It is a little difficult to review what seems like such a personal memoir (although it has been shared with all the readers, of course).