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).

Making It by Jay Blades

Have you ever seen a more perfectly titled book? I mean, as Jay Blades is the presenter of ‘The Repair Shop’ and a furniture restorer, he is definitely used to making it.

Jay Blades has become quite a TV star in recent years. As the warm-hearted presenter of ‘The Repair Shop’, alongside presenting a programme supporting people in developing their craft skills in his workshop, with the occasional history programme, and sharing his struggles in learning to read, he has built up quite the fanbase throughout the generations.

Yet, life has not always been plain sailing for Jay Blades, and this autobiography takes us chronologically through his life and his struggles. He does not hold back or sugarcoat any of his past; he tells his story with honesty and shares how he learns from his actions of the past. However, it does make for an emotional read when you realise how easy it can be for some to end up on the wrong path and how, sadly, society did not always welcome with open arms those that it did not see as having the ‘right’ to be in the country.

But Jay Blades has never let anything hold him back, even when he has a breakdown, which he talks about with real honesty. He accepts the help that is around him and the kindness of practical strangers, taking this as a chance to make a fresh start and rebuild his life. And there is an important lesson here for all of us as he makes it clear that it is so important for all of us to talk, understand when we are struggling and ask for help, but especially for men to ensure that they do this, as there is such a ridiculous stigma, still, that seems to stop men from talking about emotions and feelings.

As with all memoirs, to get the full experience, you need to read this book for yourself. I really do suggest you do, because there are so many important stories amongst its pages and, if you are a fan of Jay Blades, you will be a fan of this book.

Everything is Everything: A Memoir of Love, Hate and Hope by Clive Myrie

In October, I was lucky enough to attend Stratford Literary Festival and hear Clive Myrie talk about his new memoir. This was a book that was already on my radar as I have a lot of respect for Clive Myrie as a journalist and television presenter (he was definitely the correct choice for Mastermind). He was also a very nice man when I was lucky enough to meet him after his talk; just a lovely gentleman.

This memoir is an absolute joy to read, and I think it proves that Clive Myrie presents his real self in his life and work. I cannot recall all the stories that appear in a memoir; I mean, then you would not need to read it. However, for me, I enjoyed this because it is a memoir rather than a celebrity autobiography. The majority of the stories are sparked by something in Clive’s childhood or work life, and then it interweaves with events from history or a commentary of events on the world stage (and Clive Myrie has certainly been present at some of them).

This is about the experience of growing up in Bolton as a child of a couple who were from the Windrush generation. It explores the impact of this start in life, for him as a young boy, his parents as they start again in Britain, and his older siblings as they come to join the family in Britain. But it also takes us further, as it looks at the events that Clive Myrie has reported on, the parts of the world he has lived in, and how these experiences have shaped him and his view of the world. There is warmth and humour amongst these pages – but also there is commentary on some of the injustices in the world that we still have based on someone’s race; something you hope that, in the modern world, is no longer an issue, but – as we all know – sadly, it is. There were moments when I found this read incredibly moving; you go through so many emotions as you read this book and it is definitely something that any reader will finding thought-provoking.

I could not put this book down, as it is so beautifully written and is full of so many fascinating stories. This is a book for anyone who is a fan of memoir – not just those who may be a fan of Clive Myrie, but for those who have an interest in social history, political history and the general world that we live in.

The Lost Bookshop by Evie Woods

I did a thing – I went to a real-life book club. I have not strayed too far from my comfort zone, as it is a ‘Book and Pudding Club’, which was the brainchild of the wonderful Jenna, who hosts the fantastic online book club I attend. But, for me, this was a big step, as throughout most of 2023 leaving my comfort zone has not been easy for many reasons – but this was something that I was determined to do, so I did.

The first book I have read for it (as I was unable to attend the second meeting) is ‘The Lost Bookshop’ by Evie Woods. This is not a book that I had heard of, so I was looking forward to picking it up. I mean which book lover does not like the sound of a book with the word ‘bookshop’ in its title? It simply tells you straight away that it is probably going to contain a story fit for a book lover.

This was a lovely book as, at its heart, it demonstrates the real comfort that a love of books can bring in some of the most difficult times. And, with its sprinkling of magical realism, it really took you on an adventure. Told from the viewpoint of each of our main characters with the narrative switching between them, Opaline’s voice comes from the past as we find out the importance books had in her life and how she has a connection to ‘The Lost Bookshop’ and in the present we have Martha and Henry who are thrown together by Henry’s desire to find a missing Bronte manuscript and find out more about ‘The Lost Bookshop’ and in turn finding out more about the connections to Opaline. Now, I absolutely cannot share spoilers to this book because it is just a fantastic read with a fair bit of mystery amongst its pages, so I do not want to spoil any of the reveals to anyone. But, I would really encourage book lovers to read this book because it simply brought me so much joy – and you will enjoy the mentions of some classics along the way. It certainly made me reflect on why it is I find books such a joy to read and the escapism they often offer me.

And, this is a thank you to book clubs, because one thing I have certainly learnt is that they bring me to books that I would otherwise have probably have missed – and this gem is one that I am pretty sure I would have missed without a bookish community.

So, this post is not just about books but it is also about book clubs and the community they can bring you to. I really encourage you to find a book club if it is something that you have always considered doing because it may bring joy – and we should all do things that bring us joy.

Joe Nuthin’s Guide to Life by Helen Fisher

I was kindly invited to join the Tandem Collective Readalong for ‘Joe Nuthin’s Guide to Life’ by Helen Fisher. And, as a result, kindly gifted a copy of the book, too.

What a joy of a book this is. I could not put it down. Beautifully written, it introduces us to Joe, who is neurodiverse and is finding his way in the world with the help of his mother and ‘Hugo Boss’ at the ‘Compass’ store. Joe knows what he likes and he likes his life to be full of routine and order, but, when his Mum dies, he has to start finding his way in the world on his own – with a little help from his friends and the guides to life that his Mum has left to help him through. This book takes us with Joe as he navigates his way through life and finds out some of the realities of life that he may have been sheltered from before.

This story is just beautiful and the hashtag #bemorejoe could not be more apt. Joe is a fantastic character who teaches those around him as much as he learns from them. And I think it was quite a lesson in finding the joy in the simple things in life, and the importance of showing people kindness in all sorts of different situations. This is a book that I think will be an automatic recommendation from me. as I absolutely adored it – and I think it can teach the reader rather a lot, too.

It was a rather poignant read, too, as Joe’s favourite show, and pretty much the place he formed many of his views of the world, was ‘Friends’ – and, with the tragic death of Matthew Perry, I found this even more special and reflected on the comfort that our favourite things can bring us.

Helen Fisher has definitely become an author that I will be looking out for more books from over the next few years.

Jojo: Finally Home by Johannes Radebe

Any Strictly fan needs to pick this book up – right, that is my blog post done.

Of course I have more to say than that, but it is going to be very clear that I loved this book. I am a fan of Johannes Radebe, as a professional on Strictly he is one of my favourites. He always comes across as such a genuine and kind-hearted soul, who has broken down barriers on the show dancing as a same-sex couple with John Whaite in 2021, as well as having danced male partnerships in some of the professionals dances.

This book takes us from Johannes’ childhood right up to date. And it is like sitting down, listening to a friend and having a chat. Johannes grew up in South Africa, not always having an easy childhood, as he grew up in a society that was not as accepting and liberal as he deserved. Dance became a salvation for Johannes, something that he truly loved and allowed him to express himself. Something that took him away from the turbulent family life due to his father’s actions. As, Johannes grew up he worked hard and carved out a successful dancing career that first of all took him across South Africa, across the world and has landed him in London – a place that now feels like home.

There are moments that brought a little tear to my eye, but also moments that have you cheering Johannes and his supporters along. It is such an honest memoir of his life and career: seeing how Johannes blooms to become the figure that we will know and love from Strictly Come Dancing. And an icon and strong voice amongst the LGBTQ+ community.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy by Marie-Claire Amuah

The November pick for the online book club from ‘The Book Taster’ was ‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy’ by Marie-Claire Amuah. And I know we should not judge a book by its cover, but, oh my word, what an absolutely stunning cover this book has. If you have not seen it, check it out because it is just an absolute joy to look at. Although do not be fooled that this book is a light read; it is a fantastic story, but it tackles some tough topics, including domestic abuse and mental health issues.

We follow Stella from her troubled childhood into what appears to be a very successful career in law. She has a close group of friends and may even have found herself a wonderful man. But as the tale unfolds, is history just repeating itself? Is Stella in the same cycle she was in as a child, or is she repeating the experience that she witnessed her mother go through? Stella is forced to take a long-hard look at her present, her past and maybe re-evaluate the relationship she has with her brother. Is her view of him the correct one, or was his childhood also hard, but in a different way that Stella may have missed?

This is a beautifully written book that tackles difficult topics with sensitivity and, although moments may shock, it is all part of the narrative, and not just an attempt to make the read shocking. It will definitely be a book that is worth discussing with a book club. There are so many thought-provoking moments amongst its pages. However, I think the thing that really struck me was the importance of self-worth, and how the emotions we have towards ourselves can have so much of an impact on us and our decisions, even if we do not always realise it. As well as the importance of friendship, and in this case sisterhood, our friends are often the family we choose, and they are often some of the people who offer us more support than we may realise.