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.

West by Carys Davies

I have recently discovered BBC Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’, in fact I am not sure how I have not listened to it before as I am a big fan of radio and books, so this show is ideal. However, it is dangerous for my tbr pile. And the first book I have picked up since listening to the programme is ‘West’ by Carys Davies – which has also been recommended by the author Bobby Palmer.

This book is brilliant, a short but beautifully crafted novel, that I have recently discovered was Carys Davies’ debut novel, where not a moment on the page is wasted for the reader. A story of a desire for adventure, but at the cost of a father-daughter relationship. Cy Bellman heads off on an adventure, very possibly to avoid the grief of having lost his wife, but leaves his daughter at home, despite the fact that she asks him not to leave. And this is not the only odd decision made by Cy; there is also the purchase of a certain hat.

However, Cy Bellman is not the only person journeying to and through the West. He meets different characters along the way, including a Mountain Man and Native Americans – their lives, of course, impacted by the arrival of the Europeans as they continue to spread their influence from the East Coast of America to the West. However, some very important relationships are made along the way, and one which will save Cy’s daughter, Bess, when she least expects it.

There is warmth and humour in this book, which sits side-by-side with some of the more difficut topics that Carys tackles on the pages. For me, I was questioning the ease with which Cy walked away from his daughter and left her to the mercy of the men of the town – although he provides the saviour she needs without even knowing it.

I can see exactly why this is a book that is recommended by so many. And it is one that I will be recommending too. This is a lesson in writing a small but perfectly formed novel. It is a book that I will read again, as this is a part of America’s history that I find both fascinating and incredibly sad as Europeans made their way across the country. This is a story that can start discussions, and hopefully encourage people to learn a little bit more about American history.

As this is a Carys Davies’ debut novel, from 2018, that means that I have some more books to catch up on to bring me up to date to her latest release, ‘Clear’.

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.

The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey

This is definitely a book that seems to have picked up a fan base thanks to the Bookstagram community – and it was certainly them that persuaded me to pick up ‘The List of Suspicious Things’ (and it has a rather cool cover). As we know, I do not need blurbs, so all I knew about this one was that it was set at the time the Yorkshire Ripper was active, which did seem to me like an interesting time for a plot to be set.

But, wow, this book is so much more than a tale that has a link to the true crime story of the mid-1970s – this is a study of community, culture and people, and it was impossible to stop reading.

Miv is having a difficult time; her Mother has become distant and disengaged, her father is doing his bit and her overbearing Aunt has moved in. To give her some focus, her and her best friend, Sharon, decide to try and discover who the man is that appears to be bringing terror to streets of Yorkshire – and create a list of suspicious things.

This book is beautifully written and is a very astute commentary on the difficult divides that there were in communities, the ‘behind closed doors’ attitudes that were keeping dark secrets and influence that the far-right was having on the streets in a time that was difficult for many. My heart was breaking at moments when men were not supposed to cry and members of the community were not safe in their own homes because ‘they were not from around here’. Yet, there are moments of humour and constant reminders that the bad apples are actually few and far between.

I absolutely can not share any spoilers, but reading this book was quite an emotional rollercoaster at times – you could be crying and smiling within lines of the same page. But for me it was actually a celebration of strength of character, and that you should always have the confidence to be yourself. Miv, Sharon and Mr Bashir (among others) will all steal a piece of your heart and will stay with you long after you have read the final line.

This book is a stunning debut and I really hope that there is more to come from Jennie Godfrey, because I would certainly be keen to read it.

The Light in Everything by Katya Balen

This book is proof that you do not always need to judge an author by one book. I read ‘October October‘ a couple of years ago, and did not have quite the same love for it as so many others did. However, recently I picked up ‘The Light in Everything’ and absolutely loved it – although I admit I had been putting it off for a little bit based on the previous book.

Tom and Zofia are thrown together as their parents begin a relationship and have a baby on the way. Neither of them is too sure about this idea or having to share their parent based on previous experiences; they quite like the world as it is. Zofia is not keen to share her Dad after they have built their life following the death of her mother. Zofia is headstrong, confident and determined, and is not great at hiding her emotions, especially towards these two people who have entered her life. Tom is still dealing with the trauma of his abusive father, who has now been locked away. He does not like the dark, he is jumpy about new people and his confidence is rock bottom – he is not ready to share his Mum with anyone, as he wants to protect her, as he could not before. However, Zofia and Tom have no choice but to try and get used to this blended family and the tests that they are about to face.

This is a story of new beginnings, trust, friendship and love. And it is a story about how, although sometimes life is a little messy and does not quite follow the path that we expect, sometimes that is not all bad. Maybe, like Zofia and Tom, we discover things about ourselves that we never knew and understand that, sometimes, change is not all bad.

I enjoyed that we are told the story with a dual perspective, we are privy to the thoughts of both Zofia and Tom as their lives change in ways that they were not expecting. We see them develop and grow, and we meet the community that comes together to support them both and their family.

This is a book that I will be recommending to middle grade readers and adults alike because I think there are lessons for us all in its story.

And, the important lesson for me is this: that just because one book may not be your cup of tea, it does not mean you should not attempt other books by the same author – you may be surprised.