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Book Review, Books, Listings, Sofa Spotlight

Spring Spotlight 2021

I’m a bit rusty on the art of the chatty intro so here is my Spring Selection: 8 fantastic books, including several which give a voice to people and subjects we don’t hear often enough. I look forward to hosting some of the authors – see the Sofa Dates – and an honorary addition to this selection is Neema Shah’s debut Kololo Hill, recently featured on the Sofa. If you’d like to find out about my own new novel Scent, also out this spring, see the postscript (yes, I get to do this – hopefully other people will soon be talking about it.) I hope you find something to enjoy!

Text adapted from publicity materials.

1 The Art of Losing – Alice Zeniter (Picador), translated from French by Frank Wynne

Naïma has always known that her family came from Algeria but her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French sink estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he an harki who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France? Naïma’s father, just a child when the family left, says he remembers nothing. Finally, one of them is going back: Naïma will see Algeria for herself and ask the questions that have remained unanswered for so long.

Why I chose it: I devoured this family history spanning 70 years when it first came out in French and it is simply one of the finest novels I have ever read.  I am so pleased that English speakers can now hear this story which is fundamentally about the troubled relationship between France and Algeria and yet so universal on identity, intergenerational trauma and the legacy of colonialization. This novel inspired me to learn more about a dark and shocking period of history which continues to have profound repercussions on every aspect of French life.

2 All our squandered Beauty – Amanda Huggins (Victorina Press)

Kara’s father died at sea – or did he? She has spent her teenage years struggling with grief and searching for answers. When she accepts her art tutor’s offer to attend a summer school on a Greek island, she discovers once again that everything is not what it seems, and on her return, she faces several uncomfortable truths. Could Jake, a local trawlerman, be the key to uncovering the past, and will Kara embrace the possibilities her future offers, or turn back to the sea?

Why I chose it: This short novella exemplifies Huggins’ signature poetic language, particularly in its beautiful descriptions of the sea and the natural world. A raw and poignant exploration of grief which also illustrates the confusion of a young woman coming into sexual power without knowing how to handle it.

SOFA DATE: TBC Amanda Huggins – Writers on Location on the North Yorkshire coast

3 Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller (Fig Tree Press) 25 March

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance. When Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

Why I chose it: In Unsettled Ground, Claire Fuller uncovers marginalised lives we don’t often see on the page in the rich and sensory prose that has gained her a strong following. The dark tone gives it more in common with her debut than her two most recent novels;  I found it desperately sad at times but that is a testament to the empathy underlying this story and which the reader is likely to feel for Jeanie and Julius.

SOFA DATE: 24 March – Claire Fuller on Dogs in Fiction

4 On Hampstead Heath – Marika Cobbold (Arcadia Books) 15 April

Thorn Marsh is a journalist with a passion for truth, more devoted to her work at the London Journal than she ever was to her ex-husband. When the newspaper is bought by media giant The Goring Group, who value sales figures over fact-checking, Thorn openly questions their methods, and promptly finds herself moved from the news desk to the midweek supplement, reporting heart-warming stories for their new segment, The Bright Side, a job to which she is spectacularly unsuited. On a final warning, a desperate Thorn fabricates a good-news story of her own, centred on an angelic apparition on Hampstead Heath, that goes viral. Caught between her principles and her ambitions, Thorn goes in search of the truth behind her creation, only to find the answers locked away in the unconscious mind of a stranger.

Why I chose it: I was drawn to this because I love Hampstead Heath but the book has many merits. Thorn is a cool and interesting woman I’d like to know in real life.  The writing crackles with wit, intelligence and things which need saying about truth and integrity, the media and the way we as individuals consume and disseminate information and opinions. 

SOFA DATE: 21 April – Marika Cobbold – Writers on Location on Hampstead Heath

5 Diary of a new Mum aged 43 1/3 – Cari Rosen (Duckworth) 11 March

Whatever your age, becoming a mum for the first time brings excitement, anxiety and numerous challenges. But how do you cope when, to top it all, you discover you are almost old enough to be the mother of everyone else in your birth prep group? As one in five babies is born to a mum over 35, and the number of women over 40 giving birth has doubled, The Secret Diary of a New Mum (Aged 43 ¼) is Cari Rosen’s timely and hilarious account of becoming a first-time mother in her 40s. Whether it’s deftly side-stepping questions about your age and baby number two, weeping as younger counterparts ping back into their size ten jeans within thirty seconds of giving birth, or your doctor suddenly referring to you as geriatric, Cari approaches the shared experiences of an ever-increasing number of mothers.

Why I chose it:  A funny and cringe-makingly honest account of older motherhood which will nevertheless be recognisable to any parent. (Having done it the other way round, apparently I’m due a round-the-world backpacking trip about now.) Cari Rosen’s experience highlights the barrage of prejudices and expectations women have to contend with whatever we do and makes a strong case for getting on with life on your own terms – it’s nobody else’s business.

6 The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador)

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? 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 . . .

Inspired by real events, this impressive debut novel delivers what many readers want: beautiful lyrical writing, a suspenseful mystery and a transporting sense of place that lifted me out of the gloom and claustrophobia of lockdown even though there are many parallels with life on the lighthouse. (Despite the stunning cover, I read it in shades of blue.) Cleverly constructed using multiple points of view that had me consciously trying to solve the enigma – that doesn’t happen very often.

7 Women on Top of the World – edited by Lucy-Anne Holmes, illustrations by various artists (Quercus)

Women on Top of the World is a collection of 51 first person testimonies by women from around the globe, from all ages and from all walks of life. Searingly honest, they reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings during sex to writer Lucy-Anne Holmes. Every experience is different, unique and fascinating. From 19-year-old Melodie in the UK to 32 year-old Wambui from Kenya and 74-year-old Lucy in New Zealand, we as readers are led down as many paths as there are ways to have sex. There are heterosexual women, gay women, bisexual women, queer women, monogamous women, polyamorous women, those who identify as non-binary and transgender women. There is beautiful sex, bored sex, auto-sexuality, crazy sex, tantric sex, sad sex and sex that is experienced as colours and melted toffee.

Why I chose it: Reading non-fiction and uncensored first person testimonies like these is what gave me the courage to write about female sexuality in fiction; with the subject still so distorted by taboo and double standards, I find it really poignant and fascinating to hear how women really feel about sex when they can speak frankly. (The audiobook is great, narrated by actors.) This project is inclusive in every way, and the accounts range between funny, sad, moving and in some cases pretty darn hot.

8 All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks & Kevin Carr O’Leary (Trapeze)

In 1986, 26-year-old Ruth Coker Burks is visiting a friend in a local Arkansas hospital when she notices that the door to one patient’s room is painted red. The nurses draw straws to decide who will tend to the sick person inside. When Ruth enters the quarantined space and begins to care for a young man crying for his mother in his final moments, her own life changes forever. As word spreads in the community that she is the only person willing to help the young men afflicted by the growing AIDS crisis, Ruth goes from being an ordinary young mother to an accidental activist, forging deep friendships as she provides every kind of emotional and practical support to men rejected by society and their own families. Ruth kept her story a secret for years, fearful of repercussions within her deeply conservative community.

Why I chose it: I first encountered the utterly amazing Ruth through Damian Barr’s Literary Salon* where she was a guest alongside Russell T Davies, creator of TV series It’s a Sin. For those who watched it (that’s everyone, let’s face it), Ruth is a real-life Jill, whose extraordinary compassion changed so many lives before they were cut short.  It’s a heartbreaking yet uplifting story with a lot to say about human nature; some of it very ugly but for me the strongest message was about love – all kinds.

* still available to view from Salon on Demand

POSTSCRIPT: Only four weeks until my second novel Scent is out with Muswell Press – click to read the blurb and opening pages.  Here I am holding the beautiful finished edition (not very straight). Thanks to my fabulous local independent All Good Bookshop who are taking pre-orders for signed/dedicated copies (if you want that!) with free shipping. 

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.

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