Current Book Club Recommendations
April / May 2022
The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue
“Dublin, 1918: three days in a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu. A small world of work, risk, death and unlooked-for love. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city centre, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new flu are quarantined. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders – Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.”
Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers
This book was long listed for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness.”
The Life of Stuff – Susannah Walker
This was nominated for the James Tait Black biography prize in 2019.
“Only after her mother’s death does Susannah Walker discover how much of a hoarder she had become. Over the following months, Susannah has to sort through a dilapidated house filled to the brim with rubbish and treasures – filling bag after bag with possessions. But what she’s really in search of is a woman she’d never really known or understood in life. This is her last chance to piece together her mother’s story and make sense of their troubled relationship.
“What emerges from the mess of scattered papers, discarded photographs and an extraordinary amount of stuff is the history of a sad and fractured family, haunted by dead children, divorce and alcohol. The Life of Stuff is a deeply personal exploration of mourning and the shoring up of possessions against the losses and grief of life, which also raises universal questions about what makes us the people we are.”
Tess Of The D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
Following on from our Zoom Book Club meeting we decided to add in a classic novel to our selection of latest recommendations – and our Central Office team based in Dorset could only choose Thomas Hardy!
“When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future. With its sensitive depiction of the wronged Tess and powerful criticism of social convention, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels.”
Previous Book Club Recommendations and Reviews
February / March 2022
The Other Bennet Sister – Janice Hadlow
Explores the character of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice middle sister Mary in more depth – can Mary step out of the shadows of her more dynamic, extroverted and big personality sisters to elicit sympathy and an emotional connection with readers?
A Single Thread – Tracy Chevalier
Follows the story of a “surplus woman” following the end of World War One and explores how Violet, who lost both her brother and her fiancé, in the fighting is viewed as a threat and a tragedy, seeks solace in the company of other women who embroider kneelers at Winchester Cathedral.
A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee
Features former Scotland Yard detective Sam Wyndham arriving in Calcutta desperately seeking a fresh start in 1919 but soon embroiled in a grisly murder which threatens the existence of the British in India.
December / January 2022
Penicillin Man – Kevin Brown
Penicillin has affected the lives of everyone, and has exerted a powerful hold on the popular imagination since its first use in 1941. The story of its development from a chance observation in 1928 by Alexander Fleming to a life-saving drug is compelling and exciting. It revolutionised healthcare and turned the modest, self-effacing Fleming into a world hero. This book tells the story of the man and his discovery set against a background of the transformation of medical research from nineteenth-century individualism through to teamwork and modern-day international big business (pharmaceutical companies like Fisors, Distillers, or Beecham (Smith Kline)). Now, sixty years after the antibiotic revolution, when there are fears that the days of antibiotics are numbered it has never been more timely to look at the beginnings.
Twin Tracks – Roger Bannister
It was a blustery late spring day in 1954 and a young Oxford medical student flung himself over the line in a mile race. There was an agonising pause, and then the timekeeper announced the record: three minutes, fifty-nine point four seconds.
But no one heard anything after that first word – ‘three’.
One of the most iconic barriers of sport had been broken, and Roger Bannister had become the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. To this day, more men have conquered Mount Everest than have achieved what the slender, unassuming student managed that afternoon.
Sixty years on and the letters still arrive on Roger Bannister’s doormat, letters testifying to the enduring appeal of the four-minute mile and the example it set for the generation of budding athletes who were inspired to attempt the impossible. In this frank memoir, Sir Roger tells the full story of the talent and dedication that made him not just one of the most celebrated athletes of the last century but also a distinguished doctor, neurologist and one of the nation’s best-loved public figures.
With characteristically trenchant views on drugs in sport, the nature of modern athletics and record breaking, the extraordinary explosion in running as a leisure activity, and the Olympic legacy, this rare and brilliant autobiography gives a fascinating insight into the life of a man who has lived life to the fullest.
Elisabeth’s Lists – Lulah Ellender
Many years after the death of her grandmother, Lulah Ellender inherited a curious object – a book of handwritten lists.
On the face of it, Elisabeth’s lists seemed rather ordinary – shopping lists, items to be packed for a foreign trip, a tally of the eggs laid by her hens. But from these everyday fragments, Lulah began to weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew – a life lived in the most rarefied and glamorous of circles, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China, to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Madrid under Franco’s regime, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris. But it was also a life of stark contrasts – between the opulent excess of embassy banquets and the deprivations of wartime rationing in England, between the unfailing charm she displayed in public and the dark depressions that blanketed her in private, between her great appetite for life and her sudden, early death.
Throughout Elisabeth’s adult life, the lists were a source of structure and comfort. And now, as Lulah learns that she is losing her own mother, she finds herself turning to her grandmother’s life, and to her much-travelled book of lists, in search of meaning and solace.
The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
In the mid-1930s, George Orwell was given an assignment from his publisher – to write a book about unemployment and social conditions in the economically depressed north of England. Revolutionary for its time, The Road to Wigan Pier documents Orwell’s stint in towns likes Barnsley, Sheffield and Wigan in 1936, where he met and observed working-class people living in the bleak industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Orwell graphically and emphatically describes the hardships of ordinary people living in cramped slum housing, working in dangerous mines and growing hungry through malnutrition and social injustice. It is an honest, gripping and humane study that also looks at socialism as a solution to the problems facing working-class northerners – something many readers at the time were uncomfortable discussing. The Road to Wigan Pier cemented ideas that would be found in Orwell’s later works, and remains a powerful portrait of poverty, injustice and class divisions in Britain to this day.
The Street Party – Claire Seeber
“The party was supposed to be the highlight of the summer. If only I’d known that night would destroy our lives…
All the neighbours were laughing, drinking out of plastic glasses and getting along. I almost felt happy. Almost forgot about the terrible argument earlier and the sinister messages I’d been receiving from a strange address all week, threatening to expose the lies behind my perfect life.
As we finished with the red and gold fireworks and welcomed everyone back to our house, I believed that everything would be okay.
But I didn’t know who I was inviting in.
Buried – Lynda La Plante
DC Jack Warr and his girlfriend Maggie have just moved to London to start a new life together. Though charming, Jack can’t seem to find his place in the world – until he’s drawn into an investigation that turns his life upside down.
In the aftermath of a fire at an isolated cottage, a badly charred body is discovered, along with the burnt remains of millions of stolen, untraceable bank notes.
Jack’s search leads him deep into a murky criminal underworld – a world he finds himself surprisingly good at navigating. But as the line of the law becomes blurred, how far will Jack go to find the answers – and what will it cost him?
August / September 2021
The Splendid and the Vile – Erik Larsen
A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz Every time Churchill took to the airwaves it was as if he were injecting adrenaline-soaked courage directly into the British people … Larson tells the story of how that feat was accomplished … Fresh, fast and deeply moving.’ New York Times
In the Dark – Deborah Moggach
From the bestselling author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 1916. Pretty Eithne Clay runs a ramshackle South London boarding house with the help of her teenage son, Ralph, and their maid, Winnie. Struggling to keep herself, her lodgers, and her son going as everyday life vanishes in the face of war, Eithne’s world is transformed by the arrival of Mr Turk, the virile, carnal, carnivorous local butcher who falls passionately in love with her. As the house bursts to life with the electricity – metaphorical and real – he brings, dark secrets come to light…
Meeting the English – Kate Clanchy
In response to an advertisement, Struan Robertson, orphan, genius, and just seventeen, leaves his dour native town in Scotland, and arrives in London in the of summer of 1989. His job is to care for playwright and one-time literary star Phillip Prys, dumbfounded and paralyzed by a massive stroke, because, though Phillip’s two teenage children, two wives, and a literary agent all rattle ’round his large house, they are each too busy with their peculiar obsessions to do it themselves. As the city bakes, Struan finds himself tangled in a midsummer’s dream of mistaken identity, giddying property prices, wild swimming, and overwhelming passions. For everyone, it is to be a life-changing summer.
June / July 2021
Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon
Bryony Gordon has OCD.
It’s the snake in her brain that has told her ever since she was a teenager that her world is about to come crashing down: that her family might die if she doesn’t repeat a phrase 5 times, or that she might have murdered someone and forgotten about it. It’s caused alopecia, bulimia, and drug dependency. And Bryony is sick of it. Keeping silent about her illness has given it a cachet it simply does not deserve, so here she shares her story with trademark wit and dazzling honesty.
A hugely successful columnist for the Telegraph, a bestselling author, and a happily married mother of an adorable daughter, Bryony has managed to laugh and live well while simultaneously grappling with her illness. Now it’s time for her to speak out. Writing with her characteristic warmth and dark humour, Bryony explores her relationship with her OCD and depression as only she can.
Mad Girl is a shocking, funny, unpredictable, heart-wrenching, raw and jaw-droppingly truthful celebration of life with mental illness.
Mum & Dad – Joanna Trollope
Sunday Times number-one best seller Joanna Trollope explores the issues at the heart of a modern family with her trademark wit and warmth, in Mum & Dad.
What a mess, she thought now…what a bloody, unholy mess the whole family has got itself into.
It’s been 25 years since Gus and Monica left England to start a new life in Spain, building a vineyard and wine business from the ground up. However, when Gus suffers a stroke and their idyllic Mediterranean life is thrown into upheaval, it’s left to their three grown-up children in London to step in….
Sebastian is busy running his company with his wife, Anna, who’s never quite seen eye to eye with her mother-in-law.
Katie, a successful solicitor in the City, is distracted by the problems with her long-term partner, Nic, and the secretive lives of their three daughters.
And Jake, ever the easy-going optimist, is determined to convince his new wife, Bella, that moving to Spain with their 18-month-old would be a good idea.
As the children descend on the vineyard, it becomes clear that each has their own idea of how best to handle their mum and dad, as well as the family business. But as long simmering resentments rise to the surface and tensions reach breaking point, can the family ties prove strong enough to keep them together?
Tidelands – Philippa Gregory
England, 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different…. Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri
Nuri is a beekeeper, his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.
Haven’t They Grown – Sophie Hannah
All Beth has to do is drive her son to his Under-16s away match, watch him play, and bring him home. Just because she knows that her former best friend lives near the football ground, that doesn’t mean she has to drive past her house and try to catch a glimpse of her. Why would Beth do that, and risk dredging up painful memories? She hasn’t seen Flora Braid for twelve years.
But she can’t resist. She parks outside Flora’s house and watches from across the road as Flora and her children, Thomas and Emily, step out of the car. Except…
There’s something terribly wrong.
Flora looks the same, only older – just as Beth would have expected. It’s the children that are the problem. Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily Braid were five and three years old. Today, they look precisely as they did then. They are still five and three. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt – Beth hears Flora call them by their names – but they haven’t changed at all. They are no taller, no older.
Why haven’t they grown?
Becoming – Michelle Obama
Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same. An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.
March / April 2021
Big Sky – Kate Atkinson Jackson
Brodie has relocated to a quiet seaside village in North Yorkshire, in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son Nathan and ageing Labrador Dido, both at the discretion of his former partner Julia. It’s a picturesque setting, but there’s something darker lurking behind the scenes.
Jackson’s current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband for his suspicious wife, seems straightforward, but a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network-and back into the path of someone from his past. Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking new literary crime novel, both sharply funny and achingly sad, by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today.
Midnight Library – Matt Haig
The Midnight Library is about Nora, a thirty-something woman who is regretful about her life and feels alienated and unneeded in this world. In the depths of her wallowing, she comes across the Midnight Library. In it, each book represents a portal into another variation of what her life could have been
The Boy with the Topknot -Sathnam Sanghera
“It’s 1979, I’m three years old, and like all breakfast times during my youth it begins with Mum combing my hair, a ritual for which I have to sit down on the second-hand, floral-patterned settee, and lean forward, like I’m presenting myself for execution.”
For Sathnam Sanghera, growing up in Wolverhampton in the eighties was a confusing business. On the one hand, these were the heady days of George Michael mix-tapes, Dallas on TV and, if he was lucky, the occasional Bounty Bar. On the other, there was his wardrobe of tartan smocks, his 30p-an-hour job at the local sewing factory and the ongoing challenge of how to tie the perfect top-knot.
And then there was his family, whose strange and often difficult behaviour he took for granted until, at the age of twenty-four, Sathnam made a discovery that changed everything he ever thought he knew about them. Equipped with breathtaking courage and a glorious sense of humour, he embarks on a journey into their extraordinary past – from his father’s harsh life in rural Punjab to the steps of the Wolverhampton Tourist Office – trying to make sense of a life lived among secrets.
January / February 2020
Where The Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
For years, rumors of the Marsh Girl have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.
A History of Britain in 21 Women – Jenni Murray
Britain has been defined by its conflicts, its conquests, its men and its monarchs. To say that it’s high time it was defined by its women is a severe understatement. Jenni Murray draws together the lives of 21 women to shed light upon a variety of social, political, religious and cultural aspects of British history.
In lively prose Murray reinvigorates the stories behind the names we all know and reveals the fascinating tales behind those less familiar. From famous queens to forgotten visionaries and from great artists to our most influential political actors, A History of Britain in 21 Women is a veritable feast of history.
Knots And Crosses – Ian Rankin
‘And in Edinburgh of all places. I mean, you never think of that sort of thing happening in Edinburgh, do you…?’ ‘That sort of thing’ is the brutal abduction and murder of two young girls. And now a third is missing, presumably gone to the same sad end. Detective Sergeant John Rebus, smoking and drinking too much, his own young daughter spirited away south by his disenchanted wife, is one of many policemen hunting the killer. And then the messages begin to arrive: knotted string and matchstick crosses – taunting Rebus with pieces of a puzzle only he can solve.
November / December 2019
The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman
In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.
But when a local property developer shows up dead, ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ finds themselves in the middle of their first live case.
The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing 80, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?
The Threads of Life – Clare Hunter
The Hare with Amber Eyes meets A History of the World in 100 Objects, Threads of Life is a history of sewing and embroidery, told through the stories of the men and women, over centuries and across continents, who have used the language of sewing to make their voices heard, even in the most desperate of circumstances.
From the political storytelling of the Bayeux tapestry’s anonymous embroiderers and Mary, Queen of Scots’ treasonous stitching, to the sewing of First World War soldiers suffering from PTSD and the banner makers at Greenham Common, Threads of Life stretches from medieval France to 1980s America, from a Second World War POW camp in Singapore to a family attic in Scotland. It is as much about identity, protest, memory and politics as craft and artistry.
The Yorkshire Shepherdess – Amanda Owens
Amanda Owen has been seen by millions on ITV’s The Dales, living a life that has almost gone in today’s modern world, a life ruled by the seasons and her animals. She is a farmer’s wife and shepherdess, living alongside her husband, Clive, and seven children at Ravenseat, a 2,000 acre sheep hill farm at the head of Swaledale in North Yorkshire. It’s a challenging life but one she loves.
In The Yorkshire Shepherdess, she describes how the rebellious girl from Huddersfield, who always wanted to be a shepherdess, achieved her dreams. Full of amusing anecdotes and unforgettable characters, the book takes us from fitting in with the locals to fitting in motherhood, from the demands of the livestock to the demands of raising a large family in such a rural backwater.
Amanda also evokes the peace of winter, when they can be cut off by snow without electricity or running water, the happiness of spring and the lambing season, and the backbreaking tasks of summertime – haymaking and sheepshearing – inspiring us all to look at the countryside and those who work there with new appreciation.