On my Bedside Table for February

  • THESE are some of the titles that landed on my desk in the past few weeks. Not all have been read yet, and some will be reviewed in full. – Vivien Horler

Outlawed, by Anna North (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

I opened this book about 90 minutes ago, am now on page 91, and am riveted. One shout on the cover describes it as something of a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which seems unlikely but so far sounds about right. In a version of America in 1894, after the Great Flu and the collapse of the United States, Ada, 17, is married, but turns out to be barren. Amid allegations that she is a witch she flees, first to a convent and then to join a bunch of feminist outlaws in Colorado called the Hole in the Wall gang.



1986, by William Dicey (Umuzi)

In his author’s note on this crisp summary of the events of the pivotal year of 1986, William Dicey says he read Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart a couple of years ago and was astonished to see Malan describe it as a watershed year in South African politics. Dicey was halfway through high school at Bishops at the time, and remembers the headmaster, John Peake, giving the prize-giving speech at the end of 1985. “…only a few kilometres from our gates, there is to be found a scene of nightmare, of burning, looting, murdering. A negation of education.” Dicey has drawn on newspaper articles, memoirs and stories to create “a compelling diary of a very bad year”. I loved Dicey’s earlier book Borderline, about a canoe trip down the Orange River, and much more besides.

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is Texas in 1934, and all is well in Elsa Martinelli’s world of family and farm on the Great Plains. But then the drought comes, and the Dust Bowl Era makes the Great Depression a hundred times worse. Her husband leaves, and she has to decide whether to take her children to California and a possibly better life, or stay and fight for the land. Delia Owens, author of the bestselling Where the Crawdads Sing, describes The Four Winds as “A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself.” Kristina Hannah’s novel The Great Alone, about a family trying to make a life in unforgiving Alaska, was brilliant.


The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman, by Julietta Henderson (Bantam Press)

Norman Foreman and his friend Jax have a dream to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe when they’re 15. They’re a pair of wannabe stand-up comedians, and they’ve put up a poster of their five-year plan in Norman’s room. Jax says timing is everything, but then he goes and dies, which demonstrates pretty poor timing, Norman reckons. Norman’s single mother finds her heart breaking when she sees Norman’s revised plan, which is to look after her, try to find the dad he’s never known, and get to the Fringe to perform a one-night Jax tribute show. So Norman’s mum decides on a pilgrimage to Edinburgh, and on the way they’ll see if they can find Norman’s dad. This looks like a delightful read.

Three Women and a Boat, by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

I’ve been on a number of narrowboat canal cruises in the UK which is a wonderful way to spend a slow week, so I couldn’t resist this novel. Anastasia, a narrowboat owner who is awaiting a life-saving operation, is joined on her boat by Eve, who has just left her 30-year career, and Sally, who has left her husband for a voyage through the English countryside. All three are vulnerable and the ups and downs of narrowboat life will draw them together – or drive them apart.



Life’s Not Yoga, or Is It? Finding love in the chaos of life, by Jacqui Burnett (Sophie Blue Press)

This is the non-fiction account of a troubled Cape Town teen who had a ghastly relationship with her awful father, a fraudster and a cheat. Later as an adult she goes to work for him, which turns out as badly as you might expect. There is a lot of detailed description, in capital letters, of their horrific shouting matches. Eventually, two failed marriages later, she goes to North America where I presume she reached the sunlit uplands referenced by the title of the book, but by that time I had been wearied by all the rage and had turned away.  (I was unable to download a cover picture to go with this entry.)


*All these titles – except Life’s Not Yoga – are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommendations for February 2021.


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