These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. The first four are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for January.
Whatever Next? – Lesson from an unexpected life, by Anne Glenconner (Hodder & Stoughton)
Not many people would have the optimism, at the age of 90, to write a book titled Whatever Next? And Anne Glenconner is certainly not thinking of the obvious.
She has lived a life of money and prestige, being the daughter of the Earl of Leicester and the widow of Lord Glenconner (better known to tabloid readers as Colin Tennant of Mustique island fame). She was a society hostess, a maid of honour at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and lady-in-waiting to the queen’s sister Princess Margaret. She speaks of the house in Norfolk, the castle in Scotland, the flat in London.
Colin Tennant will be remembered by some as the man who bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean, then a failing cotton estate without electricity or fresh water, and transformed it into a luxury retreat frequented by the likes of Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger.
And yet her life has not been all roses. Her husband was a brilliant and mercurial man prone to public tantrums, who once beat her so badly that she permanently lost the hearing in an ear.
She also lost two sons – one to hepatitis C as a result of heroin addiction, and one to HIV – and a third son nearly died in a motor cycle accident, spending four months in a coma.
When Tennant died, he left his entire estate to his valet, and a long legal battle ensued before the current Lord Glenconner, her grandson, was able to retrieve some of Tennant’s property.
And yet with an innate sense of curiosity and optimism, as well as being trained as a child to be polite, demure and welcoming, she has created a successful life. She still has a son and two daughters, as well as several grandchildren, she is obviously comfortably off, she has travelled widely and has many dear friends.
In her 80s she was persuaded to write her autobiography, Lady in Waiting, based partly on her relationship with Princess Margaret, and this opened up an entirely new career, and led to this latest book.
She says of all her roles in life – daughter, wife, mother, lady-in-waiting – her favourite is that of author. “It has taught me that it is never too late for a new chapter – the one you write for yourself.”
These days she is always asked her secrets for a healthy long life. And she believes the key is striking a balance between pleasing herself and pleasing others.
Last year she turned 90, with a “bonfire” of a birthday cake – all those candles – and told her guests: “I look forward to seeing you all here again in 10 years’ time.”
The Light We Left Behind, by Tessa Harris (HQ/ HarperCollins)
Most readers will have heard of Bletchley Park and its role in World War II, but it wasn’t the only stately home where hush-hush matters were happening.
Trent Park, an estate once owned by Sir Philip Sassoon, is at the end of London’s Piccadilly Line at Cockfosters, and has been referred to as the house of the secret listeners.
It emerged in 1996, when “top secret” records were declassified, the mansion had been a luxury prison to dozens of senior German POWs. They were allowed walks in the grounds, could use the on-site shop, and even had access to a Savile Row tailor.
But what the German officers didn’t know was that their private conversations were being recorded, with microphones placed in every room and even in bushes outside. The information gathered provided vital intelligence on troop movements, tanks, codes and ciphers, and most importantly, the development of the V-1, V-2 unmanned rocket bombs. There were also plans for the V-3.
Author Tessa Harris has used this as a background to an interesting novel about a young German-speaking psychologist, Maddie Gresham, who is recruited to Trent Park to “break” a senior German brigadier said to be the driving force behind the V rockets project.
I haven’t got very far with this novel yet, but I’m intrigued.
Isaac and the Egg, by Bobby Palmer (Headline Review)
Isaac is standing on a bridge in the dark, considering jumping. Life is pretty tough and he’s not sure there’s much to be grateful for.
He screams in despair, then hears an answering scream in the nearby woods. As dawn begins to break he goes in search of the source of the sound. And there, in the centre of a clearing, is an egg. No ordinary egg, this; it’s about 60cm high, white, and oddly soft to the touch, like a boiled egg that’s been peeled.
He looks around nervously, in case whatever creature capable of laying such an egg might be nearby, then picks it up and takes it home.
To my mind this doesn’t sound a particularly promising start to a novel, but then I’m not much of a fantasy fan. But it’s had rave reviews.
One reader wrote: “I read it in one breath… true and tragic and funny and hopeful and big – big enough somehow to contain all of our stories and all of our lives inside it.”
Another wrote: “Truly one of the most beautiful stories you’ll ever read.”
So I’m ready to give Isaac and his egg a go.
The Lindbergh Nanny, by Mariah Fredericks (Headline Review)
Betty Gow was a young Scottish woman who went to the US in search of a new life, and was hired by Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne to look after their toddler son, Charlie.
Charles Lindbergh was beyond famous, having made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and the Lindbergh couple travelled a great deal. This meant Betty spent a lot of time with the little boy alone, and they grew close.
As we all know, one night in March 1932, after Betty and Anne had put Charlie down to sleep, he was kidnapped from his bed. Two months later his body was found in the woods, not far from his home.
Betty was the one who discovered Charlie missing, and after his body was found she was asked to identify him to spare his parents the pain.
This novel is a retelling of the fallout of one of the 20th century’s most infamous crimes.
Breathless, by Cathy Donald (Europe Books/Helco Promotions)
Cathy Donald is a Cape Town medical doctor who was at the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic, and she has now written a novel based in a local hospital during those difficult and exhausting years.
Emily goes through the ups and downs of the pandemic, as well as the challenges for her family, the desperate struggle for survival of her patients, and her own problems trying to balance home and work in a desperate situation.
Donald has written a total of four novels, with the third, The Silence of the Shadows, winning the jury prize at the Milan International Literary Awards. It tells the story of five different Cape Town women.
Fly Away – a Sopwith Jones adventure, by Alan Haller (Austin Macauley Publishers)
This action-packed novel by a retired South African-born engineer is rather touchingly subtitled “A Sopwith Jones adventure”, although you’d be forgiven for never having heard of Sopwith Jones, as this is the first in what Alan Haller hopes will be a series.
Set in the present, Sopwith (his father was an aviation buff), an aeronautical engineer, develops a solar-powered aircraft, but then a corrupt SA government minister tries to hijack the technology, and Sopwith is forced to flee to the UK, along with his aircraft.
Some time later, accompanied by a new wife, he flies down Africa, only to be shot down by Boko Haram jidhadists. The couple survive, and end up in Palma in Mozambique where they are captured by jihadists and held together with another pilot, who is beheaded.
It all gets a bit breathless, but if action and excitement are what you’re after, this might be the book for you. Haller says he has written a sequel.