Monthly Archives: February 2024

Bedside table books for February

These are among the books that landed on my desk in February. The first three are from Exclusive Books’s top reads of the month. Some of the books will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Water, by John Boyne (Doubleday)

I have a weakness for islands, and so the premise of Water appeals. Vanessa Carvin, who is in her 50s, leaves Dublin for a small island off the Irish coast in a form of self-imposed exile.

About the first thing she does is change her name to Willow Hale, her middle name and maiden surname. Then she shaves off most of her hair. She is glad there is no wi-fi or television in her bare little cottage, and after switching the radio on she switches it off a minute later. It’s a rare privilege to be so wilfully ignorant of the world and all its nonsense, she muses.

We learn early on that Willow has a past, one that was often discussed on talk radio. Was she in on it, listeners wonder. Like attracts like, they mutter.

While Willow may have taken herself away, it’s harder to shuck her past, and the “scandals that follow like hunting dogs”. She has to try to figure out if her former husband was really the monster everyone says he is.

And whether she was complicit.

One reviewer says of Water: “…Boyne tells us a story we thought we knew, but strips away the ideology to present a new way of seeing.”

The Women, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is California 1966 and Finley McGrath is off to Vietnam, the latest in a line of fighting McGraths. His younger sister Frankie is going to miss him very much.

One day Finely’s friend points out there are no pictures of women heroes on the wall of her father’s study, and tells Frankie women can be heroes too. This has never occurred to Frankie.

She is doing nursing training, and she realises they’re going to need nurses in Vietnam. She could join Finley.

Things don’t work out quite as she’d expected.

The Women is dedicated to “the courageous women who served in Vietnam”, most of them nurses. Author Kristin Hannah says after the war was over, in many instances they went home to a world that didn’t care about their service and or want to hear about their experiences.

“I am proud to have this opportunity to shine a light on their strength, resilience, and grit.”

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben (Penguin Books)

Maya Burkett is with her husband Joe in Central Park on a pleasant evening when two men approach and shoot him. Calling for help, Maya flees.

Afterwards, she blames herself. She was, until recently, an army captain with service in Iraq, a markswoman and a helicopter pilot. She is strong and tough, how come she didn’t or couldn’t protect Joe?

After the funeral, Maya’s friend Eileen gives her what she calls a nanny cam. Seeing there is no Joe around any more, and Maya works full time giving flying lessons, Eileen thinks it might be helpful to keep an eye on how the nanny looks after toddler Lily. (Is that even legal?)

And then, one morning, shortly before Joe’s will is read, Maya is idly watching yesterday’s footage while reading Dr Seuss to Lily, when a man appears in the frame – and it’s a man both Maya and Lily know very well: Joe.

That’s as far as I’ve got. But Harlan Coben is a master of the thriller, and other reviews promise that the story only gets better.

The title was first published in 2016 but has been republished to coincide with a 2024 eight-part British TV series made for Netflix and starring Joanna Lumley among others.

Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year, by Joanna Nell (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)

Dr and Dr Winterbottom have retired from their practice in an English village after more than 40 years. On the first morning of the rest of their lives, they eat breakfast at the mossy patio table – mossy because largely unused – under a heavy grey sky.

Alan has broken with his tradition of marmalade toast and cooked himself a couple of kippers, nauseating Heather, who settles for muesli. So what are they going to do?

Heather knows the way to get Alan to do what she wants is to present him with a couple of alternatives, one of which will not appeal. “We could get fit,” she says. Pilates, yoga…

Or… go to Greece on holiday.

Alan says he’s done Greece. He spent a month or two in his gap year drinking beer and shagging his way around the Greek archipelago. There’s no rush, they could go next year, he says.

Alan has a better plan. He wants to grow a vegetable garden. Heather points out he hates gardening. Only mowing the lawn and weeding, he counters.

Heather contemplates watching home improvement programmes on the telly every afternoon, “the passage of hours marked only in the boiling and cooling of the kettle”.

This is not going well. After a few ups and downs, Heather comes to a conclusion. She’s going to take a year off, alone, in Greece, a la Shirley Valentine.

Of course, things don’t go quite the way she’s planned.

The Last Trial, by Scott Turow (Macmillan)

Legendary American defence lawyer Sandy Stern is 85 and not well, but he has been persuaded to take on his last criminal trial in defence of his old friend – old in both senses of the word – Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and a man who has now been charged in a federal racketeering indictment with murder, fraud and insider trading.

Can the charges possibly be based on fact, Stern wonders as the trial progresses. And will Stern ever really know the truth, even if he wins in court?

We are told Stern’s belief in his friend and his belief in the justice system face a terrible test in the courtroom, “where evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart”.

The Observer said of Scott Turow’s writing: “Grisham might do it more often, but Turow does it much better.” Turow has written 11 bestselling novels, including Presumed Innocent, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

The Last Trial was published in 2020, but I’ve just got my hands on it.

Held, by Anne Michaels (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

It is 1917 and after a blast John lies on a battlefield. He supposes he’s seriously injured as he can’t feel his legs, and his mind drifts between the present and the past.

Snow is falling thickly, but he doesn’t feel cold, which puzzles him. He wonders if he will know the moment of his death or will it be like night falling?

But John doesn’t die, and three years later he is home, but not whole. He is reunited with Helen, his lover and an artist, and reopens his photography business.

But he discovers the past is very much with him, and ghosts start to appear in his pictures.

This is a story that spans four generations, but it is a slight novel, not a tome, often written in short sections. The writing is beautiful.

Anne Michaels is the author of Fugitive Pieces, which was described by John Berger of the Observer as “the most important book I have read for 40 years”. She has also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Power and Faith – How evangelical churches are quietly shaping our democracy, by Pontsho Pilane (Tafelberg)

In her introduction to this title, Pontsho Pilane says she has always been uncomfortable with the level of dependence the SA government and civil society place on faith-based organisations as conduits into communities and the delivery of social service.

She understands that is because so many people are religious and belong to an institutional faith structure, “but it is particularly worrying in SA because our constitution includes many policies that are contrary to conservative interpretations of the Bible and other religious beliefs”.

The aim of her book is to unpack structural and systemic issues of  Christian evangelism in SA and the “sociopolitical implications that they have and will have on the state of health, human rights and other aspects of our everyday lives as South Africans”.

The book is for the young women who fall prey to evangelical religion, for those “trapped in the clutches of evangelicalism and cannot see a way out… this book is for… churches unaware of how they are tainting our democracy”.

Power and Faith has been declared “Book of the Month” by News24.






The biographer strikes back

Review: Vivien Horler

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

Most of us will never have biographies written of our lives, and just as well, judging from the tension and upset between John le Carré and his biographer Adam Sisman.

John le Carré was published in 2015, and at least one reviewer complained there seemed to be a lot the reader was not being told. He was right, because it turned out Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, had what he called “my own messy private life”, which he did not want made public.

Although the biography was written with Le Carré’s cooperation, it was agreed from the start that it would not be described as “authorised”. Sisman assumes this was so Cornwell could distance himself from it if necessary.

And as time went by he did want to distance himself, to the point that Sisman says Le Carré tried to undermine the work. Continue reading

The tale of a life by a master writer, in her own words

Review: Vivien Horler

A Memoir of my Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was a serious writer, but not above the odd deliciously snide remark.

While we know her for her novels, especially the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy that raked in two Booker Prizes, she also wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals, including The Guardian, The Spectator, The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Many of the pieces were film reviews, some of which are included in this volume.

She describes Babette’s Feast as “a perfect film”, adding pointedly: “There may be some people who don’t like it; but they will not be the sort of people you would like to dine with.” Continue reading

Murder, racial injustice, greed and corruption – the extraordinary tale of the Osage people

Review: Vivien Horler

Killers of the Flower Moon – Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Simon& Schuster)

While few people would condone murder, many might understand how it could be committed in the heat of the moment. But to plan and arrange a series of killings over a number of years, of people who were fond of you, with an eye on the main prize, seems particularly abhorrent.

This is at the centre of an extraordinary tale of greed and utter ruthlessness affecting members of the Native American Osage people in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s.

The baddie behind the tale that unfolds in this book is a white man, William Hale, a businessman and cattleman of wide interests, and a respected reserve sheriff. He is considered by many Osage people as a benefactor. Continue reading

It’s snowing, it’s Christmas – and things are not going right

Review: Vivien Horler

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop, by Jenny Colgan (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

Jenny Colgan is a best-selling writer of romantic comedy of whom I had never heard until I read Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop. If this is anything to go by, she’s a delightful writer.

And if you’ve never experienced Christmas in a snowy Edinburgh (I haven’t), this may inspire plans for your festive season this year.

Carmen is 30, unmarried, and working in a struggline bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Because she earns so little, she is living in a basement room in her lawyer sister’s beautiful house, along with sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband and their four children.

Carmen was in a bit of a bind and asked Sofia if she could stay for a couple of months, but it’s been a year now, and Sofia and her husband are getting fretful. Sofia is about to go back to work after maternity leave, and needs Carmen’s room for a new nanny. Continue reading