RAE’S READING ROUND-UP FOR… FEBRUARY 2021

Hello reading friends!

Spring has definitely sprung here in northern Scotland, as the days lengthen and the sun has reappeared. I was even lucky enough to spot a woodpecker scouting my garden. And given February is traditionally the month of romance, I’m pleased to share that all of this month’s reading have longing at their heart, albeit Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on paternal love.

Also, please drop by on the 15th March when I’ll be enjoying an author Heart-to-Heart with Catherine Miller, discussing her fascinating latest novel, The Missing Piece.

In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!

THE BOATMAN’S WIFE by NOELLE HARRISON

Having been born and brought up within a fishing community and, at one time, been a fisherman’s wife, I was immediately drawn to Noelle Harrison’s, The Boatman’s Wife. Set against the rugged backdrops of both western Ireland and Maine, this is a dual timeline story that follows the journeys of Niamh and Lily, both strong, determined, passionate women drawn together by secrets.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Lily’s husband, Connor is lost in a fishing tragedy (as it’s in the blurb) and some of my favourite passages from the novel were set on the ocean. Noelle makes it easy for the reader to imagine tangled wind-tossed hair and the gritty feel of salt on skin. I was wholly swept away by this tender novel about risk taking, loss, young love, and eventually finding a way through the darkness again. To discover more about Noelle and her writing, just check out my new Heart-to-Heart author interview series here

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by GEORGE SAUNDERS

One of the ways I’ve kept positive during lockdown is to set myself mini challenges, making sushi was one, reading the Man Booker Prize Winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was another. Based during the American Civil War, it focuses on President Lincoln and the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie. Newspapers reports of the time wrote of how President Lincoln returned to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body, and the reader is shown this through the eyes of the spirits who haunt the graveyard.

This makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound like a sad, desperate novel and nothing could be further from the truth as, as so often happens when surrounded by death, humour is used as a coping mechanism. For example, the residents of the cemetery refer to their coffins as ‘sick boxes’. Each character recounts scenes from his or her life, funny moments included. Saunders allows his imagination free rein as the novel tips into magical realism. I mentioned that I had set Lincoln in the Bardo as a challenge and for those not familiar with the work I’ll explain why. George Saunders is a well-respected and prolific short fiction writer, and Lincoln in the Bardo is structured in an unusual style. Several reviews have described the Booker winner as a series of footnotes, but what they failed to add is that they are the most wonderful, clever, beautifully crafted ‘foot-notes’. Although Lincoln in the Bardo is packaged as a novel, I recommend approaching reading it as if you were reading a Shakespearean play. Rich with characters and drama, I believe that soon students will study Lincoln in the Bardo as an examination text.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST by DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

Diane Chamberlain is the author that made me fall in love with issue-driven women’s fiction, about ordinary women digging deep to make necessary changes in their lives. So, imagine my excitement when I discovered one that I’d missed – The Escape Artist.

When Susanna Miller loses a custody battle, she flees from Boulder, Colorado with her eleven-month-old son, Tyler and heads for the anonymity of Annapolis, Maryland. She settles quickly into her new home but can’t foresee how soon she will be drawn into a mystery that means to save others she must let Tyler go. Filled with rounded characters, I particularly liked that Chamberlain also focused on Peggy’s story. (Peggy had an affair with Susanna’s husband and is Tyler’s prospective new mum). As a reader, this gave a more balanced view, and showed how the pain of both women was real.

I believe The Escape Artist was first published during the late 90s, and it was interesting to be reminded of how our lives were then – think phone books and word processing. There was one plot line that perhaps stretched the imagination a little, but by then I was so invested in Susanna’s story that I didn’t mind. Also, by that stage I was completely charmed by Susanna’s long-term friend, Linc Sebastian, and was willing them to get together again. Did they hook up? … Read The Escape Artist to find out.

ME WITHOUT YOU by KELLY RIMMER

Oh my word, Me Without You by Kelly Rimmer just sucked me in, wrung out my heart and may turn out to be my favourite romantic read of the year. Set in Australia, Callum Roberts and Lilah MacDonald meet on a ferry boat travelling across Sydney harbour, and although there is an immediate attraction, Lilah’s strong opinions on both food and the environment are at odds with Callum’s meat-loving, marketing executive lifestyle.

As well as being completely swept up in Callum and Lilah’s budding relationship, there were two other factors that made me love this novel. The first was the Australian setting. Rimmer’s writing makes it easy to feel the sea breeze, to experience the wonder of the Blue Mountains, to taste the juicy fruits picked from the farm. Also, over fifty percent of the story is told from Callum’s point of view, which I found both refreshing and deeply romantic. I highly, highly recommend Me Without You for fans of Jojo Moyes’ bestseller, Me Before You.

SUMMER by EDITH WHARTON

Summer by Edith Wharton may seem a strange novel for my book club to choose during a snowy February in northern Scotland, but the group longed for the promise of warmer days and Summer was an unanimous choice. It is a coming-of-age novel, first published in 1917, that follows Charity Royall as she experiences the thrillers and pains of first love, under the watchful eye of her guardian, Mr Royall, as well as the close-knit community of North Dormer. There is a sense of foreboding throughout, as the reader knows more than young Charity, no matter how worldly she believes herself to be.

But there is also mild humour, as Charity expresses her desire to break free from the constraints of small-town life. The glamour of large towns appeals, but she is also painfully conscious of all she does not know. There is one particularly excruciating scene when her guardian confronts her in public when, by today’s standards, all she was doing was enjoying a fun day out. If, like my book group, you wish to escape to a time of cycle rides and picnics, then I’d recommend reading Summer at any time of year.

The Snow Angel by Lulu Taylor is for readers who love dual timelines that are woven around old country houses, offering scope for family secrets to remain hidden for years. The novel opens in London in the early sixties, when Cressida Felbridge is cocooned by polite society, courting a family friend. However, when she attends a sitting for the artist Ralph Few their initial friendship deepens, and they are forced to escape to December House.

In the present day, Emily Conway is left bruised, both physically and mentally, after an awful accident that leaves the life of her husband in the balance. She grabs the opportunity to relocate with her children to December House, in the hope of rebuilding her life again. I love Lulu Taylor’s writing style and its sweeping family drama feel, and so wanted to give The Snow Angel 5 stars, but there were a couple of issues that jarred for me. The historical thread didn’t feel as if it were set in the 1960s. The narrow attitudes of Cressida’s father, her initial acceptance of her lot, the claustrophobic nature of the household, all felt as though it belonged at the turn of the last century. (Although I’m sure Taylor did her homework.) The second was the introduction of Emily’s brother Tom, and the issues he brought with him. I didn’t feel he was necessary to the story and was almost a distraction from the main plot. All that said, fans of Taylor’s won’t be disappointed, it is still a wonderfully immersive read. Also, please don’t be put off by the title or the snowy cover, the snow angel only plays a very small part in the story and I could just as happily read it in summer.

Published by Rae Cowie

Check out my bookish chat at raecowie.com

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