March was a great month for me. I got lots of writing done, spent some time with my London-based agent over here in Sydney, then spent two weeks travelling around New Zealand’s south island with my family. Our days were filled with fresh air and mountains, lake-swimming and amazing wildlife, while the evenings were spent holed up in the campervan, drinking great NZ wine and reading books while the kids snored loudly in their bunks. A perfect holiday.
Here’s what made it onto my holiday reading list:
Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
I think it was promotion for Tom Rob Smith’s new book, The Farm, that reminded there was a copy of his debut novel tucked away on our bookshelves. I threw it into the suitcase on a whim and I’m so glad I did.
Child 44 is Smith’s debut, a gripping crime thriller set in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The novel follows Leo Demidov, a state officer who begins to uncover the trail of a particularly nasty serial killer. The problem for Leo is that he lives and works for a regime that dictates no such crime can exist and anyone seen rocking the boat is either sent to the brutal labour camps or simply ‘vanishes’ forever. Leo will be risking his own life, and that of his wife, if he pursues the killer.
I haven’t read any fiction set in this period of history before and I found it brilliantly compelling – not just for suspense but also for the historical detail. I’m a little more squeamish about serial killers since I became a mum, but that aside, I found this book dark and utterly gripping. Apparently the novel is being turned into a movie starring one of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy, so I’m glad to have read it before its release later this year.
The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell
It’s been a while since I read a Lisa Jewell novel. I have no idea why. Ralph’s Party is one of my all-time favourite chick-lit books, so I can only put it down to oversight on my part. Since then, Jewell has cemented her spot as one of the biggest names in commercial women’s fiction, producing a string of bestsellers, the latest of which is the divine The House We Grew Up In.
I love a sprawling family saga and The House We Grew Up In is, for me, contemporary family saga at its best. It features a beautiful Cotswolds house, a bohemian, slightly unhinged mother, a mysterious tragedy casting its shadow over an entire family and a heavy dose of edgy realism. I loved the clever structure of the book, the way each character reveals their story, the slow and careful unveiling of truths, the often surprising directions and choices each one makes in the course of their life. It felt so relatable – as if the Birds could be any vaguely dysfunctional family spiralling out of control and Jewell weaves her story with such darkness and tension that I raced to get back to it each night. I certainly won’t be leaving it so long before my next Lisa Jewell novel!
Longbourn – Jo Baker
‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
I’m not one of those die-hard Austen fanatics. Re-reading Jane Austen reminds me a little too much of those hideous hours of swatting for school exams, and yet I couldn’t resist Jo Baker’s new novel, Longbourn, pitched with a quote on the front cover as ‘a reimagining of Pride & Prejudice from the point of view of the servants.’
It sounds a bit gimmicky, but trust me, Jo Baker’s delicious novel is so much more than a straight re-telling of a well-loved story. In fact, what’s so clever about it is that Pride and Prejudice hangs like a mere shadow over this novel. Here is a new and thoroughly enticing tale with wonderful characters to fall in love with, whose fortunes are of course destined to rise and fall with the Bennet family’s. There’s a lot of fun to be had in spotting moments from the original novel and how they impact on those working ‘downstairs’, but Longbourn stands on its own two feet, and then some. I absolutely loved it.
The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh
I found this novel thanks to a significant amount of twitter chatter. A husband, his wife and their teenage daughter are joined on holiday in Majorca by the daughter’s young, Adonis-like boyfriend. His arrival upsets the proverbial apple cart and changes all of their lives in the process.
Walsh’s sparse prose brilliantly evokes the heady atmosphere of a European holiday (at times I felt like I was floating in the Med, or smoking illicit cigarettes out on the terrace under the stars) and she expertly captures the joys and irritations of spending intense time together as a family. The push-pull dynamic between Jenn and her daughter is great and there is a taut, sexy suspense that kept me turning the pages late into the night. The book is laced with sex but it’s to Walsh’s credit that she pulls off the racy scenes with style – no bad sex awards for this author! My one word of caution would be that if you’re a reader with a slightly sensitive disposition or someone who really needs characters to empathise with, this might not be the novel for you. Personally, I thought it was terrific.
What were you reading last month? And do you have a favourite holiday read I should check out? I’d love to hear…