Maybe it's because Spring is in the air, but we have all been reading a little more than normal recently, so this month's What We've Been Reading is a bit of a bumper edition.
We all read quite differently here in The Willoughby Book Club HQ. It's always interesting to find out the titles we have been enjoying recently. We have heaps of 'want to read' books by our desks as well as at home, piling up much faster than we can possibly read them. Here are the ones we have tackled so far!
I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai
This is a literary page turner, full of mid-90s details, a true crime podcast, discussions of racial discrimination, privilege, and the MeToo movement. There are some heavy subjects, but they are handled in a clever, non-salacious way.
Bodie Kane, film professor and podcaster has tried to forget her tragic past. Her former roommate was found murdered and a man found guilty. Case closed. But when she returns to her former boarding school to teach a podcasting class, one of the students decides she wants to dig into the truth of the crime all those years ago.
I read Makkai’s second novel in two days, which should attest to how gripping its plot is!
She and her Cat by Makoto Shunkai
'On the outskirts of Tokyo, in a neighbourhood crossed by a commuter railway, local cats weave their way through the lives and homes of their owners as they navigate difficult times'
This is a slender, gentle novel of the scheming of cats to improve the lives of the owners that they adopt, interspersed with elegant illustrations. Each chapter, and the lives of the protagonists are intertwined with the others for a satisfying conclusion.
A perfect read for a lazy Sunday, and a lovely reminder of how much we gain from having cats in our lives.
Homecoming by Kate Morton
I have read a couple of this author’s books in the past and enjoyed them, so I bought this one as soon as it was published.
The story starts on Christmas Eve in Adelaide in 1959 with a police investigation after a delivery man discovers a crime scene. Sixty years later, journalist Jess goes to visit her grandmother in hospital after a fall. Jess’s grandmother seems confused, muttering things that don’t make sense to Jess, as she starts to dig into the past, family secrets starts to be revealed.
I love a family saga, dual-timelined story of secrets and the setting in Australia appealed to me as I haven’t read many books based here. l enjoyed it and have already recommended it to friends.
This was a long book, over 600 pages, but don’t be put off by it. Definitely worth the read.
A Magic Steeped In Poison by Judy I. Lin
Full of Chinese mythology and tea, we follow Ning as she ventures to the imperial city for a competition of magical tea making, in the hopes of finding an antidote to the poisoned tea that's slowing killing her sister and that has already killed her mother.
Once there, Ning must find a way to battle, and learn to navigate dangerous court politics, backstabbing competitors and a mysterious boy who has a shocking secret!
I loved learning about the protagonist, Ning, as she learnt how to traverse a completely different world to her own. As the book goes on, the danger Ning finds herself in steps up a notch and I found myself racing towards the end hoping she’d survive!
This book is full of drama, magic and ancient tea-making, which is right up my street and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake
Following on from one of my favourite releases of 2022, Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail did not disappoint!
I thoroughly enjoyed the camp and fun rom-com nature of the book and instant tense rivalry between the two main characters. It’s a fun lesson on how to come back from making the wrong impression on first meeting, while both characters are way too stubborn to admit any fault. After all, what would you do if the woman you completely berated for spilling coffee all over your very, very expensive dress, turns out to be the same person you must renovate a haunted house with? Admittedly not a very common occurrence, but who knows, it could happen. With the careers of both Jo and Astrid hanging on this project, they quickly come to the conclusion that they’ll have to learn to either work together or crash and burn.
Full of entertaining side characters and haphazard thrown together plans, I had a lot of fun reading this book. I’m still amazed at how well Ashley Herring Blake balances the fun, light nature of the book with some serious emotional moments and insights into both characters. For me, she excels at character writing and always leaves me thinking about them long after I’ve put down the book. She is on my list of must buy authors, and I can’t wait to she what she comes out with next!
Anam Cara by John O’Donohue
It’s 25 years since the first publication of Anam Cara, and 25 years since I first picked up a copy as a bookseller in the first bookshop I ever worked in, so it was high time for me to rediscover its wisdom.
Not usually one for underlining or annotating, I found myself marking up this copy, dog-earing the pages as I carted it around with me everywhere, and recommending it left right and centre. This is a reverent and poetic meditation on myth and philosophy, and the cycles of nature, and what it means to be human, and I know I'll be returning to it time and time again.
Summer at the Ice Cream Cafe by Jo Thomas
This story follows Beca who leaves London to return to the Welsh seaside where she was born. She finds a lot has changed in the town since she left under a cloud 20 years ago, the gelato café her grandparents owned has been bought out by her ex-boyfriend and turned into a wine bar. Beca has plans of fostering young children in an old farmhouse she has just won at auction, but it doesn’t quite go to plan when she is left with two teenage boys for care for. When she finds an old recipe book of her grandparents, she has the idea of recreating their old gelato business in a rundown boathouse on the beach. But someone in the small town wants to get in her way.
Jo Thomas is my guilty pleasure, not my usual genre at all but I have read a few of her books now and have always enjoyed them. This latest one was no exception. I love the cheeriness and escapism of the stories. This was a nice one to read in the run-up to Summer with the coastal setting and warm weather. I particularly liked the fostering storyline in this book, it was something a bit different to her previous books.
This author always manages to make you feel as if you’re in the actual setting with her descriptions. I could almost feel the sun and taste the gelato. I wanted to be there.
Although these books are always predictable, what starts out as a conflict with a small knit community and a hostile man, ends up in acceptance, friendships and romance, that’s what I love about them. You know what you’re getting and you know you’re going to enjoy it. These books are always easy to read and very enjoyable...they are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers
“That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.”
The Offing is a short, gentle novel about platonic love and coming of age in post-war England. One summer, shortly after the end of World War Two, Robert Appleyard has left his family and his grey mining town in Durham to travel south, delaying his inevitable return to an adulthood spent in the pits.
He sleeps in barns, carries out work for desperate farmers with labour shortages, and forages for food as he walks. One day he finds himself on the north Yorkshire coast, at the fisherman’s village (and former smugglers’ cove) of Robin Hood’s Bay. He stumbles across the ramshackle cottage of a bohemian older woman named Dulcie and her loyal German Shepherd, Butler. Dulcie’s immediate warmth and hospitality is a welcome relief to Robert, who is fed, watered, and sheltered after weeks of struggle. Realising that nature is gradually engulfing Dulcie’s garden and home, Robert offers his manual labour in exchange for staying in a small, abandoned artist’s studio in the meadow. Soon, over the summer months, the studio and the mystery of its abandonment eventually unravels the sad and painful secrets of Dulcie, giving context as to why she now resides in this quiet, sleepy part of the world.
The social class differences between the two characters are evident, but there is never any snobbery from Dulcie, who sees Robert for who he is; a strong, curious and free-spirited soul, born in a time of rigidity for class and gender roles. Her unbridled philosophy of personal freedom is infectious to him- as is the sea. The sea, like the hum of the past war, is ever-present throughout the book. It represents many things: a certain kind of wildness, freedom, the cyclical nature of things. Dulcie gives him books to read and they talk of their very disparate lives in humorous and touching ways. Food, the natural world, and language bind the two unlikely friends together to make an unforgettable Summer for both. Robert, too, never judges Dulcie or her life. His openness and acceptance of her and her history are refreshing and compounds the feeling of warmth within the novel.
Myers’ nature and food writing are absolutely beautiful. The characters dine al fresco most days. He describes them drinking nettle tea and eating fresh lobster. He writes of thick hunks of bread and butter, wild garlic, crisp white wine, fish and chips. He writes of ‘the inventory of sound’ when awaking in the meadow, the bright sunshine, the thrum of insects, the startled movements of deer, the thoughtful, lumbering movements of badgers. It all comes together to create a palpable sense of time and place.
The Offing is an ode to living and immediately made me want to up sticks from the Midlands and move to the coast. It is also a fully immersive read and the character of Dulcie in particular, will not be forgotten quickly.