The Last Anniversary (2005): Liane Moriarty

★★★

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, two teenage sisters find a baby in an abandoned house on a small Australian island. Connie and Rose explain to reporters how they’d been invited to tea at Alice Munro’s house; how they arrived to find the kettle boiling and a marble cake cooling on the kitchen table, but no sign of Alice or Jack Munro anywhere in the house. Their clothes remained in the wardrobe; their baby daughter lay sleeping in her crib; but all that remained of the Munros was an overturned chair and a few specks on the floor, which might be blood. The Munro Baby Mystery swiftly becomes a famous puzzle, sparking conspiracy theories and the inevitable flood of curious tourists. Connie and Rose, ever entrepreneurial, are waiting for them with cups of tea and slices of cake (at a modest price). Seventy years on, the Munro House on Scribbly Gum Island has become a beloved tourist attraction, and Connie, Rose and (former) baby Engima have become wealthy women. But Connie’s death sets in motion a train of events that will place the Munro Baby Mystery under tighter scrutiny than ever before.

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Skin (2019): Liam Brown

★★

For weeks, it was all anybody spoke about. The virus had spread from the Philippines to Indonesia. Then from Malaysia to Thailand. Then to China. India. Russia. New cases were appearing by the day, with no sign of stopping. The death toll doubling by the hour. Then the minute. Pretty soon we lost count. It was simply millions.‘ Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin presents us with a world that must have seemed unlikely at the time of writing, but which now has striking similarities with everyday experience. In a dystopian near-future, a virus has decimated the world population. People are confined within their homes to protect them from the disease, connected to the outside world only by video calls and the internet, sinking into the mental blur of long-term isolation. Yet this isn’t the worst thing, for Brown’s virus takes a particularly cruel form. Spread by human contact, through breath or microscopic flakes of skin, it requires the members of a household to quarantine themselves separately. All human contact is out. Food is delivered by the government. Life has become a solo experience. This is the ‘new normal’. But, five years into lockdown, an English woman called Angela makes a shocking discovery which leads (or should have lead) her to question everything she has been told.

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Johnny and the Dead (1993): Terry Pratchett

★★★

Johnny Maxwell: Book 2

It was just a matter of time. I wrote a few days ago that we’ve been exploring some of our local cemeteries during the lockdown, piecing together the stories of the families buried there, and judging people on the quality of their gravestone poetry. Inevitably, this reminded me of one of my few childhood books that I brought with me to London: Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, which I promptly unearthed (‘exhumed’?) from my bookshelves. I don’t remember the circumstances of this purchase – I never read the other Johnny Maxwell books and this was long before I started reading Discworld – but my parents got it right. There’s something ineffably British about Pratchett’s story of a young lad who realises to his alarm that he can see dead people in the local Victorian cemetery. And, as he’s apparently the only one who can talk to them, he feels that he’s the one who has to break the news. Because the town council has decided that the cemetery is no longer relevant, and has decided to sell it off to a glossy modern company for a glossy progressive modern office block. Needless to say, the dead are not happy…

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The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

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The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

★★★

Masha has been trapped in the past for twelve years, ever since her young son toddled away from her and drowned in a tragic accident. When she goes to the lido every morning, it isn’t to swim, to make her body strong, but to force herself underwater and to stay to the very point of drowning, so that she can understand what he would have felt. When she visits her loyal, supportive friends – playing the part of a functioning grown-up – everyone knows that there are some subjects which must be avoided. One of the few ways that Masha finds peace is in her daily walk through the rambling local cemetery, with her lolloping dog Haizum, where she conjures up fanciful histories for the people whose graves she passes. And it’s here, in the cemetery, that she encounters an eccentric old woman who, quite unexpectedly, opens Masha’s eyes to the possibility of joy. This is a heartwarming tale of old friends, new friends and new starts, which sometimes strays dangerously close to being mawkish, but might well leave a tear in your eye.

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Where the Crawdads Sing (2018): Delia Owens

★★★★

Way out on the marshes, where the water meets the sky, a young girl grows to womanhood alone. Kya Clark has grown used to people abandoning her: first her mother left, then her beloved brother Jodie, and finally her abusive, drunken father failed to come home. It seems safer to place her trust in nature, which lives by simple rules without the duplicity of mankind. The family’s ramshackle home lies only a few miles from the little town of Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coast, but Kya might as well inhabit another world. Everyone in town knows that the marsh-dwellers are outcasts, law-breakers and thieves. When the body of popular local boy Chase Andrews is found broken and battered beneath the old fire tower just outside town in August 1969, people are quick to seek a scapegoat. And who better than the half-wild Marsh Girl? Delia Owen’s haunting novel was this month’s Book Club pick and my favourite so far (a relief, since I suggested it). It’s a paean to nature in all its rich variety, written in poetic cadences infused with Southern rhythms, and with a heroine who shatters all the stereotypes of the ‘outcast’. It’s the perfect novel for a time when, confined to homes and gardens, we finally have time to savour the natural world around us.

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Travelling in the Dark (2018): Emma Timpany

★★★

Sarah is making a long overdue journey. With her eight-year-old son beside her, she is on a long-haul flight from her home in London, ‘slipping across countries through the shimmering boundaries of time’, heading back to southern New Zealand where she grew up. As she nears her destination, Sarah must tackle memories from her childhood, recollections of a hard, unfair time that, even now, refuses to loosen its claws completely. Emma Timpany’s evocative but bleak novella, part of the Fairlight Moderns series, probes at the way in which we are yoked to our pasts and follows one woman’s efforts to close the circle: ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for history and memory to align, like stars over a mountain, and lead you home.

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Seventeen (2003): Hideo Yokoyama

★★★½

It’s 12 August 1985. Journalist Kazumasa Yuuki is trying to wrap up his work at the North Kanto Times so he can head off for a weekend climbing with his colleague Kyoichiro Anzai. They plan to tackle the demanding Tsuitate rock face on Mount Tanigawa, something far more challenging than anything Yuuki’s attempted before. However, just as he’s about to leave the office, he and his colleagues hear a shocking news report. A Japan Airlines jumbo jet carrying 524 people has disappeared from the radar; soon, news comes that it has crashed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka, with almost complete loss of life. The staff of the paper are stunned into silence. This is on their patch. Suddenly their small provincial paper is on the front line for the deadliest airline crash in history. Hideo Yokoyama’s novel covers the seven days that follow, as the editorial staff struggle to overcome internal factions to deal with the crash. Based on the true story of the Japan Airlines Flight 123, and inspired by Yokoyama’s own experiences working as a reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture at the time, this is a sobering and thoughtful story about rising to meet challenges – both in and out of the office.

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Followers (2019): Megan Angelo

★★★½

It’s remarkable how prescient The Truman Show (1998) looks nowadays. It’s also rather alarming that it no longer seems quite so strange for someone to live his entire life in public, for the voyeuristic gratification of others. After all, it happens all the time on Instagram. This dystopian debut novel by Megan Angelo tells two linked stories about the impact of celebrity: one set among the influencers and ‘Insta-famous’ of 2015, and the other in 2051, in a world that has changed beyond recognition in some ways, but which retains its thirst for consuming the lives of others. Now, I’ll be honest with you, and confess that I bought this expecting it to be a piece of diverting literary fluff – but it turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing, holding up an ominous mirror to the world in which we currently live, and asking just how much we really want to share.

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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019): Abbi Waxman

★★★

My book club has already thrown up several choices that take me outside my usual reading habits. Following on from Liar’s Candle, this month’s selection is a light and bubbly piece of biblio-chick-lit. Nina Hill is an attractive, kooky, bookish 29-year-old singleton, who works in a bookstore (of course she does), and lives alone with her cat (naturally) in a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles. She plans her life with military precision, but as the book starts she’s about to encounter two major curveballs that threaten to disrupt her cherished schedule. One curveball is Tom, the cute guy in the rival team at trivia night (aka pub-quiz night for Brits). The other, potentially more shattering, is news that Nina’s father has died. This comes as something of a shock, since she never knew who her father was. As she embarks on this terrifyingly unpredictable new chapter of her life, she must push herself to her limits, forcing herself out of the comfort zone she has so painstakingly created for herself. Will it be worth it?

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