After a tough winter, there’s something joyous about knowing that the sun won’t set before 6pm for the next six months – and it’s time to round up the book group from hibernation and have a good discussion.
With everyone feeling a bit more motivated to meet up (and read!), whether online, over WhatsApp, or in person, there’s no better way to get motivated for spring than by cracking the spine on one of the fantastic new releases coming our way.
We’ve rounded up some of our favourites to suggest, as well as books from the past few years (and older classics) that demand your attention and will keep you hooked until the last page – with plenty to chew over, along with whatever nibbly bits you serve up. Here’s to much happy book clubbing throughout 2023!
Themes: Personal freedom, history and identity, private vs public
Historian Crewe takes the real-life story of the writers Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds and the trial resulting from their 1897 book on homosexuality, Sexual Inversion, and fictionalises it to make an outstanding story with parallels between the sexually conflicted 19th century and our own, not vastly improved, modern day. Through his leading men, both in marriages of convenience (although not always so for their wives), Crewe asks questions about patriarchal structures, the importance of the women’s movement, and the very real moral dilemmas posed from reducing human life to theory.
Read more: an extract from A New Life by Tom Crewe
Themes: Family dynamics, inherited wealth, new directions
This absorbing drama about a family of one-per-centers living in and around their ancestral brownstone on the titular New York street piles on miscommunication and concealment in glorious ladlefulls. Sasha has newly married into the clan, but her refusal to sign a pre-nup has her sisters-in-law looking at her with new mistrust. Elder daughter Darley has given up her career and future inheritance for a simpler life with her husband and family, and younger daughter Georgiana is trying to find a way of using her wealth for good. Eavesdropping, gossip, and the weight of family tradition weight heavy on all three women – and that’s before husbands, parents, and more in-laws enter the equation.
Themes: Resilience, menopause, redemption
Menopause is a hot topic as much because of the appalling lack of time given to it by Britain’s medical services as the increased exposure its getting thanks to celebrity filmmakers such as Davina McCall. Grace’s daughter hates her, and her husband is divorcing her. While on the way to collect a cake for her daughter’s 16th birthday party, from which she has been explicitly banned, something in Grace snaps – but instead of walking away from her life, she decides to walk towards it and make things right. Set over one day, and riffing on the 1993 Michael Douglas film, Falling Down, Grace’s march towards her family brings violence, humour, rage, and an untangling of how past trauma and present exhaustion have become wildly connected.
Themes: Coercive control, second chances, starting over
Taking the concept of walking a mile in someone’s shoes wonderfully literally, this reinvention of the film Trading Places takes two 40-something women whose lives change when they accidentally swap bags and shoes. Londoner Sam Kemp, now wearing a pair of custom designer heels, finds new confidence in dealing with her colleagues, depressed husband, and spiteful boss, while visiting American Nisha Cantor, now in Sam’s flats, finds herself locked out of her hotel and bank accounts by her husband, who gives her the ultimatum of finding the shoes or forfeiting a divorce settlement, and working in the hotel where she was once a guest. There’s plenty to chew over in Moyes’ typically entertaining and thought-provoking story.
Themes: Trauma, survival, family secrets
You don’t have to have read The Family Upstairs to enjoy this sequel, as Jewell gives light recaps and character descriptions throughout, but if a gothic psychological thriller captivates you, go and do so first. The Family Remains is a fast-paced investigative thriller that brings together threads that are starting to come undone. Thirty years after the apparent group suicide of a small cult in Chelsea and the disappearance of their four children, those children are reunited while looking for one of their number who has gone missing. Meanwhile, a competent London detective is reopening a cold case connected to the events in Chelsea which could have terrible consequences for the children – as could the murder of someone very unpleasant, and very close to one of them.
Go As A River by Shelley Read (2023)
Themes: Perseverance, coming of age, redemption
Inspired by the story of Iola, Colorado, which was destroyed to make way for a reservoir in the 1960s, Read’s book places us in the 1940s, where 17-year-old Victoria Nash runs the household of her family’s peach farm as its last remaining woman. A chance meeting with drifter Wilson Moon leads to her taking to heart his farewell, ‘Go as a river’ – and when the Gunnison River threatens all she knows, and sends her into the mountains, Victoria must channel that idea of fortitude to help her survive and grow up. A fantastic choice for a season of life when we’re all feeling overwhelmed.
Themes: Compromise, family secrets, fulfilment
The Summer of Love has long been overly-idolised, and Hadley’s novel brings it to earth with a bump. Suburban housewife Phyllis has entered her forties in a state of reasonable contentment until she encounters a young bohemian poet at a dinner party who reawakens her desire for sex and change. Her decision to leave her family for him has ramifications for them all, and the contrast between her conservative self and new world shows that nothing is as clear-cut as she imagined. Hadley’s beautifully atmospheric writing brings the 1960s to life, not least in the disparity between the young white people playing at being outsiders, and the black Britons who would remain so after they had cut their hair.
The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent (2023)
Themes: Toxic friendship, boundaries, envy and money
Clare has left a difficult life in Paris and arrived at Edinburgh University ready to figure out who she is – and who she wants to be. She has her sights set on joining a rich, glamorous clique in her art history classes, led by the waspy blonde Tabitha who has a plan that she wants Clare to get involved with. A co-dependent friendship forms and Clare soon discovers that joining the group was easier than leaving it may prove to be – a really engrossing topic for any book club to get into, with plenty of literary parallels.
The Things That We Lost by Jyoti Patel (2023)
Themes: Family secrets, racial prejudice, loss
The winner of the 2021 #Merky New Writers Prize is a big, bold family saga focused on a mother and son from Harrow. Nik is a British Gujrati student who has moved from London to study at a very white university and is struggling with his mental health. Raised by his mother, Avani, he has always known not to ask about his absent dad, but when his grandfather dies, he takes the opportunity to find out more about his family’s past. The narrative is told from Nik and Avani’s point of views, giving us the opportunity to dive into Avani’s own history and, eventually, lead mother and son back to each other.
Themes: Crime, female trafficking, Jazz Age
Atkinson turns her meticulous eye for historical research to the 1920s. Nightclub impresario Nellie Coker (based on Kate Meyrick) has just come out of prison and returns to her empire and six adult children, keeping watch for potential betrayal. High and low class rub shoulders at Nellie’s clubs, but the criminal world is simmering closer than anyone could expect – and it proves all too easy for girls to go missing. An exhilarating dance through the grimmer parts of an age that has all too often been wiped clean by history, with female crime at its heart.
Themes: Hysteria, desire, fictionalised history
Mackintosh’s third novel has a fantastic premise: the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning, which saw 250 people poisoned (seven fatally) in an incident originally blamed on ‘cursed’ bread. Elodie the baker’s wife longs to be remarkable rather than ignored, and when the ambassador and his wife arrive in town for the summer, she tries to get as close to them as possible. But in the background, a strange hysteria is taking over the townsfolk while a series of bizarre events makes things feel very wrong indeed.
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