What we read in May

The Mermaid of Black Conch, Monique Roffey, £8.99 paperback.

Escape to the ocean this summer with the entrancing, unforgettable winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2020. Near the island of Black Conch, a fisherman sings to himself while waiting for a catch. But David attracts a sea-dweller that he never expected – Aycayia, an innocent young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid. When American tourists capture Aycayia, David rescues her and vows to win her trust. Slowly, painfully, she transforms into a woman again. Yet as their love grows, they discover that the world around them is changing – and they cannot escape the curse for ever. Thoroughly enjoyable, if inevitably sad.

My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell, £8.99 paperback.

An instant New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2021 DYLAN THOMAS AWARD. An era-defining novel about the relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacher. ‘All he did is fall in love with me and the world turned him into a monster.’ Vanessa Wye was fifteen-years-old when she first had sex with her English teacher. She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student. Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that. Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many. A very powerful, uncomfortable but important book. Eye opening.

The Familiars, Stacey Halls, £8.99 paperback.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong. As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, £9.99 paperback.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face? A fantastic book. Ifemelu and Obinze became my friends and through them I learned to see race in a completely new way. A book that will stay with me forever – I miss the characters so much.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry, £8.99 paperback.

Soon to be an Apple TV series starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s controlling husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Along with her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, in the hope that fresh air and open space will provide refuge. On arrival, rumours reach them that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for superstition, is enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a yet-undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who is also deeply suspicious of the rumours, but thinks they are a distraction from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, Will and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves at once drawn together and torn apart, affecting each other in ways that surprise them both. A great book that shows us just how modern the Victorians were, and how women like Cora paved the way for the women of our time.

Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia, £14.99 hardback.

Five generations of women, linked by blood and circumstance, by the secrets they share, and by a single book passed down through a family, with an affirmation scrawled in its margins: We are force. We are more than we think we are. 1866, Cuba: Maria Isabel is the only woman employed at a cigar factory, where each day the workers find strength in daily readings of Victor Hugo. But these are dangerous political times, and as Maria begins to see marriage and motherhood as her only options, the sounds of war are approaching. 1959, Cuba: Dolores watches her husband make for the mountains in answer to Fidel Castro’s call to arms. What Dolores knows, though, is that to survive, she must win her own war, and commit an act of violence that threatens to destroy her daughter Carmen’s world. 2016, Miami: Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, is shocked when her daughter Jeanette announces her plans to travel to Cuba to see her grandmother Dolores. In the walls of her crumbling home lies a secret, one that will link Jeanette to her past, and to this fearless line of women. An enlightening book on what it really feels like to be an immigrant from a country and family with a difficult history.

The Harpy, Megan Hunter, £8.99 paperback.

Lucy lives with her husband Jake and their two boys. Her life is devoted to her children, her days mapped out by their finely tuned routine. Until a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband. He thought she should know. Lucy is distraught. She decides to stay with Jake, if only for the children’s sake, but in order to even the score, they agree that she will hurt him three times. Jake will not know when the hurt is coming, or what form it will take. And so begins a delicate game of crime and punishment, from which there is no return. A really compelling read that almost turns the pages for you!

The Mad Women’s Ball, Victoria Mas, £14.99 hardback.

The Salpetriere asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope. Genevieve is a senior nurse. After the childhood death of her sister, she has shunned religion and placed her faith in Doctor Charcot and his new science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugenie, the 19-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family. Because Eugenie has a secret, and she needs Genevieve’s help.

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