I post all my book reviews and recommendations on Instagram #stylechapelreads – here's some 2021 favourites.
🫖 Legacy by Thomas Harding
This extraordinary story opens with Helena and Lehman Gluckstein escaping from the pogroms of Germany to create a new life in Whitechapel, London. It charts their rise from the humble beginnings of a small tobacco business called Salmon & Gluckstein to what became the catering giant J. Lyons and an empire that spanned all manner of businesses from Wimpy Bars to the famous Trocadero nightclub.
It’s a really engaging read and a window into a fascinating time in social history. For instance, the family made a huge – but secret – contribution to the war effort, Nigella Lawson is a descendant and Maggie Thatcher worked in the Lyons lab as a food research scientist. And the waitresses at the Lyons Corner Houses were known as ‘Nippies’.
The Lyons legacy: Find a safe place. Love your family and friends. Give back to society. Savour the good things. Tell your story. Pass it on. ❤️
🙌 Highly recommended.
📚 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Bleak, addictive, harrowing, devastating... these are all the words I heard about this book. And they sum it up perfectly.
A Little Life is about four young men who meet in college and remain friends throughout the rest of their lives. Their friendship is the underlying thread and over the decades, their relationships are tinged with addiction, success and pride.
There are many trauma triggers in this book including self-harm, and physical and sexual abuse. At times, you can feel overwhelmed by how much pain one human can endure – definitely one to avoid for many people. But there is also a lot of love and hope in this story.
I liked Yanagihara’s style of writing and I loved this book. It's a tough yet unforgettable read. I keep thinking about Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm... but mostly Jude. He’s unforgettable. ❤️
💔 Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
An unforgettable story — horrifying at times but often funny too — about a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. Douglas Stuart is a brilliant storyteller. Highly recommend. 🙌 And if you enjoy this book, you’ll like Maggie & Me by Damian Barr ❤️
Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. Her characters are unforgettable, as are all the beautiful details and threads she pulls together.
💚 Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again – both set in Maine – tell the life of a retired schoolteacher through a series of short stories. Some are told from Olive’s perspective, and others focus on characters in the small town of Crosby. Olive is deeply flawed, cantankerous and usually raging with the world (aren’t we all right now!) but she will stay with you long after reading. She has a ‘charm’ all of her own – a heroine who, as Oprah puts it, “doesn’t have the disease to please.” That's Olive in a nutshell.
💛 My name is Lucy Barton
I really enjoyed this but if you’re feeling in any way melancholy, steer clear. Elizabeth Strout tells the story of an author looking back on the time she was stuck in hospital in New York after complications from a routine surgery. Her long-estranged mother comes to visit and through their conversations, we learn about Lucy’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor and socially excluded family. It’s sad, and tragic in many parts but also beautifully told. Lucy's outlook on life is different to that of nearly everyone around her. And despite everything, Lucy finds comfort in hearing her mother’s voice. This is definitely a book you can read in one sitting… perfect for a long, dark winter’s day.
💙 Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny's debut novel – centres on Graham and his wife, Audra, who seem to live in parallel universes. Audra has no boundaries when it comes to social norms. She talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and embarks on a friendship with Graham's first wife, Elspeth. Graham describes Audra as “a female Warren Buffett who knew about everything except finance”.
📖 In a recent interview with The Sunday Times, Heiny said that one-liners are the first thing that come to her when she’s writing. “I try to put a joke in every paragraph.” Heiny has delivered on that in this book. It's a great read: funny, charming and totally original.
Fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d you go Bernadette will love this book. 💙
💚 A few more book recommendations (all by Irish writers) 💚
💙 The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was one of my favourite reads this year and now firmly sitting in my top 10. Boyne is such a natural storyteller and a gifted writer. This is the heartbreaking tale of Cyril Avery, an Irishman trying to find his place in the world. The novel spans seven decades as Boyne takes you along the rollercoaster of Cyril’s life. It’s sad and devastating at times but also uplifting and very moving. And it’s really funny! I can’t wait to read it again. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
🏡 The Green Road by Anne Enright spans 30 years and tells the story of Rosaleen and her four children who leave the west of Ireland and end up living very different lifestyles. They return home for Christmas when Rosaleen decides to sell the family home. Each chapter is narrated by one of Rosaleen’s children and although the characters are not very likeable – particularly the self-centred matriarch – Enright’s writing is sharp and engaging so you can feel their pain. She rented a cottage in County Clare (my home county) to write this story.
🇭🇰 Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
This modern love story is funny, wry and full of sharp observations about social class. It follows Ava, a young Irish woman teaching English as a foreign language in Hong Kong. This is Dolan’s debut novel and I can’t wait to see what she does next. She’s been compared to Sally Rooney but she has her own unique voice.
🌾 The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes follows a farming family in Roscommon, in the wake of the Celtic Tiger’s boom-to-bust era. It’s hilarious but also very poignant. The Guardian called it “an Irish Cain and Abel”. It’s a love story, a tragedy and a comedy. I thought it was fresh and original, full of dark humour, and almost poetic.
💙 Our Mersey Shore by Keith Ryan is a gripping novel of love and loss, set in Liverpool during World War II. There is also a strong Irish thread running through the book. Bootle was the most bombed town in Britain in that period and this story follows one local family as they try to survive against all odds. The gorgeous and very tactile cover was designed by my talented friend @annglynndesign 💚
🍸 Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, is about a governess mistakenly sent by an employment agency to work for a nightclub singer (Miss LaFosse) rather than a household of unruly children. Reissued by the brilliant Persephone Books (a publisher dedicated to reviving books by women authors), it's such a lovely, comforting read. This edition is printed with the original typeset and illustrations, and like all Persephone editions, the endpaper is beautiful (a 1938 furnishing fabric by Marion Dorn).
☁️ Madam, will you talk? by Mary Stewart, was first published in 1955. The story is set in Provençe, several years after the end of World War II. It's narrated by Charity Selborne, a young war widow holidaying in France with her friend Louise. The descriptions of Avignon, Nîmes and Marseilles are stunning. Humour, suspense, romance... it's all here.
👒 Cold Comfort Farm was written by Stella Gibbons in 1932 – a lively and funny read about sensible and sophisticated Flora Poste, who decides her only choice, when orphaned at nineteen, is to descend on relatives in deepest Sussex.
❤️ And saving the best for last...Nobody will tell you this but me by Bess Kalb
“When the earth is cracking behind your feet and it feels like the whole world is going to swallow you up, you put one foot in front of the other and you keep going. You go forward.” That was my favourite line in this gorgeous memoir.
Bess Kalb saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell left her. Even after her death, Kalb's grandmother is still imparting life advice. It's funny, heartwarming and if you're dealing with grief right now, you might like to read this book. What a lovely way to remember and hold on to someone you loved.❤️