Takeaway: Stories from a Childhood behind the Counter (Angela Hui, Trapeze, out now)
Full of mouth-watering recipes and back-breaking work, this is a memoir of growing up in a tiny town in the Valleys, reliant on wonky Welsh bus services and the occasional kindness from friends and family. Takeaway takes in the pleasures and highs of life behind the counter – red eggs, pilfered prawn crackers and the thrill of first love – and the lows of racist prank calls, drunk customers, ill health, and arguments. A timely reminder of the people and dreams behind the counter, phone or app who move hell and high water to feed others.
Is this Love? (C.E. Riley, Serpent’s Tail, out now)
J’s wife is leaving them, but who is really at fault? At first, this book seems like a linear narrative of an abusive relationship (such as Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, another modern classic of coercive control and confusion) but as J and their wife put forward their opposing arguments, it becomes clear that there is no straightforward victim or villain. A masterpiece of claustrophobia with multiple views of the same events, like shaking a kaleidoscope.
Girl Friends (Holly Bourne, Hodder & Stoughton, out now)
Thirtysomething Fern has an amazing job, and what seems to be a good man, even if he won’t put a ring on it yet. But when glamorous Jessica, her old schoolfriend and Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes back into her life, she becomes that insecure, self-destructive teenage girl again. Holly Bourne has a real knack for capturing the intoxicating and toxic aspects of female friendship, as well as the dodgy sexual politics of the early noughties (‘Oh, 2003, how I don’t miss you,’ one character sighs) growing up in the era of J17 and Avril Lavigne, this is a testimony to all the untold stories, pain and fear that girls hide behind ironed hair and lip-gloss.
This Time Tomorrow (Emma Straub, Penguin, out now)
On her fortieth birthday, Alice has a few too many drinks and wakes up next day in her childhood bed, sixteen again and ready for a day of hanging out with her dad. Alice tries out some new paths her life might have taken – including what would have been if she’d married the boy who got away. At its heart, though, this is a story about fathers and daughters, as Alice tries and fails to prevent her father’s death as an older man by encouraging him away from the fags and full-fat Cokes – and then he reveals his own time-travelling secret. A gooey slice of nineties nostalgia, this will delight anyone who remembers the days when Sarah Michelle Gellar was the female lead in everything.
Let Down Your Hair (Bryony Gordon, Orion Childrens’ Books, out now)
Barb has beautiful hair, reddish gold, with a life of its own and a popular online platform where she puts it up and styles it for the enjoyment and instruction of her audience. Sometimes she wonders if there's more to life. Most of the time, she wants her best friend and her mum to come back. It was a real pleasure to read this modern-day take on the Rapunzel story, partly based on the author's own experiences as an anxious teenager with alopecia, and, through Barb and Jess's mothers and Barb's aunt and surrogate mother, Sorcha, tackling the themes of mental illness and addiction. A light, skilful read that still pulls no punches.
Before I Do (Sophie Cousens, Hodder Paperbacks, out now)
At Audrey’s wedding rehearsal dinner, she re-encounters Fred, who represents not only her dreams of romance and spontaneity, but a more carefree, optimistic time for her. Everything that can go wrong does. A dead bat falls to the floor of the church, the bride gets a rope-burn, one of the ushers contracts food poisoning and the vicar collapses. It seems like nothing else can go wrong, but at the climax of this wedding-that's-not-a-wedding, the truth comes out and Audrey must face the music. Pure escapism with a straight-talking Yorkshire granny and a glittering cast of characters you'll grow to love, particularly actor/manny Hilary, best friend Clara and Audrey's diva mum, Vivienne, a woman who loves a wedding so much that she had a few of her own.
Shrines of Gaiety (Kate Atkinson, Transworld, just out now)
Shrines of Gaiety takes the reader through the Soho underworld of the 1920s, run by close-mouthed businesswoman-criminal Nellie Coker and her brood of children (Niven, the WWI veteran; two 'lightly' Oxbridge-educated divas; Ramsay, a failing novelist with queer leanings; and Kitty, the afterthought). They are joined by policeman Frobisher, who has a bit of Jackson Brodie about him, crime lord Azzopardi, librarian-turned-spy Gwendolen Kelling and ingenue Freda who is trying to make it on the West End stage, dodging dodgy men as she goes. Everything you'd expect from an Atkinson novel, with crackling dialogue, atmosphere you could cut with a knife and rigorous research, right down to the weird-sounding cocktails.
Demon Copperhead (Barbara Kingsolver, Faber and Faber, October)
Demon Copperhead is raised in a holler with his best friend Maggot (a gay Goth-in-training). He briefly manages to surmount his tragic upbringing with some early success as a comic artist and on the football field but becomes a victim of the opioid crisis after an injury, and falling crazily in love with childlike Dori, who gets him onto even harder stuff. Inspired – and seemingly possessed – by the spirit of Charles Dickens, Barbara Kingsolver finds a new voice that makes this Appalachian coming-of-age tale the best thing she’s done since The Poisonwood Bible.
Darling (India Knight, Penguin, October)
This classy-Jilly-Cooper update of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a labour of love for the author, and it shows, with Mitford doing the plot-based lifting and Knight handling the descriptions and some very funny jokes. Modern readers will love the updated tale of Linda Radlett and her family, especially dyspeptic former rock-star Uncle Matthew and his obsessions with Instagram and Street Cat Bob, Merlin the Alexander McQueen-style designer, and Louisa, who wants to be a Sloane even if no one does that anymore. Posh, silly, and surprisingly moving in parts.
Bournville (Jonathan Coe, Penguin, November)
Deliciously British as Bournville’s signature chocolate, this state-of-the-nation novel views the latter half of the twentieth century through one Birmingham family, from VE Day to the lockdown. We catch up with the Foley family and some of the Trotters (mad Paul makes a cameo as one of Tony Blair’s lovestruck aides). The novel loosely covers the life of Mary Lamb and her three sons: happy-go-lucky Brexit voter Jack, closet gay musical prodigy Peter, and Martin, who falls in love with a Black woman. You'll be gripped as soon as you hit the World Cup section, and Coe’s haunting Afterword wraps things up beautifully. A classic Coe cracker for our dark times.