Memoirs and marriage: the new books to perk up February

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Sarah Shaffi
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There is a strong non-fiction showing in my pick of the best books out in February.

Four very different and excellent memoirs by women lead the way: Kay Plunkett-Hodge talks food, Yiyun Li depression and healing, and MP Jess Phillips feminism and politics, while Stephen Westaby looks back at his career saving people's lives as a heart surgeon.

If that all sounds quite serious, there's Julie Ferry's The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau, a wonderfully fun look at a year in which a number of American heiresses married into the British aristocracy.

Marriage is also explored in two of my fiction picks this month, although the relationships in Gwendoline Riley's First Love and Ajay Close's The Daughter of Lady Macbeth are much darker than those explored by Ferry.

February also sees the release of Hannah Kent's second novel, The Good People, which takes you to Ireland in the 1800s.

Two debuts make my list this month – History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, the unsettling tale of a teenager living in a former commune, and the sad yet also uplifting Under the Almond Tree by Laura McVeigh.

Happy reading.

  • Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl by Kay Plunkett-Hogge

    My favourite cookbooks are the ones with not just great recipes, but tales about the author's connection to the dish, so Kay Plunkett-Hogge's memoir is perfect for a lover of food and stories like me.

    This memoir is a collection of stories from her fascinating life – she was an English girl growing up in Thailand, went to boarding school, and worked on films and as a model booker before finding a career in food – interspersed with related recipes. It's a great illustration of the power of food to emotionally connect us to each other, and to times good and bad in our lives.

    Mitchell Beazley, RRP £12.99, buy it here

  • Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

    This is another unconventional memoir, but it's completely different emotionally from Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl, and much darker. Written while Yiyun Li battled depression, this is partly a memoir and partly a study of great writers. Li looks at the themes explored by her favourite authors in both their published work and their private diaries and letters, and how those themes have been present through her own life.

    Dear Friend... also explores the author's relationship with her mother and her past as a Chinese soldier, as well as giving glimpses into her time being treated for depression. Moving and beautiful, this unusual memoir will stay with you long after reading.

    Hamish Hamilton, RRP £14.99, buy it here (available 21 February)

  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

    This debut novel is as beautifully written as the plot is unsettling. The book follows Linda, 14, who lives in what is now an abandoned commune with her parents. Outcast at school, Linda takes shelter in her relationship with her new neighbours: a young woman, her largely absent academic husband, and their small child Paul, who Linda often babysits.

    Linda is charmed by the family, feeling like she belongs somewhere at last, but there is something disturbing about them, with Fridlund dropping in references that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end without fully knowing why. This is a slow burn and worth every second.

    Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP £12.99, buy it here (available 23 February)

  • The Good People by Hannah Kent

    Kent's second novel is an intricate, heartbreaking portrayal of three women and the conflict between religious belief and folklore.

    Nora Leahy's four-year-old grandson cannot walk or talk, and Nora keeps him hidden from the superstitious and devout Irish community she lives in in the 1800s. Unable to care for Micheal alone, Nora first hires 14-year-old servant Mary to look after him and then in her desperation turns to Nance Roche, an old woman who cures ills with herbs and who consorts with fairies known as the Good People. As the three women try to cure Micheal they find themselves veering into dangerous territory. An exquisite exploration of faith of all kinds told in Kent's lyrical prose, which brings rural Ireland to life.

    Picador, RRP £14.99, buy it here

  • Under the Almond Tree by Laura McVeigh

    This debut novel tells the story of Samar, a 15-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. As she and her family travel aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, Samar tells of how she came to be on the train, of a life fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan started by first the Russians and then the Taliban. From Kabul to the mountains of Afghanistan, from a refugee camp to the train, Samar's story is one filled with tragedy – I drew in a sharp breath at one particularly revealing moment – but it is also a story of resilience, bravery and hope.

    Author McVeigh was previously director of PEN International and Global Girls Fund and her knowledge of people facing conflict and loss shines through.

    Two Roads, RRP £16.99, buy it here (available 23 February)

  • Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby

    Fragile Lives follows in the tradition of Henry Marsh's Do No Harm and Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. Westaby, a renowned heart surgeon, tells the story of some of his most innovative and exceptional surgeries, giving an insight into the fast-paced and emotionally challenging world of heart operations.

    Fragile Lives is full of technical details and medical speak but Westaby brings humanity to the book by revealing the stories of his patients and his connection to them. This is an absorbing read about a man who has built his career on saving lives, and it's also a testament to the brilliance and limits of an NHS that has often found itself having to place politics and money above lives.

    HarperCollins, RRP £14.99, buy it here

  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley

    This short novel is intense and packed full of conflict. Neve, a writer in her 30s, is married to Edwyn, a much older man. In First Love, Neve recalls the decisions that led her to marry Edwyn and a period of their relationship that contained vicious arguments full of horrible insults and manipulation. As we learn more about Neve – her relationship with her cruel, bullying father and her needy, scatty mother, her involvement with a musician, her inability to settle in one place – we discover how her past has played a part in her present, and why her relationship with Edwyn is a kind of love story.

    Powerful and packing a punch, this novel is moving and at times shocking.

    Granta Books, RRP £12.99, buy it here

  • The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

    The subtitle for this book is Husband Hunting in the Gilded Age: How American Heiresses Conquered in the Aristocracy, which gives you a pretty good idea what it's about.

    Set in 1895, this tells the true story of a number of young, rich American women who married titled British men – the women got an automatic pass into the upper classes, and then men got much-needed money to spend on their estates – and the American women of the generation before who helped broker the marriages. This is hugely entertaining and like reading a very well researched, detailed and high-brow gossip column.

    Aurum Press, RRP £20, buy it here

  • The Daughter of Lady Macbeth by Ajay Close

    As befitting something which references one of Shakespeare's darkest female characters, The Daughter of Lady Macbeth has a shocking, violent and mysterious opening. What follows is the story of civil servant Freya, who is undergoing IVF, and her husband Frankie, a famous TV presenter. The pair's marriage is severely under strain and the exclusive clinic they use for their IVF soon leads Freya to a young man named Kit. Alongside this, we delve back into 1972 and to Freya's mother, actress Lilias, who has kept Freya's father's identity a secret, and whose relationship with Freya has never been conventional. Both timelines will keep you guessing.

    Sandstone Press, RRP £8.99, buy it here (available 16 February)

  • Everywoman by Jess Phillips

    This is partly a memoir by Jess Phillips – the outspoken, passionate Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley – and partly a call to action and manifesto for feminists (male or female) across the country. From its first page, this book reads how Phillips talks: honestly, bluntly, without pulling any punches and always true to herself.

    At a time when politicians can seem more out of reach than ever, and like they're really not listening, Phillips is the kind of political force we need.

    Hutchinson, RRP £14.99, buy it here (available 23 February)


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.