Brace yourselves: February brings with it some intense reads, particularly in non-fiction.
Tara Westover’s Educated is one of the best, most absorbing memoirs I’ve ever read, while Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is the story of the author’s search for who she really is, positioned against the backdrop of examining what British identity means. Both books will linger with you.
Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!, a food book about enjoying and embracing food, is the perfect antidote to January’s restraint. Annie Spence’s Fahrenheit 451 is a love letter to books, while former dating columnist Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is a love letter to, well, love.
In A False Report reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong tell the story of a historic crime, while Zadie Smith’s essay collection Feel Free touches on everything from music to politics. Both books have important things to say about the world we live in.
In fiction, The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin is a fun historical novel, while Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift takes inspiration from a true story.
And finally, there is Fire Sermon by Jamie Quattro - a breathtaking look at love.
Educated by Tara Westover
I have been breathlessly and incoherently recommending this memoir to so many people - it’s just extraordinary. Westover grew up in a religious family in rural Idaho - her father was a survivalist and her family didn’t believe in medicine beyond homeopathy. Educated is the story of how Westover, who didn’t go to school until she was 17 (and now has a PhD from Cambridge), was determined to access knowledge, and how that changed her life. Set aside a chunk of time to read this, because once you start there is no way you will stop until you get to the end.
Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh
It seems the beginning of every year is filled with people and books telling you what you should, and shouldn’t, be eating and drinking. Eat Up! is a refreshing pushback to that - Tandoh’s book is all about how you should take pleasure in food, whether that’s a healthy salad you’ve lovingly prepared yourself, or a can of Coke. Tandoh bursts the bubble of clean eating, looks at how food trends can be culturally appropriative, and intersperses sections with recipes that will make your mouth water just reading them. This is food reading as it should be - comforting.
(Serpent’s Tail, £12.99)
The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
This historical novel is like reading a more commercial Sarah Waters, and that’s no bad thing. It follows a young woman called Hester White, who by chance finds herself in the orbit of the rich Brock family, and the heiress Rebecca Brock. The two are drawn into the mystery of London’s rapidly disappearing poor. Part crime novel, part romance, this is a pacy, fun read, with female characters who are wonderfully modern without seeming out of place in 1800s London.
(Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99)
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Brit(ish) is about race in Britain, through the highly personal lens of Hirsch’s own experience as the daughter of a Jewish dad and Ghanaian mum growing up in the leafy suburbs of Wimbledon, a largely white area. The starting point for Brit(ish) is a familiar set of questions for people of colour: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Hirsch recounts her search for her identity, her feeling of not being truly British, and her disappointment at finding that moving to Ghana did not make her feel Ghanaian. This is essential reading on identity, and how what it means to be British perhaps needs to be recalibrated.
(Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
A False Report by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
Despite being about events that took place eight to 10 years ago, A False Report feels very current. Miller and Armstrong are Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and, in this book, they tell the true story of two female detectives on the trail of a rapist. As well as being the story of how a vile criminal was traced down, this is also a book about how the women who report being raped are often placed under suspicion. Timely, poignant and absorbing.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to Her Books by Annie Spence
For anyone who loves books, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is a delightful read. Spence, who has been a librarian in Midwestern America for the past 10 years, writes a series of letters to books: those that have meant a lot to her, those that are frequently borrowed by patrons at her library, and those that deserve to be taken off the shelf forever and discarded. The letters are witty and filled with affection (and occasional exasperation), and the recommendations section in the second half is split into great categories - I loved “I’d Rather be Reading: Excuses to Tell Your Friends So You Can Stay Home with Your Books”.
(Icon Books, £11.99)
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
Journalist and former Sunday Times dating columnist Alderton is witty and warm in her debut, in which she recounts falling in and out of love, wrestling with self-sabotage, and the numerous bad dates and parties she’s dealt with in her life. This is ostensibly a memoir about romantic love - and it is filled with plenty of stories about great and terrible men. But for me the best, most touching parts were the sections about friendship, and how powerful and comforting the love of a good friend is.
(Fig Tree, £12.99)
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
This is a collection of essays Smith wrote during the Obama presidency, covering everything from the fate of her local library, to Brexit, to the Facebook generation. In the introduction Smith says she is not an expert, just someone who writes what she thinks and feels, wondering if others think and feel similarly. While she might not be an expert, Smith does have a knack for cutting to the heart of an issue, and for being intensely readable whatever her subject matter.
(Hamish Hamilton, £20)
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Maggie is married to her college sweetheart Thomas, has two beautiful children and is devoted to God. But she’s also been in an intense years-long correspondence with James, a poet. Told in fragments, this cuts between the past and present, between letters and prose, to reveal an unflinching portrait of a woman battling obsession and desire.
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
This novel is based on the true story of pirates who kidnapped around 400 people from a community on the coast of Iceland, and sold them into slavery. Among the kidnapped were a pastor, his wife and their young children. Magnusson gives voice to the pastor’s wife, Asta, and imagines the fate of the women and children captives. This is a lyrical tale full of the Icelandic stories that Asta tells her children and her kidnappers.
(Two Roads, £16.99)
Main image: Erol Ahmed