April books: empowering self-help, sweeping tales and brilliant thrillers

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Francesca Brown
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Stylist’s books editor Francesca Brown rounds up the 10 best books to get your hands on this April.

April is an eclectic and exciting month (whatever your reading tastes) as some of the biggest debuts of the year (see Queenie, Cape May and The Flatshare reviews here) hit the shelves alongside enlightening and entertaining non-fiction such as Flex and Black, Listed and Beth McColl’s loving and stunning mental-health handbook, How To Come Alive Again. 

Explore worlds of Victorian mysteries, psychological drama and sweeping epics – a purple patch of really good reading starts here…

The gothic delight: Things In Jars by Jess Kidd 

Things in Jars by Jess Kid

Meet your newest pipe-smoking, ghost-seeing heroine – Bridie Devine. An unflinching investigator of missing children “wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with [her] vivid red hair”, she’s been transplanted from Ireland as a child and is now knee-deep in the grotesque world of 1863 London.

Ably abetted by her seven-foot tall mutton chopped maid Cora and the ghost of a boxer, Ruby Doyle, Bridie is hired on the case of a missing child, Christabel, leading to a journey through Victorian London’s weird and wonderful inhabitants, Celtic folklore and the men who’d seek to contain it all. Written with humour, verve and total originality, Costa-winning Kidd is a storyteller to be cherished.

(Out 4 April, Canongate)

The exploration of black identity: Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye

Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye

Written with passion, humour and insight, Jeffrey Boakye tackles black identity by exploring labels and notions – both given and embraced – across all areas of black culture. As he writes in the opening chapter: “Welcome to Black, Listed, a list of things that melanin-heavy human beings might find themselves being referred to as, if they happen to be alive in the 400-year window that this book peers into.”

Breaking it down into chapters such as official descriptors (Afro-Caribbean, ethnic minority), loaded terms (powerful, them) and terms of endearment (King/Queen) to name just a few, Black, Listed is part-autobiography, part-pop culture guide and part-sociological/historical exploration that bounces from music and films to politics, people and language. It’s set to be a breakout title for 2019.

(Out 18 April, Dialogue Books)

The eye-opening Victorian tale: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

A brilliant counterpart to Jess Kidd’s story (see above), Sara Collins’ sweeping and addictive tale gives voice to the slaves who powered the 1800s and endured incredible brutality, racism and destruction. Accused of a double murder, Frannie is portrayed by society as a scheming temptress and murderess and is forced, for the first time, to tell her own story in her own words.

From the haunting incident in which a young Frannie steals away with a copy of Candide, only for reading to become both her freedom and her damnation, to a loving relationship that’s brought to a violent end, Collins has created an epic tale that’ll make for total book club joy. Prepare to pass it on to friend after friend.

(Out 4 April, Viking)

The disturbing drama: A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas

The disturbing drama: Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas

Dr Ruth Hartland is the director of a trauma therapy unit but has problems of her own including a missing son, Tom. When a young man is admitted under her care, his striking likeness to Tom begins to colour her professionalism and her duty of treatment. Filled with moral and psychological insights into mother-son dynamics, Thomas’ drama/thriller is one of those stories you can see unfolding over three Sunday nights on BBC1 – which is absolutely no bad thing.

What separates Thomas’ writing from your average domestic drama is its compelling persuasiveness; her background as a clinical psychologist means her characters’ actions always make sense even when they’re self-harming (a rare trait for the genre). One telling insight is Ruth choosing audiobooks to listen to while painting – rejecting To Kill A Mockingbird for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the ultimate maternal horror story…

(Out 4 April, Faber)

The straight-talking self-help: Flex by Annie Auerbach

Flex by Annie Auerbach

Are your rigid methods (how you work and what you expect from yourself in the office and beyond) sending you slightly doolally? Then it’s time to spend some time with the straight-talking Annie Auerbach. Sample quote: “I think the image of stressed, juggling womanhood is past its sell-by date… Friendship, leaderships, parenting, Pilates, make-up, public speaking, cake baking, sodding tennis. It’s exhausting, it’s not cool and I’m over it.”

Flex is not just about work (although there is a lot of very wise advice on that score) but about being. Of how to give yourself – whether that’s your mind or body – space to be creative (she makes the salient point that real creativity does not come from staring at your inbox for 40 hours a week), of how to flex the muscles that actually work for you and about re-evaluating things you stick to for no reason. It’s a slim volume of inspiring words, practical help and a fresh way of seeing things that we’ll be forcing on just about everyone we know.

(Out 18 April, HQ)

The retro mystery: The Language Of Birds by Jill Dawson

The Language Of Birds by Jill Dawson

In 1974, aristocrat Lord Lucan disappeared never to be seen again after the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Speculation since then surrounded his whereabouts (he was sighted across the globe) or possible demise (one grisly theory is that his body was fed to his friend John Aspinall’s tigers) but very little was known about the victim.

Jill Dawson’s fictional take on the affair quietly but firmly redresses the balance as she makes her heroine, Mandy River, a warm, intelligent and life-filled delight who is not a victim but a woman who clear-sightedly sees a family beset by problems and Lord Morven for exactly who he is. Conjuring a world of class lines and monied entitlement all told by a friend of Mandy’s, this is a carefully and beautifully written book that’ll have you hooked.

(Out 4 April, Sceptre)

 The wry thriller: Metropolis by Philip Kerr 

Metropolis by Philip Kerr

If you’ve yet to discover Bernie Gunther and love an intelligent thriller then you’ve got a world of joy waiting for you. A wry, fast-talking, morally loose and questionable anti-hero, Gunther is also one of the thriller genre’s greatest creations, jumping from pre-war Berlin and the steady encroachment of the Nazis to a broken Germany destroyed by its own excess.

Metropolis is the 14th book in the series and also acts as an origin story as Bernie becomes involved with Berlin’s Murder Commission in 1928 slowly finding his feet as a talented – if wry – investigator. Filled with a sense of time and place and a plot that’ll leave your brain working overtime, we can’t recommend Kerr’s writing enough. Sadly, this is the last book in the series as Kerr died of cancer last year aged 62. Bernie remains a shining example of his unique and much-missed talent.

(Out 4 April, Quercus)

The ambitious debut: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

“Day by day, farm by farm, the English draw closer. Even on Christmas morning we woke to smoke spooling across the sky like wool waiting to be wound.” In 1901, Sarah van der Watt and her son Fred are placed in a concentration camp and told by the English “you will be safe here”. Instead it becomes quickly apparent that any uprisings will be brutally beaten down and the camp’s inhabitants made into victims of disease, violence and cruelty.

Like Sara Collins’ The Confessions Of Frannie Langton, Damian Barr’s sweeping story places Britain’s violent colonial past under scrutiny by exploring the Boer War (Boer was the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmers) and its reverberations in South African society over a century later. Beautifully written and with moments of moving humanity, this is a book that tilts the world, showing how the actions of the past can never be fully escaped by the present.

(Out 4 April, Bloomsbury)

The big historical fiction: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

This is a big book in themes, scope and size (550 pages plus a handy timeline) but once you pick up this hefty tome you’ll be transported across decades, emotions, plots and people with gravity-defying ease. From France just before the beginning of the First World War to Palestine’s struggle for independence in 1936 and beyond, it’s the story of Midhat Kamal, a medical student who falls for his professor’s daughter, Jeannette, only for the love affair to fail and send him spinning into the orbits of politics and war.

Uniting themes such as the breakdown of the Middle East (it’s an invaluable understanding into the problems that continue to this day) and the rootlessness of migrants, Hammad creates a real sense of time and place luxuriating in the details of food, smells and sights; take a weekend off and disappear into her vision.

(Out 11 April, Vintage)

The mental health must-read: How To Come Alive Again by Beth McColl

How To Come Alive Again by Beth McColl

“You are not an oddity here, you’re not a family secret. You’re not a joke. You’re not a disappointment. You’re not a waste of space, or a fuck up, or a failure. You’re none of those things here. You’re just someone who’s been depressed. Someone who’s still depressed… Someone who desperately wants to know their own worth and be alive better.”

Anyone – no matter where they in life – will take something from this book. From the days when you know you need to get basic stuff done (but just can’t make yourself move) to signs it’s time to ask for help, McColl’s practical and loving book is full of insight and useful steps for making it through and giving yourself a break. Just buy it and keep it to hand – there will always be something it can give you.

(Out 4 April, Unbound)

Main image: Unsplash

Book jackets: Supplied


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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown

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