This month in books brings us fascinating memoirs from an Oscar-winning actress, a world-famous children’s author, an Orange Prize-winner – and best of all, an unknown nanny from Leicester. We also have the latest literary offerings from Margaret Drabble and Amy Tan, and the final installment in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful Cazalet Chronicles. You’d best start making your Christmas wish list now.
Words: Stacey Bartlett
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
In 1982, 20-year-old Nina Stibbe moved from Leicestershire to London to become a nanny for a prestigious literary family, and Love, Nina is a collection of her letters to her sister Victoria during her time there. Her days were spent looking after ten-year-old Sam, nine-year-old Will and a cat nobody likes, all of whom belonged to literary editor and single mother Mary-Kay Wilmers.
Her letters home are full of delightful, laugh-out-loud moments about the boys and their foul language, Mary-Kay’s liberal parenting style, and the playwright Alan Bennett, who lived across the road and made an appearance every evening for dinner. From conversations about sexually transmitted diseases to the best way to make a korma, Nina recounts it all like a 1980s Mary Poppins (with a sense of humour).
All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard
If you haven’t come across Elizabeth Jane Howard until now, you are in for a treat. The 20th century saga that follows the vast Cazalet family from their London houses to Home Place, their country pile in East Sussex, is pure escapism, and completely addictive.
Since The Light Years, the first book in the series which opened in 1938, the sprawling family – that consists of the Brig, the Duchy and their three sons, their wives, and their six children– has grown up and doubled in size. All Change starts in 1959 with the Duchy’s death; now the war is over the family is navigating murky waters in the shape of affairs, divorces and the social changes that the 1960s promises. After an 18-year gap between this book and the last, it is definitely worth the wait, and we hope 90-year-old Elizabeth Jane Howard has at least one more up her sleeve.
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
Life is tough for young, single mother Jess Speight, whose daughter Anna is the product of a brief affair with her professor. Anna is a ray of sunshine in her mother’s life; she smiles at everyone, never cries and plays happily with their neighbours’ children. But she is also special needs, which in 1960s medical terms was only a generation away from being described as “high-grade feeble-minded”.
The Pure Gold Baby is narrated by Jess’s neighbor Eleanor, who in the style of The Virgin Suicides depicts the tapestry of Jess’s life, as Jess studies to be an anthropologist while caring for her daughter with the help of the neighbourhood. Written with compassion and bathed in a poignant glow, The Pure Gold Baby is the latest literary offering from the acclaimed Margaret Drabble.
Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson
Everybody has heard of the Moomins, but what about their creator? Finnish author Tove Jansson wrote the first Moomin book in 1945, and went on to publish a dozen novels and short stories for adults. Sculptor’s Daughter is her autobiography, first published in 1968 and now re-released ahead of the centenary of her birth next year.
Written in her classic spare prose style, it reads like a novel, and captures the enchantments and fears of her Helsinki childhood in the early 20th century, as well as the harsh winters, glittering parties and lavish Christmases it brought. Sculptor’s Daughter is a fascinating insight into the childhood of a woman who touched millions of childhoods around the world, before going on to become an outspoken feminist and lesbian in a strict and traditional society.
Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
From Finland to Iceland, Butterflies in November is the gorgeously quirky translated novel from Icelandic author Audur Ava Olafsdittor. We meet our narrator as she accidentally runs over a goose, which is a taste of the dark humour to come. Dumped on the same day by both her husband and boyfriend and charged with the temporary care of her friend’s five-year-old deaf-mute son, life can’t get much more bizarre – until she wins the lottery.
So our unnamed narrator and her young companion decide to take their summer holiday in November and set off on a road trip across Iceland, passing cucumber farms, lots of dead sheep – some of which are her fault – and bleak landscapes on their way. The last part of the book is what sets it apart from most novels: a collection of Icelandic recipes connected to the narrative is a unique and enchanting touch (sour whale anyone?).
A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston
Anjelica Huston’s first autobiography sheds light on her glamorous and troubled early years, and is the first of two volumes. The daughter of director John Huston and ballerina Enrica Soma, Huston spent most of her childhood in the 1950s and 60s in Ireland. A Story Lately Told recounts her affluent upbringing on her family’s County Galway estate before she became a model in her teens, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Rolling Stones, John Steinbeck and Jack Nicholson in London and New York.
Like all the best memoirs, Huston sheds light on the good, the bad and the ugly, including her mother’s tragic death at 39 when Huston was 16, as well as the career that led her to star in films including The Addams Family and The Witches.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s epic latest novel takes us from 20th-century Shanghai to San Francisco to a rural Chinese mountain village via three generations of women. Violet is half Chinese, half Caucasian, and grows up in the reputable House of Lulu Mimi, where her mother is a renowned white courtesan. After the death of her first husband from Spanish influenza, followed by a disastrous second marriage, Violet’s daughter Flora is abducted and she is shocked to find out that history has repeated itself: Violet’s American mother Lulu suffered a similar fate decades earlier.
The Valley of Amazement is Tan’s first novel in eight years and expertly navigates the tempestuous relationships between generations of mothers and daughters, and her glamorous and evocative depiction of 20th century Chinese high society is completely transporting.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the charming collection of some of Orange Prize-winning author Ann Patchett’s best articles, essays and musings from the past 20 years. Her entertaining and touching accounts of her days being taught by nuns in Nashville, writing her first novel in her early twenties during her short-lived marriage and messy divorce are peppered with fond memories and observations.
From her beloved dog’s death to driving a Winnebago to training for the Los Angeles Police Department, the American author’s career is beautifully and elegantly captured in a way that's more enlightening than most memoirs. You don’t have to be a Patchett fan to appreciate her musings on love, life and writing, and this book is a treasure.
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee
When 21-year-old Jude flies to the Channel Island of Sark to become a nanny to the privileged but awkward Pip, she is dismayed to find a family in decay. Pip’s mother Esme rarely makes an appearance, and his father is often away. But when Polish cook Sofi arrives summer finally begins, and Pip’s lessons are soon forgotten as the three become friends and practically live outdoors, picking scallops and playing in the sea.
But the summer can’t last forever, and soon Pip, Sofi and Jude find themselves cities apart, trying to work out what went wrong. Based on Rosa Rankin-Gee’s time spent as a holiday chef to a family in the Channel Islands, The Last Kings of Sark is a sun-drenched, sharply nostalgic tale of our most defining years and how they shape us.
Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann
In 1760s London, gambler, gin-dealer and thief Betsy-Ann shuffles a pack of cards and prays for a second chance at life away from her grave-robbing partner. Miles away in Bath, shy and reserved Sophia is newly married to Edward Zedland, and is in awe of her charismatic husband. But when both women discover terrible secrets about the men they thought they knew, they find themselves thrown together in an unlikely twist of fate.
Fizzing with rich depictions of 18th century London, Ace, King, Knave exposes the underbelly of genteel society to be a world of violence and lies. Fans of Sarah Waters and Peter Ackroyd will devour this dark and twisted tale of vengeance.