Now that the cold weather has arrived, there’s no better time to curl up with a cozy blanket and a hot drink and start working away on our lists of books to read this winter!
I enjoy reading a variety of genres so my recommendations for the best books to read winter 2024 include recently published (or soon to be published) works of contemporary fiction, romance, mystery/thriller, and historical fiction that I have read or have on my TBR list for this winter.
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1. The Women by Kristin Hannah
Setting: Vietnam and the United States
In the mid ’60s, Frankie McGrath, a naive 20 year-old nursing student who has grown up in a wealthy enclave in Southern California, makes an impulsive decision to enlist with the Army Nurse Corp and serve in Vietnam after one of her brother’s friends comments that “women can be heroes too”.
With limited practical experience, she is assigned to an evacuation hospital near Saigon and is immediately faced with the chaos and destruction of the war zone. Frankie realizes that she’s out of her depth but with help from fellow nurses, Barb and Ethel, she develops into a skilled and dependable trauma nurse caring for the severely wounded.
In the second part of the book, Frankie returns home to California after completing her tour and has difficulty transitioning back to civilian life. The country is divided over the war and veterans are treated with derision rather than honour – even her family is ashamed of her service and she struggles with employment as there is no recognition of the skills she gained as a nurse “in country”. Like many others who served during the war, Frankie battles PTSD and turns to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate but she can’t even get help from veterans’ groups as she’s told repeatedly that there were no women in Vietnam.
I wasn’t sure what I thought of The Women when I finished reading it but decided that the positives outweighed the negatives. I love historical fiction that informs my understanding of the past and was really looking forward to this book but I didn’t learn as much as I had hoped. There isn’t much fiction written about the Vietnam War, however, and hopefully the commercial success of this book will lead to more fictional exploration of the events and issues raised in that conflict.
The Women reminded me of a television show that I loved called China Beach which aired in the late ’80s/early ’90s and was told from the perspective of the nurses in Vietnam – both even rely on a musical soundtrack to set the scene. This is a story of one woman going to war that also highlights the fact that the stories of women who served their country are often missing from the historical narrative. It’s a coming-of-age in a time of war story and a story of female friendship with strong female characters and an important message that “women can be heroes”. Hannah does a good job describing the horrors of war, the anti-war atmosphere in the U.S. and the difficulty in returning to civilian life.
I was disappointed with some aspects of the story – the plot twists can be seen coming a mile away and Frankie’s romantic life is a bit of a soap opera. On the other hand, it’s a compulsive read – I couldn’t put it down and read the 480 page book in 2 days – and it’s historically informative so overall an enjoyable read – my expectations were obviously just too high.
2. The Wildest Sun by Asha Lemmie
Setting: Paris, New York City, Havana, Key West
After tragedy strikes, a teenage girl flees post-war Paris in search of the father that she has never known. Delphine Auber is a determined young woman and an aspiring writer who believes that Ernest Hemingway is her father and travels to New York City hoping that she’ll find him. In Harlem, she lives for a period of time with a black couple who were friends of her mother’s before running off to Cuba in search of Hemingway.
Delphine, desperate for Papa’s approval as both a daughter and a writer, develops a close friendship with a young man named Javier who helps her learn Spanish, settle in Havana and eventually make contact with Hemingway. The novel takes place over the course of about 15 years in Paris, New York City, Havana and very briefly, Key West, Florida.
The Wildest Sun is a character-driven coming of age story about a young woman on the cusp of adulthood escaping her past and trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. The writing is beautiful but I didn’t feel much of a connection with Delphine. There are many positive reviews on Goodreads, however, so perhaps I just wasn’t the right reader for this book.
I still found the novel interesting as it takes place in the post-war years which is not as common in historical novels. I enjoyed reading about Paris and New York City during that time period but particularly liked the Havana setting and reading about the city and life in Cuba from the late 1940s and 1950s leading up to the Revolution and the ousting of Batista.
3. My Friends by Hisham Matar
Setting: Libya, Edinburgh, London
My Friends takes place as 50 year-old Khaled walks home one evening in 2016 but spans more than three decades of his life. Khaled’s friend, Hosam, has returned from Libya to London for a visit before moving to California. After the two men say goodbye for quite possibly the last time, Khaled walks across London from King’s Cross Station to the small flat where he has lived for more than 30 years. As he walks, Khaled reflects on the course his life has taken, his love for family left behind in Libya and the friendships that have sustained him over the years.
As a teenager in Benghazi, Khaled and his family hear a news reporter on BBC Radio read a short story by Hosam Zawa about a man being eaten alive by a cat. Khaled is profoundly affected by this story and it is part of the reason that he is inspired a few years later to travel to the UK to study at Edinburgh University. At university he becomes friends with another young Libyan man named Mustafa who persuades Khaled to attend a protest against the Qaddafi regime at the Libyan Embassy in London. That decision changes the course of their lives when the protest turns violent and both Khaled and Mustafa are injured.
After their stints in the hospital, the two young friends can no longer return home to Libya for fear of reprisals or even back to Edinburgh where some of the other Libyan students are known to act as informants for the regime. Khaled is compelled to keep the truth from his parents in order to protect them and tries to build a life for himself in London while Mustafa moves to Manchester to live with family for a time before returning to London and resuming their friendship.
Ten years or so later, Khaled meets the writer Hosam Zawa in Paris and their chance meeting develops into a deep friendship. Hosam soon moves to London and years pass with the three men remaining close friends. Everything changes with the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 when Mustafa and Hosam both return to Libya to fight with the rebel forces but Khaled stays behind in London. Five years later as Khaled walks across London, his thoughts travel through the years spent in exile in London, his friendships and the changes that have taken place in Libya during his lifetime.
My Friends is a beautifully-written, thoughtful story with a few real life events anchoring the narrative including the assassination of a Libyan reporter for the BBC at Regent’s Park Mosque in London in the early 80s, the 1984 protest outside the Libyan Embassy, the Arab Spring uprising and the death of Muammar Qaddafi. It’s a thought-provoking look at complicated friendships as well as what it’s like living a life in exile.
There’s a thread of melancholy that runs through Khaled’s story – understandable given the pain of separation from loved ones and homeland, the fear for himself and the worry that his actions might have put his family in danger. At one point Khaled says: “It turns out it is possible to live without one’s family. All one has to do is to endure each day and gradually, minute by minute, brick by brick, time builds a wall.” Simply heartbreaking. My Friends opened my eyes to what it’s like to live in exile and Khaled’s story is one that I’ll not soon forget.
Thank you to Penguin Randomhouse Canada for sending an ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
4. Held: A Novel by Anne Michaels
Setting: England, France and other locations
Held by Canadian author and poet Anne Michaels is an eloquent novel that reads like a collection of interconnected short stories each providing a glimpse of a different person’s life.
In the novel’s opening chapter in 1917, an English soldier named John lies on a World War I battlefield near a river in France unable to move or feel his legs. As he lies on the cold ground, snippets of thoughts about his life and about death come to him. In the following chapter, it is 1920 and John is back in Yorkshire living with his love, Helena. He has resumed his photography business but struggles with pain from his war injuries and is haunted by ghostly images that appear in the photos he prints. From there the narrative meanders back and forth through time from 1908 to 2025, to various geographical places and from the points of view of several people.
Held is a beautiful, poetic novel written as a series of stories spanning decades about people connected to one another – stories of love and loss, of war and the damage inflicted by war/conflict, of mortality, of people holding close the memories of loved ones.
This is a short book (less than 25o pages) and I generally read quite fast but I deliberately slowed down and took my time to absorb the words on the page. I found myself reading lines over several times savouring the beauty and rhythm of the words and the sentences but not sure I was recognizing all of the themes or the common threads between the stories.
Held is a challenging read and it’s a book that I will read again knowing that a second reading will reveal more of what I missed the first time through. This is not a book for readers that want a plot heavy story and a linear narrative but it’s a good choice for a reader that loves beautiful prose and enjoys a story that isn’t straightforward.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending an ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
5. Family Family by Laurie Frankel
Setting: Seattle, NYC, LA
India Allwood is an actress and adoptive mother of twin 10 year-olds who lands herself in hot water when she tells a journalist that her recent movie about adoption is not very good. The point India is trying to make is that adoption isn’t always traumatic but that nobody ever tells the positive adoption stories.
Her attempt at a nuanced take doesn’t go over well on social media though and soon everyone online is insisting she must be cancelled and her agent and studio executives are deeply concerned and want her to apologize to make the whole thing blow over. Her children, Fig and Jack, want to help and without India’s knowledge decide to contact family – and that’s when it gets even more complicated.
This is a well-written, thought-provoking book (sometimes funny and sometimes sentimental) that explores the many reasons that adoption might be the first choice for forming a family and that adoptive families exist without regrets or feelings of settling for something less than.
The overarching message of the book is that family dynamics can be complicated and that family is family regardless of how it’s formed. An enjoyable story about flawed but likable people and what makes family family.
6. The Phoenix Crown by Kate Quinn and Janie Chang
Setting: San Francisco, Paris
From the Publisher: San Francisco, 1906. In a city bustling with newly minted millionaires and scheming upstarts, two very different women hope to change their fortunes: Gemma, a golden-haired, silver-voiced soprano whose career desperately needs rekindling, and Suling, a petite and resolute Chinatown embroideress who is determined to escape an arranged marriage. Their paths cross when they are drawn into the orbit of Henry Thornton, a charming railroad magnate whose extraordinary collection of Chinese antiques includes the fabled Phoenix Crown, a legendary relic of Beijing’s fallen Summer Palace.
His patronage offers Gemma and Suling the chance of a lifetime, but their lives are thrown into turmoil when a devastating earthquake rips San Francisco apart and Thornton disappears, leaving behind a mystery reaching further than anyone could have imagined . . . until the Phoenix Crown reappears five years later at a sumptuous Paris costume ball, drawing Gemma and Suling together in one last desperate quest for justice.
7. Queens of London by Heather Webb
Setting: London, England
From the Publisher: Maybe women can have it all, as long as they’re willing to steal it.
A fascinating story about three women and a little girl set in 1925 in gritty post-war London. Alice Diamond (aka “Diamond Annie”) is Queen of the Forty Elephants gang of female shoplifters – a tough leader who demands loyalty but who also feels a sense of responsibility for her girls. Inspector Lilian Wyles is one of the first female detectives at Scotland Yard and needs a big arrest to prove herself to her colleagues and her superiors, Dorothy McBride is a department store sales girl who aspires to being a clothing designer, and Hira Wickham is an innocent 10 year-old orphan/runaway living on the streets with a dog named Biscuit who is befriended by both Alice and Dorothy.
Over a period of a few weeks, the lives of the four become intertwined as Inspector Wyles sets her sights on taking down Diamond Annie and breaking up the Forty Elephants gang.
This is a well-written historical novel based on real people and events – the Forty Elephants gang was Britain’s first female crime syndicate and Inspector Wyles was a Scotland Yard detective who wrote a book about her experience as a female inspector at Scotland Yard. Queens of London is a story of sisterhood and female empowerment (by any available means) with themes of fairness and justice throughout. I loved the strong, well-developed female characters – an entertaining read!!
8. The Gentleman’s Gambit by Evie Dunmore
Setting: Scotland, Oxford, London
This is book #4 and the finale in Evie Dunmore’s feminist romance series “A League of Extraordinary Women” about the group of women first admitted to study at Oxford University. (Previous books are Bringing Down the Duke, A Rogue of Own’s Own, and Portrait of a Scotsman.)
A Gentleman’s Gambit takes place in 1882 and focuses on Lady Catriona Campbell – an introvert and bookworm who enjoys escaping to her father’s Scottish estate where the peace and quiet affords her the opportunity to think and to work on her book without distraction.
Catriona, enjoying a naked swim in the estate’s loch, climbs out of the water and finds herself exposed to a stranger she later discovers is her father’s colleague, Elias Khoury. Elias is a scholar who is to begin work with Professor Campbell but when her father is required to tend to estate business, Catriona must accompany Elias to Oxford to help him get settled and begin his work classifying artefacts. Khoury, however, is actually planning a heist to return the artefacts to his home in the Middle East and winning Catriona’s favour could be the key to his success.
The Gentleman’s Gambit is a steamy Victorian-era historical rom-com that deftly combines romance, friendship, history and politics with a plot that addresses the rightful ownership of historical artefacts and women’s rights. Some readers might not enjoy how much history and politics there is in the plot but that’s what I enjoy most about this series.
This is the finale to the series and I loved the epilogue which takes place 36 years later in 1918 when legislation was passed finally granting some women in Great Britain the right to vote and Annabelle, Lucie, Hattie and Catriona are all present to celebrate.
This book can be read as a standalone (I have only read #3 and #4), however, reading them in chronological order would provide a fuller picture of the friend group of four women who meet at Oxford and work together to advance women’s rights.
9. The Other Mothers by Katherine Faulkner
Setting: London, England
Tash, married to a doctor and mother to a young boy, is a former investigative journalist now working freelance for the flexibility it gives her in caring for her son. Months earlier she had written a short article on the conclusion of a coroner’s inquest into the death of a young nanny named Sophie Blake who was found dead in a nearby nature reserve. Despite the coroner’s ruling that the death was accidental, Sophie’s mother believes her daughter was murdered and tracks down Tash to ask her to investigate.
Around the same time, Tash is befriended by a group of posh mothers at her son’s playgroup and pulled into their social circle while she gradually realizes that there is a connection between her new friends and the nanny who died nearby. The narrative alternates point-of-view between Tash in the current timeline and Sophie from the time she started working as a nanny up until the very moment of her death.
I loved Faulkner’s domestic thriller debut, Greenwich Park, last year so was looking forward to reading this new novel which is also about moms living in an affluent neighbourhood in London and I’m happy to say that it lived up to my expectations! The Other Mothers is a page-turner with plenty of plausible red herrings and twists – some of which I anticipated and some which caught me by surprise. I thought I had it figured out more than once but I was so wrong and didn’t get it right until the reveal was happening!
I couldn’t put down this psychological thriller/suspense novel that explores class and the darker side of motherhood and female friendships and can’t wait for whatever the author writes next!
Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Shuster Canada for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
10. Fourteen Days by Margaret Atwood
Setting: New York City’s Lower East Side
From the Publisher: One week into the COVID-19 shutdown, tenants of a Lower East Side apartment building in Manhattan have begun to gather on the rooftop and tell stories. With each passing night, more and more neighbors gather, bringing chairs and milk crates and overturned pails. Gradually the tenants—some of whom have barely spoken to each other—become real neighbors.
In this Decameron-like serial novel, general editors Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston and a star-studded list of contributors create a beautiful ode to the people who couldn’t escape when the pandemic hit. A dazzling, heartwarming, and ultimately surprising narrative, Fourteen Days reveals how beneath the horrible loss and suffering, some communities managed to become stronger.
11. The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman
Setting: California, Hawaii and the skies over the Pacific Ocean between the two
Shortly after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, James Dole announces that he is sponsoring an air race from California to Hawaii – a dangerous journey of 2,400 miles over the Pacific that hasn’t been done before. A fearless young female aviator, Olivia “Livy” West, is determined to be one of the contestants in the Dole Air Race (the “Dole Derby”) but jumps at the opportunity to join another pilot as his navigator when she can’t find a sponsor willing to back a female pilot.
In the 1987 timeline, Wren Summers is barely scraping by in Honolulu when she learns that she has inherited a remote property on the Big Island from a great-aunt that she hardly knew. At first she plans to sell as quickly as possible but finds she’s drawn to the property and the opportunity to learn about her family history with some help from a local man. The connection between the two timelines is not fully understood until near the end of the book.
I have enjoyed several of Sara Ackerman’s historical fiction novels and was anticipating this one as it is the first that isn’t about World War II. Ackerman is an excellent storyteller and her books are all well-researched and feature strong female characters who are often ahead of their time and are set in the beautiful Hawaiian islands. Livy West in this novel is a fantastic character who you can’t help but love and root for!
The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West is inspired by real events – the Dole Air Race was a tragic real event with 15 pilots entered in the competition but only 2 planes landing successfully in Hawaii – and the author does an excellent job weaving together the factual with the fictionalized. Livy’s story is fictionalized as there were no female contestants in the Dole Derby but she is representative of female aviators of the time. This is a fast-paced tale of adventure about determined women taking risks and pushing their limits with a little romance thrown in and a great feel-good ending – a fun read!
Thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin Trade Publishing for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
12. The Book of Fire by Christy Lefteri
The Book of Fire is the story of a musician named Irini, her artist husband Tasso, and their daughter, Chara, whose village in Greece was destroyed by a forest fire that villagers attempted to escape by fleeing to the sea. Irini’s family lost their home, both Tasso and Chara sustained severe burns and Tasso’s father went missing in the fire.
Several months have passed since the fire and the village is trying to rebuild but the suffering hasn’t abated. Irini doesn’t know how to help her family – Tasso has fallen into a depression as the burns on his hands prevent him from painting and Chara’s burns are healing but she isn’t herself.
Irini follows her dog into the destroyed forest one morning where she comes upon the badly injured man who started the fire and makes a split second decision she soon regrets. In order to come to terms with what has happened, Irini writes down the story of the fire as if it was a fairy tale and calls it The Book of Fire. The narrative alternates between Irini’s first person point-of-view in the present day and the third person story she has written about the fire.
Christy Lefteri’s latest book is a beautifully written, poignant exploration of trauma and how a family and a community heal after a catastrophe. There’s also subtext about the climate crisis as the drought caused by climate change contributed to the severity of the fire that destroyed this Greek village. The message is very much that climate change needs to be addressed urgently because climate catastrophe is no longer a problem for the distant future but one we are facing across the globe today.
13. My Beloved Life by Amitava Kumar
Publication Date: February 27, 2024
From the Publisher: Jadunath Kunwar’s beginnings are humble, even inauspicious. In 1935 in a village near George Orwell’s birthplace, Jadu’s mother, while pregnant with him, nearly dies from a cobra bite. When we see Jadu again, he is in college, meeting the Sherpa who first summited Everest and wondering what it means to be modern.
As his life skates between the mythical and the mundane, and as changes big and small sweep across India, Jadu finds meaning in the most unexpected places. He befriends poets and politicians. He becomes a historian. And he has a daughter, Jugnu, a television journalist with a career in the United States—whose own story recasts the past in a new light.
Piercing, fleet-footed, and undeniably resonant, here is a novel from a singularly gifted writer about how we tell stories and write history, how individuals play a counterpoint to big movements, how no single life is without consequence.
14. The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan
Setting: Malaya (now Malaysia)
The Storm We Made is an impressive World War II era historical fiction debut from Vanessa Chan set in what is now Malaysia and told over two timelines. In the first timeline (1935-38), Cecily Alcantara is a Eurasian woman who lives in British-controlled Malaya with her bureaucrat husband and two young children. After a chance meeting, Cecily is recruited as a spy by Japanese General Fujiwara who is living in Kuala Lumpur under an assumed name. Fujiwara convinces Cecily that expelling the British and building an Asia for Asians is the future they should aspire to and she risks everything to provide him with intelligence.
In the second timeline a decade later (1945), Malaya has been under the control of Japan for several years now and the Japanese have proven themselves to be brutal overlords. The Malayan people have been enduring significant hardship, deprivation and violence since the British were ousted – life is not at all what Cecily had expected.
As the end of the war draws near, Cecily’s teenage son, Abel, has disappeared and her older daughter, Jujube, grows angrier by the day as they try to protect the youngest daughter, Jasmine, from the Japanese soldiers who are kidnapping young girls to work at comfort stations. The 1945 timeline alternates between 4 points of view – Cecily and each of her three children as they grapple with the tragic circumstances brought on by the war and the Japanese occupation.
The Storm We Made is a strong debut from Vanessa Chan. It’s a well-written and compelling story and I appreciated the perspective on events that occurred in Malaysia during World War II as I wasn’t familiar with the country’s history. The experiences of Cecily and her three children provide an overview of the horrors that Malayans endured during the war and some of the tragic events that took place.
The story also explores the guilt that Cecily felt for the role that her espionage activities played in facilitating the Japanese invasion which resulted in so much hardship for her family, her neighbours and her countrymen as well as her fear that her family would one day discover what she had done.
This is the rare example where I would have liked this book to be a bit longer to get to know each of the characters better. Four POVs in the 1945 timeline made it difficult to fully explore the experience of each of them and the story would have had more emotional depth if more time had been spent with each character.
Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Canada for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
15. The London Bookshop Affair by Louise Fein
Setting: London, England
I loved this captivating historical drama set in London in 1962 against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis! 19 year-old Celia Duchesne has been working for three years at a quiet antiquarian bookshop on the Strand when the owners sell to an American woman who is content to allow Celia to manage the shop. Through the bookshop, Celia meets Septimus Nelson, a handsome young American man who has been recently promoted to work as an aide-de-camp to the American Ambassador in London, and romance blossoms.
As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war, Celia discovers a family secret and her search to uncover the truth leads to her being drawn into the world of Cold War espionage. Most of the book takes place in 1962 and is told from the point of view of Celia and of Septimus but there are also a few chapters that take place in 1942 and connect to the story of ‘Anya Moreau’, a young English woman trained by the SOE and sent to France to work with the Resistance transmitting messages back to London.
Inspired by true events and based on a number of real life people, The London Bookshop Affair is a story of Cold War espionage but also a personal story about two courageous young women discovering who they are and what they’re capable of. It’s an absorbing story that highlights life in London at the height of the Cold War when tension was rising between the U.S. and Russia and there was a very real fear that the escalation of hostilities between the two superpowers would result in the launch of nuclear weapons – quite possibly at Britain first.
I was completely engaged with this book – it’s a well-told story with several twists that are slowly revealed, well-researched and informative re Cold War politics in 1962 and it provides an interesting non-American perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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