The Pull Of The Stars

Emma Donoghue

Picador, priced £16.99 (ebook £8.99)

Emma Donoghue wrote this startling and extraordinary novel before the coronavirus pandemic hit – but it couldn't be more prescient. The Pull Of The Stars takes place across three days in 1918, where on a makeshift, thoroughly understaffed maternity ward in Dublin, Nurse Julia Power is trying to support pregnant women through labour, while Spanish Influenza goes about its insidious, fatal work. Eerie comparisons with Covid aside (like the often bizarre and confusing government messaging, outrage of public coughing, and conspiracy theories etc.) Julia's observations on the odds pregnant women in poverty already face, and the havoc wreaked on their bodies from having too many children, too young, is devastating - and fascinating - to read.

Donoghue deftly weaves in politics, policy, the impact of war, feminism, violence and the minutiae of changing bed pans and sterilising instruments, while dealing with dismissive male doctors and birthing babies. And that's all alongside the awful things happening in Irish convents and children's homes. But throughout, the pragmatic, thoughtful Julia keeps the overwhelming darkness she's tackling, in abeyance - just about. A powerful, persistent, highly detailed and incredibly moving book that speaks through time. Donoghue is an absolute marvel of a writer.

Ella Walker

Miss Benson's Beetle

Rachel Joyce

Doubleday, priced £16.99 (ebook £9.99)

The latest book from the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about an expedition to find the golden beetle of New Caledonia. Set in the stultified 1950s, Miss Benson's Beetle considers female friendship in the unlikeliest of situations. Miss Benson, a frumpy, middle-aged domestic science teacher hiding a lifetime's worth of emotional scars from herself, suffers one slight too many and behaves in a completely irrational manner. This prompts her to revive a childhood dream, in a 'now or never' moment to find the golden beetle. She advertises for an assistant and an unlikely candidate steps forward - Enid Pretty. The pair have nothing in common, but through a series of sometimes farcical, sometimes poignant adventures together, a redemptive bond is created between the women. But danger is never far away. To survive, the pair need to find their best selves. While a little uneven in tone, you'll find yourself willing the pair to succeed, escape the chains of their previous lives, and find their true self worth.

Bridie Pritchard

My Darling from The Lions

Rachel Long

Picador, priced £10.99 (ebook £4.99)

My Darling From The Lions is the debut collection from poet Rachel Long. Founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour, Long focuses on women's experiences, race and heritage, all intertwined in the recurring motif of hair and wigs, used in the title of one of the collection's three sections - A Lineage of Wigs. The collection also covers relationships, religion, family and school, skilfully highlighting the tension between the latter when describing day-long hair styling in Jail Letter: "Mum, my scalp burns!/Ungrateful! Look at you, beautiful as Winnie Mandela!/I don't know who this is/but it doesn't sound like someone Ben Clark will fancy." Long's use of dialect is one of her strongest points ("Gross, init, but I weren't about to say no to 300 quid"), while one of the most effective poems, 8, uses form to indicate a skipping and speeding memory of abuse.

Laura Paterson