Anne Cunningham of First Chapter book reviews, at work.

This week: pregnant women turn detective!

This week there’s a novel about school-gate hostilities run amok when a child is wrongly accused of bullying. This a disaster novel about a plane that crashes into the sea just after take-off. There’s a memoir from Anne Frank’s neighbour and close friend who also ended up in the camps but, unlike Anne, survived. A disparate bunch of pregnant women turn rogue detectives when they discover they’re suspects in a murder case. And three elderly retirees in Tuscany find their peaceful existence shattered by the intrusion of the outside world.

The Playground, Michelle Frances, Pan, €12.99

Agatha Christie taught us that to see humanity at its worst, there’s nowhere like a pastoral old English village. That’s where all the baddies live! But it seems Nancy didn’t get the memo. She chooses to escape to a village in the Derbyshire countryside for a fresh start with her 10-year-old daughter, Lara. And the hilarious TV series Motherland reminded us that the bitching of the mothers waiting at the school gate can influence whole lives. But there’s nothing funny about the mothers in this novel.

When Lara is wrongly accused of hurting another child in the school, Nancy, like any mother, feels she must take action to clear her daughter’s name. But she doesn’t know who she’s up against, or not at first anyway. And the plot rachets up from there. This is nightmarish domestic noir, expertly told, with an ultimate twist you won’t guess.

Drowning, TJ Newman, Simon & Schuste €15.99

The tension never lets up on this story from the opening, which is: “Will Kent opened his eyes just in time to see the engine explode”. Will Kent, along with his 11-year-old daughter, Shannon, happen to be on the plane attached to the exploded engine. A mere six minutes after take-off, the plane plummets into the Pacific. There are many casualties. But as the plane sinks to the bottom of the sea, there are survivors too. Emergency services, including a team of diving experts are deployed, led by Will’s estranged wife and Shannon’s mother, an experienced diver. Will’s an engineer, so he must use his knowledge wisely if this small clutch of souls is to survive on the sea bed.

All disaster novels must have some respite, and Newman ventures into characters’ backstories here to provide some relief, otherwise the reader might just burst with the stress! It’s a second winner from Newman, whose 2021 debut ‘Falling’ has been translated into 30 languages with TV rights already sold.

My Friend Anne Frank, Hannah Pick-Goslar, Rider, €17.99

Hannah Pick-Goslar was a friend and neighbour of Anne Frank in Amsterdam. Both Hannah’s and Anne’s family had fled to Amsterdam to avoid the Nazis, not knowing how quickly the city would fall to Hitler. We all know what happened to Anne Frank, but maybe not so much what happened to her best friend. Pick-Goslar died just last year, aged 94 and had spent her retirement giving talks worldwide on her incarceration in Bergen-Belsen and eventual liberation by the Russians. She was nearly dead at this point, but she survived, though her family did not, and her friend Anne was already dead by then.

She says of her memoir: “I hope my memoir will help illuminate what (Anne), and so many other children like us, endured at the hands of the Nazis, only because we were Jewish. And for those of us who were lucky enough to have survived, I hope my story will shed light on how we rebuilt our lives.’ Ghost-written beautifully by Tel-Aviv journalist Dina Kraft, this is a book you won’t forget easily. And with the far right gaining ground in every free country, including our own, the timing could not be better.

The Expectant Detectives, Kate Ailes, Zaffre, €15.99

The recent craze for novels in the ‘cosy crime’ genre can’t all be blamed on Richard Osman. This has been a ‘thing’ for decades and usually involves amateur sleuths, incompetent/indifferent police and at least one eccentric character (in this case a dog). Trouble is, lots of authors are now jumping on the cosy crime bandwagon, not all of them a roaring success, in my ‘umble. This debut, however, is a real treat and full of comedy.

An accidental pregnancy sends Alice and partner Joe deep into the Cotswolds village of Penton, as they can’t afford to rear a child in their native London. When a murder occurs in the spot where the village ante-natal classes are held, Alice and the other mothers-to-be in the class become suspects. Which drives their hormones really haywire and also drives them to hunt down the killer. Full of dark, dry humour, this whodunnit is great fun, with plenty of twists and shocks to keep the pages turning.

The Three Graces, Amanda Craig, Abacus, €20.99

Over the course of two weeks in May three elderly friends, all of them retired expats in Tuscany, will have their quiet lives turned inside out. Ruth, Diana and Marta live in idyllic peace in the Italian sunshine. But when local man Enzo shoots an illegal migrant from his bedroom window one night, everyone in the neighbourhood – including the womens’ grandchildren – will find themselves embroiled in the subsequent series of events.

Ruth is hosting her grandson’s wedding to his rather vacuous ‘influencer’ fiancée, Diana is minding her husband whose dementia is worsening, while Marta is preparing for her final piano recital. But in the blink of an eye their peace seems to be crumbling around them. As well as the shooting there’s a bomb, a body found in a pond and a car crash, while in the background there’s the migrant traffickers, the desperate migrants themselves, the war in Ukraine, the Brexit fallout – the works! Acclaimed for her ‘state of the nation’ novels, Amanda Craig may not have quite the caustic burn of Jonathan Coe but she still makes her point with great satirical artistry, and The Three Graces is one of the more memorable novels of the summer.


Irish publishers New Island have declared that they’re open for submissions until August 23. See for details.

The current craze is to see two films in one day, specifically Barbie and Oppenheimer. It’s called doing a Barbenheimer. I kid you not. I’m just telling you so you won’t miss out on running with the cool gang…