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What the critics liked

“For two weeks it was the biggest story on earth,” says Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times – in April 2014, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their dormitory in the middle of the night “by a little-known but extremely deadly Islamist sect called Boko Haram”. As detailed in Bring Back Our Girls: The Astonishing Survival and Rescue of Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls (Swift £18.99), what caught the media’s attention was not the mass kidnapping, “which initially was barely reported”, but a catchy hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. It was retweeted by “millions across the globe, from Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey”. Seven years on, while some of the girls escaped and more than 100 were released with ransoms, many are still in captivity.

The authors, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, ask the “uncomfortable question” that hangs over this book. “By focusing so much attention, did the world – and we in the media – make them such a valuable commodity that Boko Haram would not give them up?”

The most remarkable and humanising part of the book, says Elnathan John in the Financial Times, is not the story of the kidnappers, or of those who sat in secret meetings, trying and often failing to rescue them, but the story of the girls themselves, “documented at great personal risk”. Most of them were Christian, and somehow they resisted conversion and marriage. They kept up morale by singing hymns, braiding their hair and praying.

The authors “delicately record” how some – including 24-year-old Naomi Adamu, who loved gospel songs and dreamt of marrying a pastor – were able to hide their diaries, which chronicled “their captivity and trauma, the Bible verses that gave them strength and kept their hearts defiant”, and love letters to “their crushes back home”.

Vintage fiction: Riders

“Sex and horses: who could ask for more?” declared The Sunday Telegraph of Jilly Cooper’s Riders on its publication in 1985. And so we were introduced to the first of the Rutshire Chronicles (Rivals and Polo are among the follow-ups), novels peopled by a horsey set whose lives are enmeshed by affairs, rivalries and heartbreak. They’re centred on the irresistible Rupert Campbell-Black and his glamorous world of showjumping. “It’s almost impossible to convey,” said Rowan Pelling in the Telegraph on the book’s 30th anniversary in 2015, “how intoxicating all that sex was for its wide-eyed readers.” The “unspeakably racy bliss” of Cooper’s earlier novels – Octavia, Bella, Imogen et al – “passed around like contraband at girls’ schools”, had now been superseded. “Any lingering traces of romantic propriety were abandoned in a vast, sprawling tale of passion, adultery, more adultery, even more adultery, and showjumping.”

The hero of Riders was supposed to be horse whisperer Jake Lovell, but it is “louche, Machiavellian, aristocratic Rupert who steals the limelight”, with his “Greek nose, high cheekbones and long, denim-blue eyes”. Cooper admitted in 2002 that her “mesmerising cad” was a composite of Andrew Parker Bowles, the Earl of Suffolk, Rupert Lycett Green and the Duke of Beaufort.

Cooper’s publishers were initially nervous about the explicit sex, but she defended herself; “We were in this little pocket – from the Sixties to the mid-Eighties – where people weren’t worried about sex. We had contraception, it was before Aids; it was joyful and exploratory.”

Riders has sold more than 12m copies, and in 2019 the BBC named it as one of 100 Novels That Shaped the World. Spitting Image fashioned a Cooper puppet that only said “Sex, sex, sex”. Rather more poignantly, the author once told The Sunday Times that she believed the secret of a happy marriage is “bedsprings creaking as much from helpless laughter as from sex”.

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

The Soho captured with such intensity in Hot Stew (John Murray £16.99) is not a mere locality, says Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times, “it is a microcosm of swarming humanity”. Fiona Mozley’s second novel is “a complex mosaic of urban life” with an extensive cast of characters, united in “mounting a last-ditch resistance” to developers determined to redraw the skyline. The denizens of this “colourful patch” of central London range from sex worker Precious and her maid, Tabitha, to addicts Debbie McGee and Paul Daniels (he does magic tricks) and the sermonising, subterranean vagrant known as the Archbishop.

Ambitious, clever and funny, Hot Stew “hurtles towards a final clash of worlds”, says Alex Preston in The Observer. This is not just about Soho, but about how “we must learn to cherish what little grime and seediness remains” before it is lost to “the plate glass and brushed steel” of the developers.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.