Broadcaster Nicky Campbell book about a dog called Maxwell is, at heart, a poignant book about the search for belonging.
It comes in the same week the TV face revealed his brave battle with depression that left him sobbing in the street.
Also this week, Mirror Book Club reviewers take a look at a piece of historical fiction at its immersive, intriguing best.
And the true story of a young man dying of cancer and his devastated girlfriend’s battle with grief is a touching and unexpectedly timely tale of enduring love.
One Of The Family: Why A Dog Called Maxwell Changed My Life, by Nicky Campbell
Hodder & Stoughton, £20
“Maxwell gave me back to myself – unadorned, unvarnished, unspoilt. The only me he knows is the very best one – no affectations, worries, anxieties or jealousies.”
When broadcaster Nicky Campbell was nine days old, his birth mother Stella – an Irish nurse – left him for adoption at an Edinburgh baby home.
Many years later, when they were reunited, the first question she asked him was: “Do you like dogs?”
For Nicky, dogs have long been a source of comfort. As a child, he bonded closely with Candy, pet dog of the loving family who adopted him after a few months at the baby home.
He spent much of his childhood agonising about being adopted, worrying that he would forever feel like an outsider, and struggling to come to terms with feelings of rejection. But with Candy, he was able to shake off feelings of “otherness”.
As an adult, Nicky’s broadcast career went from strength to strength.
But his personal life was hedonistic and unhappy and he became intent, aged 29, on finding the woman who had given him up for adoption. A chance encounter with a private detective – a guest on his radio show – enabled the search.
If Nicky had hoped that meeting his mother would allow him to shed some of his demons, he was wrong. Stella was delighted to make contact but wanted more from the relationship than he felt able to give.
He struggled to bond with her, finding her needy, and feared he was slighting his adoptive parents by spending time with her. But one of their few areas of common ground was a love of dogs.
However, after Stella died, Nicky suffered a breakdown, stricken with guilt that they hadn’t been closer.
For the first time and with commendable honesty, Nicky details the breakdown, which led to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a condition that Stella also suffered from.
In a desperate attempt to bring Nicky back to himself, his wife Tina brought home a labrador puppy named Maxwell.
Despite Nicky’s initial reservations, Maxwell quickly burrowed his way into Campbell’s heart: “When we’re alone together in enhanced solitude, the feeling of peace he brings, the golden companionship he gives me, is indescribable.”
At its heart, this is a poignant book about the search for belonging.
But as Nicky knows, the company of a beloved dog will always make you feel at home.
by ROSIE HOPEGOOD
A Net For Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago
It’s January 1609 and Anne Turner, with an eye for fashion and a keen sense of her own worth, is about to make a friend who will open the doors to James I’s greedy, vain, lascivious Jacobean Court.
With a patent for making ruffs, Anne is anxious for acclaim and money when she is summoned by the cool, calculating Countess of Suffolk who wants her daughter Frances’s image to reflect her aristocratic status.
The 17-year-old countess is very unhappily married to the cruel, impotent and puritanical Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who has taken to whipping his wife in the face of his own inadequacies.
Anne, anxious to make an impression, binds Frankie’s wounds and transforms the weeping girl into a goddess, her dresses as formidable, beautiful and glittering as armour.
It is the start of a fateful friendship between two women “who are brave beyond caution” and whose attempt to survive in the precarious world of the court will lead to accusations of being bawds and poisoners.
It’s based on the Overbury scandal, with the women accused of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London, and this sumptuous debut tells the story from Anne’s perspective.
And what a tale it is! Rich in intrigue and incident, it includes bad marriages, adulterous love affairs, backstabbing betrayals and vividly drawn characters – disreputable brothers, a necromancer who looks like a lemur, and the golden-haired Robert Carr, whom Frankie falls in love with.
A Net For Small Fishes is wonderfully dramatic and movingly tragic. With a wealth of detail on every atmospheric page, as the charismatic, flawed figures of Anne and Frankie try to live and love in the “cesspit” of a royal court, this is historical fiction at its immersive, intriguing best.
By EITHNE FARRY
The Mahogany Pod, by Jill Hopper
In the midst of a pandemic, when so many have died before their time, the true story of a young man dying of cancer and his devastated girlfriend’s battle with grief may not appeal. But The Mahogany Pod tells a touching and unexpectedly timely tale of enduring love.
Jill Hopper is 23 when she moves into a shared house on the island of Osney and meets housemate Arif. They are already falling in love when Arif learns his lymphoma has returned and is untreatable.
Jill compares it to being on a beach and seeing your friend drowning.
“Do you watch him struggling or do you get into the water?” she writes. “I couldn’t stand to watch him suffering and not suffer myself. I didn’t want him to be alone. I got into the water.”
Arif died nine months later, the day before his 25th birthday.
Jill’s memoir flits between their life together, and her grief, then up to the present day when she is a happily married mother of one. It is deeply personal and in places searingly sad but relatable to anyone who has loved and lost.
For Jill, writing has clearly been cathartic, a way of processing some of the trauma. And as much as this is a memoir about death, it is also an uplifting story of embracing love no matter how dark the circumstances, about building a life even after the worst has come to pass.
Perhaps this is the perfect book to read during a pandemic after all.
By DAN TOWNEND
Join the Mirror Book Club
We have a new Mirror Book Club pick – Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud.
The recent winner of the Costa First Novel Award, it tells the tale of irrepressible Betty, her shy son Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan.
Their happy home keeps them safe from an increasingly dangerous world – until a glass of rum, a heart-to-heart and a terrible truth explodes the family unit.