January 7, 2020

This utterly readable and fun book follows two characters, who, due to finances, find themselves sharing a flat without actually meeting. Leon gets to use the flat during the day, then goes to work nightshifts as a palliative care nurse. Tiffy has the flat, and solitary bed, overnight.

You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with the idea they would agree to this, but isn’t that the joy of fiction?

I found the way I pictured the characters before they met changed quite substantially when you got to see them properly from each others’ perspective for the first time. That was really interesting and a great commentary on our self-perception, even if it did take a bit of mental re-jigging.

After they’d met, the book lost a bit of momentum, for me, as their side stories were less compelling than the romance. Also, of the two narratives, I did prefer Leon’s story to Tiffy’s. But...

December 11, 2019

Buzz: Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, shortlisted for Book of the Year at Waterstones and Foyles, and sold more than 23,000 copies in hardback. Being made into a Channel 4 show.

Queenie should be a pretty ordinary book.

It features a pretty ordinary girl, living a pretty ordinary life, with an ordinary circle of friends. Her challenges will be starkly familiar to many of us; from the feet-in-stirrups gynaecological examination opening, to the political frustrations, to the anxiety attacks. Many, too, will recognise the everyday realities of being a black British woman living an everyday London life. But familiar in life, is not the same as familiar in print. I can only imagine it might be a bittersweet shock the first time you see life reflected plainly in mainstream art. The joy of recognition undercut by the knowledge that that joy has been previously absent.

So many simple,...

December 1, 2019

The Deathless Girls tells the origin story for the ‘Brides of Dracula’ from a more feminist perspective. 

As always, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing is breathtaking. She writes the most sumptuous, beautifully-crafted children’s books right now, so it’s a thrill to see her move into YA. Her lyrical style contrasts wonderfully with the brutality now allowed to her with an older audience.

17 year-old twins Lil and Kizzy are captured as slaves when their traveller community is attacked, and soon find they’re destined for the home of the mythical figure ‘the Dragon.’

Millwood Hargrave’s tale sweeps way beyond the legend, taking on themes of difference, sisterhood and an LGBT romance, but I still felt she was confined by the original story. As this was the story of the Brides of Dracula, we all know how it has to end, and I felt the ending was the book’s weakest point. 

I wished the story could...

August 2, 2019

Buzz: Follow up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad.

Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, Hope vs Despair. It’s rare to meet such absolutes in modern fiction, but The Nickel Boys deals in extremes. It opens with two contrasting images. A little boy gets the “best gift of his life on Christmas day 1962.” A record that never leaves the turntable, gaining scratches, pops and crackles as marks of devotion: Martin Luther King at Zion Hill. An innocent young Elwood Curtis listens with love, and he internalises the optimism and idealism, the grit and stoicism: "Throw us in jail and we will still love you… But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double vict...

July 18, 2019

There is a lot wrong with The Binding. For all the luscious language, not much happens in the first third. It’s mainly the painstaking building of a skillset that’s never used, which feels a tad wasteful. And it commits a book sin I normally find unforgivable — it teases. It feels like hundreds of pages of circling and nudging and side-stepping the truth before we finally get to it. 

Because the magical concept at the core of the novel is that people can tell their traumatic memories to a book binder and the stories are stored in the book, not their minds. Like a gothic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And it’s narrated from the point of view of Emmet, who, it gradually becomes clear, has some crucial missing memories too. So the secret staying hidden does make sense, while frustrating.

 But despite all its flaws, The Binding is a love story so pure that by the end I wanted to shout...

July 18, 2019

The face of Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman was all over the internet in Spring 2019, mixed up in a college admissions bribery scandal. Huffman’s part was small - an SAT exam - but the wider case was a rabbit’s warren. It’s alleged bribes were paid to entrance administrators. That psychologists intentionally misdiagnosed rich kids with learning disabilities, so they got longer to do exams. It’s even claimed the faces of hopeful students were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies to get them the top college places reserved for sports stars.

April 5, 2019

This is as uncomfortable a read as it is compelling; whether in the stifling heat of the Jamaican plantation or the damp, grimy cells of a Georgian London prison cell, the setting feels right for the people and deeds endured in Frannie Langton’s life.

A slave since birth, a teenaged Frannie is forced to become a lab assistant to her owner’s dark experiments as he tries to prove the origin of racial difference. He uses his slaves as non-consenting lab rats, and his investigations go more than skin deep. When he takes Frannie with him to England, she ends up in the home of another scientist, and his charming and sympathetic wife, Marguerite. Frannie’s fortunes seem improved, but the couple end up dead, and we meet Frannie when she is on trial for their murder. The book’s narrative takes us back through her history as she tries to remember what happened the night they died.

It’s psychological...

January 10, 2019

The stark, brooding beauty of Skye looms over The Story Keeper, setting the tone for an atmospheric and dark tale, where the line between reality and superstition is tantalisingly blurred.

In 1857 Audrey Hart arrives on the island; ostensibly to help collect the folk and fairy tales of the highland communities, but also to escape a story of her own and learn more about her mother, who died long ago on the island. But soon after she arrives, she discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach.

The pages keep on turning, as all the wonderful, historical detail is wrapped up in a clever and satisfying whodunnit. But my favourite aspect of the book was discovering, alongside Audrey, the tales and superstitions that form the background of so much of our culture. Mazzola references the real-life contemporaries to the fictional Audrey; the Brothers Grimm. The twisted tales uncovered in ...

November 23, 2018

Buzz: Follow up to the international bestseller The Book Thief.

Review: There is a very literal bridge at the centre of Bridge of Clay. It’s lovingly hand built and inspired by the Roman wonder Pont Du Gard — the UNESCO heritage aqueduct that spans a humble river in the South of France. That bridge has three tiers of carefully crafted archways, each building on the other, and gradually jigsawing together. Pont du Gard's hefty stone blocks hold together through friction alone, without the use of mortar.

I think it’s fair to say there’s lot in the literary structure of Bridge of Clay, that — probably both intentionally and unintentionally — mirror the structure of its famous Roman inspiration. You arch through the story, dipping your toes in here and there. Key events are hinted at, and circled around, long before they’re revealed, and many things are overstated or understated as they’re fed...

May 28, 2018

Such a neat concept for this book: an alien invasion has never been so subtle and insidious!

Samantha’s scumbag boyfriend, Edward, is injured in a car crash and seems to die before making a miraculous recovery. It turns out a weird new virus has something to do with it, and lots of other men are coming back too, albeit changed.

The book twists quite a few notions on their heads, starting with the image of the girlfriend at a hospital bed guilty that she wished her boyfriend dead not too long ago. Then we see Sam knowing things aren’t right when Edward is way too nice. Still Life poses lots of interesting questions, and I especially enjoyed how the characters cling to what they’re familiar with, even when they know deep down the familiar is masking a creepy and disturbing threat.

There’s also a love triangle and plenty of surprises. It’s gripping and accessible with a subtly dry tone, and th...

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