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...

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...

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...

April 19, 2018

“You know how it is with white people. You say it’s race, they tell you you are mistaken. Then they say it’s because of your race when you say it is not.”

So says one of the characters in Happiness. So it is with great caution that I, from my white middle-class perspective, offer my thoughts on this wonderful book about ... race. Or at least immigration.

Admittedly, it covers a million things besides: the core of happiness, the effect of trauma, dementia, grief - for those that have died, for those that have changed, for relationships that change, small pleasures, passing moments. But behind it all is the experience of immigrants.

Happiness follows two main characters from the moment they collide on Waterloo Bridge. Internationally-renowned Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, is in town to deliver a keynote on his area of expertise: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while American scientist J...

April 7, 2018

It’s always a good sign when you miss a book once it’s gone, and I wished I could have stayed inside this one a little longer. Never has the word ‘heartwarming’ been more appropriate.

Set during WW2, Emmeline Lake is disappointed to find her new journalistic job isn’t as a chipper reporter, working up to War Correspondent; but as an admin assistant to the women’s advice columnist, Henrietta Bird, who dismisses nearly every genuine problem as “unpleasantness.”

I found the homely style a little awkward at first — was everyone really so ‘jolly upbeat’ in WW2? Isn’t it a little patronising? But I soon realised that getting beneath the veneer of putting on a good show and whatnot is really the heart of the book, and it’s actually very sweetly done.

It’s a gentle and moving book that celebrates female friendship and good-heartedness, while reminding us to be grateful for the everyday.

March 15, 2018

Buzz: Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018. Picked as a ‘MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018’ by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, BBC Arts, Red Magazine, Stylist, and Independent.

I once passed through the most decadent and beguiling vintage shop in a cute little town somewhere. The mannequins were perfectly and precisely accessorised, and baskets spilled over with such beautifully textured fabrics it didn’t matter what they were for. And the smell. Just breathing there for two minutes left you enriched.

If I bought something, I never would have worn it. It was a place to stand in, dip your toe, soak up the luxury, and dream a little of an alternative life.

Reading The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a bit like visiting that shop. It, too, is classy and fascinating, stuffed with exquisite textures and perfectly placed details. The setting is so vivid you could almost sneeze with...

November 10, 2017

Buzz: National Book Award 2017 winner, Women's Prize For Fiction 2018 shortlist, Barack Obama's Best Books of 2017, Margaret Atwood calls it “a must.”

This is the most grittily realistic book I’ve read in a while — it just happens to be a ghost story. Somehow, despite its fantastical content, Sing, Unburied, Sing feels distinctly believable.

The plot is simple; it’s a road trip, there and back again. Thirteen-year-old Jojo, and his little sister Kayla, are dragged across Mississippi by their drug-addicted mum, Leonie, to pick up their dad from prison. At home the two children are mainly looked after by their beloved grandfather, Pop, so being in their mum’s care has its own challenges. It also happens that Parchman prison is the same place Pop spent some years as an innocent teenager. While they’re there this time, Jojo encounters the ghost of one of Pop’s fellow inmates, who then hitches...

July 13, 2017

I cried on the first page of Together - how amazing to pack that emotional punch into so few words. But it’s appropriate to start sobbing, as this is a book written backwards. You meet Robbie and Emily at the end of their long romance, then trace back to its shocking beginning. You’re already invested, as you can see how much their love has weathered storms. In that respect, there’s a touch of The Notebook to it. But it’s clear that this lovely couple are keeping secrets.

There’s a certain jigsaw puzzle delight in working out how everything fits together and it’s very skilfully done. But while the backwards timeline works well as a breadcrumb trail of clues, I found the dangling of the ‘big secret’ slightly heavy handed. At the end, I felt more intellectual satisfaction as the last piece clicks into place, than the emotional climax I’d been expecting - my tears from the first page didn’t...

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