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,...

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

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.

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 25, 2018

Buzz: The book was fought over in a seven-way publishing auction.

Review: I can’t remember seeing a more perfect cover for a book in a while. Everything you need to know about The Water Cure is there. The obscure water hiding all manner of unknowable things. The girl vulnerable, head lifted, neck exposed. The fleshiness, with the female body at the centre of everything. The unanswered questions. The spare and stark simplicity of it.

This is a book of atmosphere, rather than action. It reminds me a lot of Deborah Levy’s wonderful Hot Milk. The writing is similarly poetic, and it blisters with all the same drowsy heat and psychological instability. Added to that is an atmosphere of stagnation and decay. Things that have been still too long. “The tomatoes, nearer the house, have taken on a life of their own. Their fruit falls and attracts stinging insects. A jam of dirt, overblown globs and s...

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 3, 2018

Buzz: Second novel from the author of bestseller, and Irish Novel Prize winner, My Name Is Leon.

That feeling you sometimes get looking out to sea: a mix of calm and melancholy. Wistful, haunting; at peace. The Trick To Time captures all of those. It’s suffused with the feel of the sea. Shifting sands through an hourglass, emotional tides that rise and fall like a sigh. Only, in de Waal’s hands, it is also impossibly subtle.

The protagonist, Mona, grows up on the Irish coast and, as a child, escapes to the beach from the sadness, pressure and confusion of a dying mother: “...over the yielding dunes and down to the fringe of the Kilmore shore. Sand as soft as powder all around the curve of the bay.” When her father finds her there, he tells her: “‘one day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want them back. There’s a trick to time.’”


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...

March 1, 2018

Buzz: Praised by Kit de Waal, Tor Udall and Emma Flint. 


This is a heartbreaking ache of a book: it explores some harrowing themes, opens doors to experiences we should all be aware of, and is gripping and terrifyingly tense. But there’s a joy glowing at the heart of Home that elevates it above your average tear-jerker or page-turner. A joy that belongs to four (and-a-half) year-old Jesika.

The story is told through little Jesika’s eyes. Words and facts are presented as she perceives them, rather than how they are. So the ‘mould’ on the wall becomes ‘moles,’ a ‘chest infection’ a ‘chesty fecshun,’ and one of the opening lines reads: “My fayvrit green pen is on the windysill, where I hided it from Toby, and I take it and squeeze ahind the telly to get to the peeling-paper.” 

It takes a little while to adjust to this idiosyncratic narration. At fir...

January 11, 2018

Buzz: I keep hearing about this book on social media. Lale's real life story has also been covered by the BBC and The Guardian.

I’m not sure you can ever read too many real-life perspectives of Auschwitz. I can imagine being sucked in; trying to absorb more and more, jigsaw together a picture from the infinite, varied, individual experiences. Like the need to pick up every single audio telephone in the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibition, (which is entirely worth doing.) For this reason alone, this book is unmissable.

It’s a readable, sensitive, morally complicated and engrossing story. Lale Sokolov volunteers to go to Auschwitz, in the hope of saving his family. He is naturally optimistic and determined to survive, any way he can, and secures himself the job of Tetovierer, or Tattooist. It is a (relatively) privileged position and allows him extra rations, a room of his own and a c...

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