September 23, 2020

You should never judge a book by it’s cover, but your expectations going into this one might be very different depending on whether you’ve seen the UK or US one. 

The British version features a woman’s face, and this novel is ostensibly about a woman. Two late-middle-aged men pub crawl around Dublin as one tells the other the story of how he’s left his wife for a girl they both loved-at-first-sight in their youths. In reality, the love that actually comes through is a love for Irish speech, and pubs, and the men for each other. 

The American cover is a picture of a pint, and is styled to look like a continuation of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints series, which is probably a better angle to come from. Love is also written almost entirely in  — simply brilliant — dialogue. 

It’s astute, and sensitive and funny, but in all honestly also frustrating and a little boring. As one character constantly...

August 13, 2020

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a readable reminder of the refugee lives being lived all around us, although it’s perhaps not as powerful as it might have been.

The book gently tells the story of Nuri Ibrahim and his wife Afra as they journey from Syria to the UK, focussing on the psychological as well as physical trauma they are subject to.

I love the insights into life at the camps along the way, as well as the brief, tragic glimpses of how beautiful pre-war Syria must have been. I also appreciate that it neither idolises its protagonist nor goes too heavy on fictional hardships. That said, it has a dreamy, disconnected feel that meant I drifted through the narrative without any of it really affecting me. 

Definitely for those who want to peep through their fingers at the refugee crisis, rather than look at it full on. But, perhaps, that is all that we need to nudge us into engaging with the r...

June 17, 2020

I don’t read much crime fiction, so I may be mistaken, but I don’t think this refreshing French award-winner follows the typical pattern.

Patience Portefeux is a 53 yr-old police translator tasked with deciphering the phone messages of north African drug gangs. But her elderly mum is in a home. It’s expensive. And she realises the information she gleans from the wire taps could help her set up her own lucrative drug trade.

I found The Godmother off-putting to start with, as the tone is a bit arrogant, brusque and pretentious, but as I got to know the main character I realised that she was the pretentious one, and the narrative was just wonderfully immersed in this unusual character. As soon as that clicked, the tone felt fresh and interesting, as did the main character’s moral outlook and the impact of her personal history.

A palate-cleansing read and a gripping crime narrative.

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 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...

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 ...

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...

April 23, 2018

I went through quite a journey with this book. To start with, I was tempted to just stop reading it. I found the characters unbearably irritating and the situations they were in banal. It follows three women, Tara — a single mum, TV producer, Cam — a feminist lifestyle blogger, and Stella — processing the death of her mum and twin sister to cancer. Some people might love this, but I personally enjoy characters a bit further from everyday life.

Just as I was about to concede this wasn’t for me, I hit the incident that gets the plot rolling, and I was reluctantly hooked. I was swept up, but a little resentful about it. By the time I got to the end, however, I had to admit I was impressed. You have to wade through a lot of seemingly nice characters judging others for how judgemental they are, before their character arcs finally deliver them a bit of self-awareness; but in the end it's a clev...

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