Review: Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero translated by Frances Riddle (2021)

Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero

Blurb

Named one of the ten best fiction books of 2018 by the New York Times en Español, Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero.

In lucid and compelling prose, Ampuero sheds light on the hidden aspects of the home: the grotesque realities of family, coming of age, religion, and class struggle. A family’s maids witness a horrible cycle of abuse, a girl is auctioned off by a gang of criminals, and two sisters find themselves at the mercy of their spiteful brother. With violence masquerading as love, characters spend their lives trapped re-enacting their past traumas.

Heralding a brutal and singular new voice, Cockfight explores the power of the home to both create and destroy those within it.

Review

Many thanks, as always, to Jordan Taylor-Jones at Influx Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

You only have to glance at the blurb for Cockfight to know that this is a hard-hitting book. Violence, abuse, incest, the destruction of innocence, and the deadly cycle of trauma are the coiled springs that lie like traps within each of the thirteen stories. When it comes to fiction, as some of you know, I am not afraid of the dark, and I certainly do not regret plunging myself into the bloody, visceral, often grotesque world that Ampuero lays bare in these stories.

From the very first story, ‘Auction,’ in which a young girl is kidnapped by a gang, the author takes us on a terrifying, unflinching journey through some horrific experiences. But there is far more here than shocking spectacle: Ampuero is an incredibly skilled writer, her language restrained and unadorned in a way that is suggestive of her journalistic background, and her insights into human nature are profound and sometimes dazzling. ‘Nam,’ one of the most affecting stories for me, brings the horrors of war into the domestic space in an incredibly complex and brilliant way. There are so many levels at play in this story in particular, from the narrator’s confusing feelings towards her friend, to the spectre of her own father and the unspoken trauma she carries within herself. ‘Pups,’ while also a disturbing story, contains within it some aching truths about the difficulty of going home again, and there is a limd of weird beauty in among the deeply unsettling events.

Two of the stories, ‘Passion’ and ‘Mourning,’ stand apart as more apocryphal, taking biblical figures and carving a new narrative that places women firmly at the centre, pain, suffering, magic, and all. I liked this change of mode; it seems to offer a glimpse of just how staggeringly far-reaching the author’s vision and talent is. Then Ampuero returns us to a more modern domestic space: in ‘Ali,’ the cyclical, inescapable nature of trauma is tragically detailed, as we watch Miss Ali’s descent alongside her household. And ‘Coro’ is a flaying indictment of the ways in which women can tear each other down – it is probably the most powerful story on this theme I have ever read.

These stories are so fresh and yet so dark, somehow simultaneously rotten to the core and coruscating with bright truths. They are stunning in the most literal sense of the word: after reading each story, I felt as if I had been thumped around the head with cruel, twisted realities and, dazed and blinking, I had to take a break and recover before I was ready to read another. And yet these immensely powerful stories are completely worth the emotional pummelling: they are fiercely, brilliantly original, taking thought and language to places most writers would not dare to go. I would also be intrigued to read these in Spanish (which I speak, or at least used to!); I sense that Frances Riddle’s translation has absolutely captured the precise, unflinching, utterly compelling prose of the original. It reads flawlessly in English, and I could hear the echo of how it might have been expressed in Spanish.

I would definitely read more of Ampuero’s work. I have never read anything quite like it before.

Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase directly from the publishers here.

Review: Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris (2020)

Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris

Blurb

Lost Girls explores the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future, and say goodbye to the past. A young woman creates a ritual to celebrate the life of a kidnapped girl, an unmarried woman wanders into a breast feeder’s support group and stays, a grieving mother finds solace in an unlikely place, a young girl discovers more than she bargained for when she spies on her neighbors. Though they may seem lost, each finds their center as they confront the challenges and expectations of womanhood.

Review

I am so grateful to the author for reaching out and offering me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. I am a huge fan of short story collections, and Lost Girls sounded like just my thing.

This is a brilliant collection. Morris is an incredibly skilled writer, creating quietly devastating, insightful stories which mine the lives of women and girls to build up a profound, unflinching picture of all the quirks and hurts wrapped up in everyday experiences. These stories ring absolutely true: they are shockingly perceptive, deeply probing, intelligent, and above all, beautifully written. I have spoken before about the ‘short story pang’, when you recognise a truth you’d never seen expressed before – Lost Girls delivers this feeling in spades.

It’s hard to pick out individual stories as favourites, as one of the most exciting features of this collection is the way it subtly builds, circling back to characters and situations, each new story adding to what has come before while standing apart from it. However, if I had to highlight the stories I am most keen to revisit, they would certainly include ‘Religion’ (a stunning example of the deeply unsettling seam that runs through these stories), ‘Life After,’ in which a grieving mother is depicted with almost unbearable poignancy, ‘Helter Skelter,’ ‘Neverland,’ and ‘Emoticon.’ The latter is one of the shortest stories in the book, and the one that reminded me of Mary South’s debut collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten, which I read last year and loved.

Morris’ writing combines the sharp, modern tang of writers such as Mary South and Lauren Groff with a sensibility that reminds me of Alice Munro’s work: a depth rather than breadth of subject, repeating themes and situations (and the specific location of Slocum) to chisel away at the veneer of mundanity that covers over all of the deep, dark truths that these stories expose. Like Munro, Morris seems to be documenting rather than inventing, so close does her work seem to the truth of female experience. It is a remarkable, beautifully crafted achievement, like a sculpture carved from natural materials, revealing shapes hidden beneath the surface.

As you can tell, I am in awe of Morris’ skill as a short story writer. She is so assured and confident with this powerful form, and Lost Girls is really something very special. This is a collection to be savoured and revisited, and I can’t wait to read more from this talented author. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for vivid, profound, beautifully written short stories with an edge.

Lost Girls is published by TouchPoint Press and is available to purchase here.

Author website: https://ellenbirkettmorris.ink/index.html

2020 Reading: The Big List!

  1. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
  2. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro
  3. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany translated by Humphrey T. Davies
  4. Lullaby by Leila Slimani translated by Sam Taylor
  5. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk translated by Jennifer Croft
  6. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
  7. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
  8. Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings
  9. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
  10. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  11. Motherhood by Sheila Heti
  12. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
  13. Melmoth by Sarah Perry
  14. The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
  15. Crudo by Olivia Laing
  16. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  17. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  18. Milkman by Anna Burns
  19. Spark by Naoki Matayoshi translated by Alison Watts
  20. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
  21. Middle England by Jonathan Coe
  22. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  23. Kilo by Toby Muse
  24. Finding Clara by Anika Scott
  25. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
  26. The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen
  27. We Are Animals by Tim Ewins
  28. Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession
  29. You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South
  30. The Book of Shanghai by various authors
  31. A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi translated by Chris Andrews
  32. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  33. The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees translated by Max Weiss
  34. The Codes of Love by Hannah Persuad
  35. Ordinary People by Diana Evans
  36. Watermarks by Lenka Janiurek
  37. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr
  38. Love Me To Death by Susan Gee
  39. This Is Not a Book About Charles Darwin by Emma Darwin
  40. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught
  41. What Doesn’t Kill You by various authors
  42. I Wanted You To Know by Laura Pearson
  43. The Sound Mirror by Heidi James
  44. Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley
  45. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
  46. The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine
  47. The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell
  48. Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
  49. What’s Left of Me is Yours by Stephanie Scott
  50. How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  51. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  52. Tapestry by Beth Duke
  53. Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley
  54. The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley
  55. Famished by Anna Vaught
  56. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  57. The Book of Cairo by various authors
  58. The Familiars by Stacey Halls
  59. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  60. Echo Hall by Virginia Moffatt
  61. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  62. A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley
  63. The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow
  64. For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley
  65. Inside the Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock
  66. Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth translated by Charlotte Barslund
  67. The Girl from the Hermitage by Molly Gartland
  68. A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington
  69. Girl by Maria Straw-Cinar
  70. Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks
  71. The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M. Edwards
  72. Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal
  73. Love Orange by Natasha Randall
  74. A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin
  75. The Same Ledge by Daniel James
  76. PMSL by Luce Brett
  77. Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika
  78. Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter
  79. The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville
  80. Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal
  81. Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie
  82. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
  83. I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite
  84. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel
  85. In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton
  86. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
  87. Everything Is Fine by Gillian Harvey
  88. A Necessary Blessing by Sarah Head
  89. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor
  90. Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur translated by Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh
  91. The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies
  92. Cat Step by Alison Irvine
  93. Exit Management by Naomi Booth
  94. Panenka by Ronan Hession
  95. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  96. Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams
  97. Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
  98. Understanding Children and Teens by Judy Bartkowiak
  99. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  100. The Unravelling of Maria by F.J. Curlew
  101. The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin
  102. The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
  103. Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic
  104. The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn
  105. Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson
  106. You Will Have a Black Labrador by Nino Gugunishvili

Review: You Will Have a Black Labrador by Nino Gugunishvili (2020)

You Will Have a Black Labrador by Nino Gugunishvili

Blurb

Love, memories, family, enduring friendships, cooking, movies, dogs, travels, hairstyles, and saying Yes to many No’s in a witty, yet often sentimental, journey of self-discovery…

You Will Have a Black Labrador is a collection of semiautobiographical essays forming a narrative about a modern Georgian woman. Her stories range from the search for a perfect romantic partner to exploring food as an integral part of the Georgian culture. Many of the vignettes centre on childhood memories or weird family traditions, such as the way family members stay connected no matter if they’re deceased or alive. One essay reveals how making a simple omelette can change your life; and that No can be the most powerful word in any language. She shows us, too, that a haircut can be a tribute to the movies you love as well as a path to your freedom; and how owning a dog always brings unexpected experiences. In this poignantly humorous collection, reality mixes and interferes with an imaginative world in so many surprising ways.

Review

My final read of 2020 was this utterly delightful little book, kindly sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. I love something a bit different, as my two regular readers may know, and the idea of semiautobiographical essays intrigued me, so when Nino sent me a lovely email offering to send me her book, I jumped at the chance.

This is a slim volume that takes no time at all to read – I gulped down Nino’s vignette-like essays in a single sitting before my cup of tea had time to get cold. With titles like “A Long Story of a Short Hair” and “A Belated Apology to My Dog,” this is a wonderfully quirky, family-centred, personal exploration, and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief time in Nino’s bright, funny company. She has a lovely turn of phrase, and the book strikes exactly the right tone between wry and reflective.

There are some interesting insights into Georgian culture, as well as plenty of refreshingly honest confessions and amusing anecdotes. There is a warmth to Nino’s writing, a curiosity and generosity that shines through, and it is a pleasure to read her stories.

This charming little book feels like a proper chat with an old friend, and in these isolated times, what could be more comforting than that? I would recommend this to anyone who is finding long tomes difficult to get into at the moment – this is the perfect reading slump buster, a brief window into a bright and funny mind.

You Will Have a Black Labrador by Nino Gugunishvili is out now and is available to purchase here.

Review: Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson (2020)

Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson

Blurb

You could’ve been someone, you could’ve been a contender, yet instead you ended up here, a dishwasher at the Flamingo Hotel. From the death of your mother, to homelessness, to insanity, and back again, to an encounter with an American serial killer, a love affair with a performance artist, to the loss of your foreskin, to living in a shed, and certain bum operations, you have only ever wanted one thing…

To find someone worse off than yourself.

And now’s your chance.

You’ve got seven nights…at the Flamingo Hotel.

Review

Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel is the first book to be published by new indie press Bearded Badger. It is very exciting to see a new indie publisher (especially one with such a delightful name/logo) and the fact that the Badger has burst onto the scene with this daringly different, totally mad but utterly brilliant book bodes very, very well indeed. Huge thanks to Paul for reaching out and sending me a copy of Drew’s book in exchange for an honest review.

The most obvious stylistic feature of this book is of course the second person “you” point of view. I’ve read quite a few short stories which use this voice, but not many novels – Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is the only one that comes readily to my mind. It’s a tricky voice, and one that has the potential to sound gimmicky, but Gummerson absolutely smashes it: the direct address, the sense of complicity, the capacity for alternating between effrontery and empathy, all add so much to the richness of the eccentric tapestry he weaves. This is not experimentation for its own sake: the point of view fits the story perfectly.

And what a story! There are so many crazy, crude, shocking surprises in this book that I don’t want to divulge too much. If you are easily offended by graphic descriptions of sex and bodily functions, you’ll want to steer clear of this one, but the surface level of puerile humour is far from the whole story. Seven Nights is clever, it’s insightful, and it’s far more complex in structure than it initially appears. Following the protagonist through the week results in some magnificent and hilarious set pieces, but what is most impressive is the way that the story BUILDS, almost without the reader noticing, until, by the end, this outrageous, filthy, utterly outlandish tale becomes something that is surprisingly deeply moving.

Finally, and you’ll have to trust me on this rather odd point: the bums and willies (and there are a LOT of bums in this book, always referred to with deliberately childish terminology, sometimes featuring in rather surprising ways) are there for a reason. The protagonist is undergoing a really quite poignant struggle with his own sexuality. It is subtly and quite beautifully done. This novel is hugely funny: it’s rude, bizarre, brightly original – but most importantly, beneath the jokes and the eccentricity, it tells a very human story, and it does so brilliantly.

I’m absolutely thrilled to have had the chance to read this book, and I urge you to give it a try, supporting a fab new indie press into the bargain.

Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson is out now from Bearded Badger Publishing and is available to purchase here.

Review: A Sparrow Alone by Mim Eichmann (2020) #TheWriteReads #BlogTour

A Sparrow Alone by Mim Eichman

Blurb

1890s. Colorado. Following her mother’s sudden death, thirteen-year-old Hannah Owens is hired as domestic help by a wealthy doctor’s family in Colorado Springs. When the doctor declares bankruptcy and abandons his family to finance his mistress Pearl DeVere’s brothel, Hannah is thrown into a world of gold mining bonanzas and busts, rampant prostitution and the economic, political and cultural upheavals of the era. Two of Cripple Creek’s most colorful historic characters, Winfield Scott Stratton, eccentric owner of the richest gold mine in Cripple Creek, and Pearl DeVere, the beautiful madam of The Old Homestead come to life as this old-fashioned, coming-of-age saga unfolds, a tribute to the women who set the stage for women’s rights.

Review

Many thanks to The Write Reads and the author for my spot on the tour, and for providing me with a digital copy of the book. I was really intrigued by this book – I love historical fiction, and the setting was not one I had read much about.

Cripple Creek comes alive in this book, as Eichmann repopulates the mining town with characters both historical and fictional. The novel doesn’t shy away from the harsh, brutal reality of life for women at the time – in a way, despite the very different setting, it reminded me of Maggie Richell-Davies’ excellent novel The Servant, which I read last year (and not just because the protagonists share a name!). Both books expose the vulnerability of being a lower class woman in their respective societies, and the terrible power men wield over their lives and their bodies. In A Sparrow Alone, themes of prostitution and exploitation are explored in myriad ways: it is a bleak picture, but within the constraints of their situations, the resourcefulness and resilience of the women shine through.

Hannah is an engaging protagonist, and I enjoyed following her story. The fictionalised versions of real historical characters are well done, and Stratton in particular is a fascinating character – although I found him much more disturbing than the protagonist seemed to. The dialogue between characters occasionally sacrifices realism at the altar of exposition, and there are a lot of lengthy discourses which could have been more subtly folded into the narrative, but the content is interesting, and it didn’t detract too much from the story. Likewise, I found the pacing a bit uneven: important events sometimes take place off-stage, and for me, the ending was slightly rushed. Despite these little quibbles, however, I did find myself immersed in Hannah’s world and keen to find out what happened next.

A Sparrow Alone is an entertaining, fast-paced story which paints a vivid picture of life for women at the time. There is a sequel, Muskrat Ramble, coming out in March this year – fans of historical sagas should check out these books and discover Cripple Creek for themselves!

About the Author

(from Mim Eichmann’s website):

Mim Eichmann has found that her creative journey has taken her down many exciting, interwoven pathways.  For well over two decades she was known primarily in the Chicago area as the artistic director and choreographer of Midwest Ballet Theatre and director of its home, Midwest Ballet Academy, bringing full-length professional ballet performances to thousands of dance lovers every year and was the recipient of many arts’ programming grants.   A desire to become involved again in the folk music world brought about the creation of her acoustic quartet Trillium, now in its 15th year, a folk band well known for its eclectic repertoire performing throughout the Midwest that has also released four cds.  She’s also written the lyrics and music for two award-winning original children’s cds, “Why Do Ducks Have Webby Toes?” and “Wander Down Beyond the Rainbow” and occasionally schedules concerts of her children’s music and movement programs.

Always captivated by the writings, diaries and journals of late 19th century women, as well as that era’s economic, social and political upheavals, Ms. Eichmann has now put pen to paper and the historical fiction novel she has been passionately researching, its rich synopsis gradually evolving over many years, has finally become a reality.  We hope you’ll enjoy “A Sparrow Alone” and its sequel, “Muskrat Ramble.”

Author website: https://www.mimeichmann.com/

Purchase link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sparrow-Alone-Mim-Eichmann-ebook/dp/B08468BL9S

Review: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn (2021)

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Blurb

‘I want you to remember something, Nat. You’re small on the outside. But inside you’re as big as everyone else. You show people that and you won’t go far wrong in life.’
 
A compelling story perfect for fans of The Doll FactoryThe Illumination of Ursula Flight and The Familiars.
 
My name is Nat Davy. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? There was a time when people up and down the land knew my name, though they only ever knew half the story.
 
The year of 1625, it was, when a single shilling changed my life. That shilling got me taken off to London, where they hid me in a pie, of all things, so I could be given as a gift to the new queen of England.
 
They called me the queen’s dwarf, but I was more than that. I was her friend, when she had no one else, and later on, when the people of England turned against their king, it was me who saved her life. When they turned the world upside down, I was there, right at the heart of it, and this is my story.
 
Inspired by a true story, and spanning two decades that changed England for ever, The Smallest Man is a heartwarming tale about being different, but not letting it hold you back. About being brave enough to take a chance, even if the odds aren’t good. And about how, when everything else is falling apart, true friendship holds people together.

Review

Having seen brilliant reviews for this book, and deciding that it sounded like exactly the sort of story I would love, I was thrilled to get a proof copy from Jess Barratt at Simon & Schuster. Many thanks to Jess for the chance to read this wonderful book, which, as I suspected, I fell completely in love with.

Beginning in 1625, this novel covers a period of history that I really didn’t know much about before I started reading. The setting and period are wonderfully evoked, and the book wears its impressive research lightly, as the best historical novels do. The turbulence of political life in England at this time is brilliantly depicted, and Frances Quinn does a marvellous job of showing how ordinary people are caught up in the dangerous, changeable tides of history. There are some lovely, wise insights about personal connection versus political affiliation: despite being close to the centre of the royal court, the main character is no blind royalist – he sees the King’s weaknesses and failings, and it is incredibly enlightening and realistic to see the way in which, for many of the characters, survival rather than political or moral high-mindedness is the driving force behind their actions.

Nat Davy himself is an absolute joy of a protagonist, the kind you miss when you finish the last chapter. I loved following him on his adventures and watching him change and develop as a character. He isn’t perfect, but his flaws make him real and human, and he has a wonderful capacity to learn and adapt. His heart is anything but small, and I adored the gentle, loving connections he forms as the story progresses. His relationships with his friends and with the Queen are nuanced and sympathetic, and it really made me ponder the precious nature of human connection. We could all learn something from Nat.

This is a hopeful, heart-warming, wise story; it is an absolute pleasure from start to finish, and the kind of book I can see myself buying for loved ones as presents (and being thanked for my excellent taste in books, of course!). I can’t recommend this warm, witty, gorgeous novel enough – and I am very tempted to treat myself to one of the beautiful indie bookshop editions!

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn is published by Simon & Schuster and is available to purchase here. The beautiful indie bookshop edition is available here or from your local indie.

Review: Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic (2021)

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic

Blurb

A couple drive from London to coastal Provence. Anya is preoccupied with what she feels is a relationship on the verge; unequal, precarious. Luke, reserved, stoic, gives away nothing. As the sun sets one evening, he proposes, and they return to London engaged.

But planning a wedding does little to settle Anya’s unease. As a child, she escaped from Sarajevo, and the idea of security is as alien now as it was then. When social convention forces Anya to return, she begins to change. The past she sought to contain for as long as she can remember resurfaces, and the hot summer builds to a startling climax.

Lean, sly and unsettling, Asylum Road is about the many borders governing our lives: between men and women, assimilation and otherness, nations, families, order and chaos.

What happens, and who do we become, when they break down?

Review

Just to get in a little name-drop here, this book was recommended to me by author Heidi James, whose novel The Sound Mirror was one of my top reads of 2020. Many thanks to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for sending me a proof copy – it took me a while to get round to it, but I am so glad I had the chance to read this brilliant novel.

Asylum Road feels very different. It is very much its own (sharp-clawed) beast. The writing is spare and taut; the sentences cut like a knife and bleed truths. No thought or feeling is deemed too uncomfortable to probe: there is a needling quality to the prose as it pushes deeper and deeper beneath the surface. The relationship between the protagonist and her boyfriend/fiance Luke is almost unbearably tense. There is a veneer of normality to their interactions which belies the constant second-guessing and agonising that Anya goes through. Luke is prickly and difficult and detached, and it is sometimes painful to watch Anya desperately trying to forge a connection. I disliked him intensely, but Sudjic explores the dynamics at play between them in a way which is both fascinating and rings terrifyingly true.

Anya herself is such a complex and intriguing character. I don’t think I have ever encountered a fictional character with quite such a problematic relationship with the concept of ‘home’. Themes of trauma, exile, escape, and loss circle her story like vultures, and the (mostly) first person narrative aligns the reader so closely with her inner unease that I often found myself reading with my breath held and my jaw clenched. Some of the most powerful and devastating scenes take place when she visits her family: there is none of the warmth or comforting familiarity that we might expect, and the reality of the short time she spends with her parents and sister is in itself traumatic. It is masterfully done – never have I felt so tense when reading about a family reunion!

Asylum Road is a shocking, powerful, intelligent novel that subtly ratchets up the tension and quietly, menacingly builds its landscape out of the main character’s psyche. The prose is so tightly controlled that the explosive ending comes as a delicious shock. I was left reeling at the end of this book, and utterly in awe of Olivia Sudjic’s razor-sharp writing. I highly recommend this novel if you enjoy reading psychologically insightful stories that scratch unused parts of your mind. An oustanding, startlingly original book.

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic will be published by Bloomsbury on 21st January 2021 and is available to preorder here.

Review: The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin (2021)

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

Blurb

Life is short. No-one knows that better than seventeen-year-old Lenni living on the terminal ward. But as she is about to learn, it’s not only what you make of life that matters, but who you share it with.

Dodging doctor’s orders, she joins an art class where she bumps into fellow patient Margot, a rebel-hearted eighty-three-year-old from the next ward. Their bond is instant as they realize that together they have lived an astonishing one hundred years.

To celebrate their shared century, they decide to paint their life stories: of growing old and staying young, of giving joy, of receiving kindness, of losing love, of finding the person who is everything.

As their extraordinary friendship deepens, it becomes vividly clear that life is not done with Lenni and Margot yet.

Fiercely alive, disarmingly funny and brimming with tenderness, THE ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF LENNI AND MARGOT unwraps the extraordinary gift of life even when it is about to be taken away, and revels in our infinite capacity for friendship and love when we need them most.

Review

I was absolutely thrilled to win a proof copy of this book in a Twitter competition run by @bkslovelythings (who is as lovely as her Twitter handle suggests) – huge thanks to Jo, Alison Barrow and Doubleday for the chance to get an early look at this beautiful novel. I had already heard brilliant things, and I couldn’t resist diving straight in.

I adored this book. The friendship between Lenni and Margot is heartfelt, honest, entirely believable, and so movingly depicted. The idea of them combining their century of lived experience and creating something meaningful out of it is so delicately and beautifully handled; it never comes across as overly sentimental or simplistic. Rather it is really quite a profound act of generosity and creativity, and I think it taps into a deep understanding of the nature of storytelling. It made me think a lot about how reading allows me to ‘live’ other lives – there is a complex, almost spiritual sense of sharing in the way that Margot, who has experienced so much more than Lenni ever will, hands over her memories to her young friend, like a kind of inheritance more precious than jewels. The thing that Lenni is denied by her diagnosis – a long, full life punctuated by joys and sadnesses, loves and losses, becomes something almost transferable, shareable – and it’s astonishingly moving to witness.

Margot’s story unfolds in gorgeously fragmented shards – as readers, we piece the details together alongside Lenni, interrupted by the daily routines of hospital life. Marianne Cronin is an incredibly skilled writer; she makes this gradual, complicated stitching together of life experiences seem completely organic. There is a lightness of touch here which in itself is a kind of authorial generosity – the characters are right at the forefront; the complexity of the structure is modestly backgrounded, so that the multiple strands seem to flow effortlessly. It is very inspiring.

I loved Margot, and her life story is fascinating and nuanced, but my heart belongs to Lenni. In a way, I feel as if there are shades of another one of my absolute favourite recent characters here: Matson Taylor’s Evie Epworth. Like Evie, Lenni is a character who leaps out of the page, who lodges herself in the reader’s imagination as a real person, and an incredible one at that. She’s funny, she’s rebellious, she is generous, kind and huge-hearted, and I fell hard for her. In the author’s acknowledgements, she speaks about how Lenni ‘visited’ her, and I am so glad she did. There is a little bit of magic involved with characters as special as Lenni, characters so real they stay with you, and this alchemy, this sprinkling of stardust, is what makes the very best books soar.

This book is both heart-breaking and heart-warming, sometimes at the same time. It made me sob, but in truly cathartic way, and more often, it made me laugh. I think it’s the strongest emotional reaction I’ve had to a book for a long time. It is very hard to put into words how special this book is: it simultaneously manages to celebrate life and make us less afraid of death, and what could be more beautiful and inspiring than that?

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin will be published on 18th Febraury 2021 by Doubleday and is available to pre-order here.

December 2020 Reading: Amari and the Night Brothers; Understanding Children and Teens; How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House; The Unravelling of Maria; The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot; The Devil and the Dark Water; Asylum Road; The Smallest Man; Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel; You Will Have a Black Labrador

December already seems quite a long time ago, but as usual I am running behind on getting reviews up, so in the meantime here is my wrap up of the brilliant books I read last month. What I really like about this (typically eclectic!) selection of books is that it sums up the fantastic experience I have had in joining the bookish community on social media – there are blog tour books, giveaway wins, buddy read books, author requests, exciting proofs, and a fab new indie press all represented here, and I LOVE to see it. I’m going to get the rest of my reviews up soon, but we are once again in the middle of a house move (please let it be the last one for a while!!!) so do bear with me.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (2021)

I was absolutely thrilled to take part in The Write Reads Ultimate Blog Tour for this wonderful middle grade novel, which kicks off an exciting new series by B.B. Alston. You can read my full review here – Amari is going to be HUGE, and rightly so!

Understanding Children and Teens by Judy Bartkowiak (2020)

A highly relevant non-fiction read as part of another blog tour, this time run by the fab people at Literally PR, Understanding Children and Teens is a practical, empathetic book which offers techniques and tools for anyone working or living with kids (big or small). You can read my full review of this excellent guide here.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (2021)

I honestly can’t believe this is a debut novel; it is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to read a proof copy. This brutal yet intricately constructed story blew me away – you can read my review here. Do not miss this book, which is out in a couple of weeks.

The Unravelling of Maria by F J Curlew (2020)

I was delighted to be invited by the author to take part in the blog tour for The Unravelling Of Maria, an original, satisfying novel that spans years and countries and introduced me to the history of Estonian independence. You can read my full review here.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin (2021)

I’m in the middle of writing my review for this beautiful novel, and hoping to post it very soon, so I shall stay quiet for now, except to say I adored this book. And I cried A LOT. Out in February, you definitely want this on your bookish radar.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (2020)

This was another readalong with my book club that isn’t a book club, a wonderful group of bloggers from The Write Reads! We had so much fun discussing this gripping adventure story, speculating on the supernatural elements and trying to predict the twists and turns of a very twisty, turny plot! I really want to read more by Stuart Turton – he’s such a skilled writer, and I loved the contemporary feel to this book despite the historical setting. Brilliant stuff.

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic (2021)

Again, my review is on its way for this sharp, insightful, sometimes shocking novel, which is out this month from Bloomsbury. This is a book that gets under your skin and stays with you. More thoughts very soon!

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn (2021)

Nat Davy is such a wonderful character, and Frances Quinn has created something very, very special with this book, which (sorry for the pun) deserves to be HUGE. Full review coming soon, but I really loved this one.

Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson (2020)

I can tell when a book has hit the spot when I get really excited about the prospect of writing a review for it, and I can’t wait to share my full thoughts on Drew Gummerson’s novel, which is published by new indie press Bearded Badger Publishing (go forth and follow on social media, folks!) So far, my review notes include: “genius use of second person pov, lots of bums and willies, surprisingly moving” – and if that hasn’t tantalised your reading buds, well then I don’t know what will.

You Will Have a Black Labrador by Nino Gugunishvili (2019)

My final read of the year was this delightfully quirky, slim enough to squeeze in at the final hour, offering from Nino Gugunishvili. Full review to come, but it’s a lovely, short and sweet treat, and I thoroughly recommend it!

So there we go, once again, my wrap up is mostly built on promises of reviews to come, but I’m pleased I managed to read ten books in December (and made my 100 books in 2020 target) – it feels like a fitting end to a wonderful year of reading. I’m looking forward to slowing the pace a bit in 2021 and not aiming for a set target, but with all the brilliant books on my TBR, we’ll see how it goes!

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and massive thanks for all your support, always!

Ellie x