Post: Bookish Intentions for 2021

2020 has been a lot of things. On the positive side, it has been a truly outstanding year for reading. Not only have I read some amazing books, I’ve also found a whole beautiful bookish community, taken my book blog “public,” and had so many really special interactions with bookish folk that have meant the world to me, especially in these difficult times.

I don’t do resolutions anymore, but here are a few intentions for next year. Shifting to intentions rather than goals has been a bit of a work-in-progress for me over the last few years – the idea is that I track and reflect rather than set immovable targets. So while I intend to do the following, there’s no pressure, and I’ll keep coming back to these and adjusting them as necessary.

1. Read Fewer Books

Don’t panic, bookish friends, this doesn’t mean spending less time reading! I set myself a goal (I know, I know, it is a hard habit to break!) of reading 100 books in 2020, really just to see if I could, and in a lot of ways it spurred me on and helped me develop some good reading habits, like reading every day, having a fiction and a non-fiction book on the go, keeping track of my reading and loosely planning my reading for the month ahead.

But it did also make me rush through books at times, and created an artificial sense of pressure. It was doable, but sometimes I wanted a bit of time to just sit with my thoughts on the book I’d just finished before diving into the next one, and there wasn’t really time for that when I had to get through eight or nine books a month. It also, I will admit, put me off picking up heftier tomes!

So for 2021, no targets, no pressure to read a set number of books – I’ll read my blog tour and proofs/author request commitments each month and then whatever else I fancy!

2. Read More Literature in Translation

I love translated literature, and did not read as much in 2020 as I would have liked. There are quite a few folk on Book Twitter who give wonderful recommendations, and I’ve started noting some down for starters. I’m keen to check out Charco’s list of Latin American literature, and I’ve actually just won 3 Orenda books by Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen.

3. Support Indie Publishers

I’ve said this before, but discovering fab indie presses has been one of the biggest joys of getting involved with Book Twitter. I’ve got some firm favourites now, whose books never disappoint (I’m looking at you: Bluemoose, Influx, Dead Ink, Comma and Louise Walters!) and I’d love to keep exploring and find new indies to add to my list.

4. Reread

I used to reread books a lot, but I didn’t have a single reread in 2020 (except possibly Rebecca, which I don’t remember reading before, but I may have done, as I am getting old enough to have read books decades ago and not realise I’ve already read them!). So many books deliver up hidden treasures on rereading, or hit us differently depending on our situation each time we read them. I’m not going to worry about “the new” so much next year – if I fancy picking up an old favourite, I shall!

5. Hit the Backlists

As well as reading some fantastic 2020 debuts, I’ve discovered some new-to-me writers this year who have published previous works that I haven’t read. There is both comfort and excitement in picking up a book by a writer you know you enjoy, and I’m looking forward to deepening my reading of writers such as Heidi James, Sharon Duggal, Brit Bennett, Helen Cullen, and so many more.

6. Mix it up

One thing I’ve really enjoyed about my reading this year is how eclectic it has been. I’ve read lots of different genres, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve picked up books I wouldn’t necessarily have been immediately drawn to. I am definitely going to keep this approach, as it’s led to some wonderful surprises. I can sometimes get stuck in a bit of a literary/historical fiction rut, just because I know that’s what I like, but when I push myself out of my comfort zone, I often come across some real gems.

7. Have Fun

I love writing reviews. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it! But I did get myself into a bit of a pressured situation this year where I felt like I had to write a full review of every book I read. If it’s not an ARC/author request/blog tour, if it is just a book I have bought or borrowed, I’m going to relax the pressure to do a full review. I often find I want to anyway, as I love sharing my views on books (in case you hadn’t noticed!) but book blogging is my hobby, not my job, and I need to keep it relaxed and fun!

8. Do More Readalongs

Speaking of fun, I have absolutely loved doing buddy reads and readalongs this year! It is so lovely to chat about a book with a group of bookish friends, to laugh and speculate wildly and get frustrated with fictional characters together! More please.

9. Read African Literature

African literature usually features really heavily in my reading, but I don’t seem to have read much at all in 2020. So I need to do something about that! I’m going to start by ordering some of the Caine Prize anthologies – I have read a few, and they are such an excellent place to find great writers.

10. Write

I used to have a New Years Resolution every year to “write first draft of my novel”. It haunted me, and I felt rubbish each year that passed without me writing that draft. In 2019, I did manage to complete a full draft, but this year I just haven’t had the writing mojo. Which is fine. I’m not going to promise myself that I’ll finish the book in 2021, or even set myself a specific novel-related goal: all I want to do next year is find my way back to writing, because it is such an important part of my life, and I miss it. I do feel ready – I feel as if all the reading I have done this year has provided fuel for my writing fire!

Have you got any bookish intentions for next year? I’d love to hear about them! Wishing you all an excellent year of reading in 2021!

Ellie x


Review: Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (2021) @bb_alston @egmontbooksuk @The_WriteReads #UltimateBlogTour

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston


Amari Peters knows three things.

Her big brother Quinton has gone missing.

No one will talk about it.

His mysterious job holds the secret . . .

So when  Amari gets an invitation to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s  certain this is her chance to find Quinton. But first she has to get  her head around the new world of the Bureau, where mermaids, aliens and  magicians are real, and her roommate is a weredragon.

Amari must compete against kids who’ve known about the supernatural world  their whole lives, and when each trainee is awarded a special  supernatural talent, Amari is given an illegal talent – one that the  Bureau views as dangerous.

With an evil magician threatening the  whole supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she is the  enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t pass the  three tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton . . .

An epic middle grade supernatural adventure series, soon to be a major movie starring Marsai Martin. Perfect for readers aged 8+ and fans of  Percy Jackson, Nevermoor and Men in Black!


Firstly, a massive thank you to B.B. Alston, Egmont Books, and The Write Reads for my spot on this tour, and for providing me with a beautiful proof copy in exchange for an honest review. The warning on the proof didn’t put me off in the slightest (bring on the monsters!), and the author’s letter inside was such a moving introduction to this book. I love the fact that Amari’s voice popped into his head and refused to be ignored, and I am so glad he listened!

There is so much to love about this book, from Amari herself, who is just the coolest, bravest, most fun protagonist ever to follow around as she delves deeper and deeper into the world of the Bureau, to the hugely imaginative scope of B. B. Alston’s vision. Once the lid has been blown off the supernatural world, it seems as if the possibilities are limitless, and a dazzling display of magical, mythical, monstrous mayhem ensues. One of the most exciting things about starting a series like this is the feeling that this could grow and grow, that the author has opened a bottomless treasure chest.

It is difficult to say too much about Amari and the Night Brothers, as one of the pleasures of reading this story is joining Amari on her voyage of discovery, and being constantly surprised and amazed by the weird, wonderful, sometimes scary world that we enter alongside her. The plot, too, is deliciously twisty, and I definitely wouldn’t want to give away any spoilers! So I will just say that this is a book full of intriguing characters, well-plotted mysteries, and boundless imagination, and you NEED Amari in your life!

There is so much going on in this story, and Alston balances the different strands with skill. The ‘fun stuff’ is loads of fun, but it never overwhelms the emotional core of the story. There is so much heart in this book, so much wisdom: I kept thinking over and over again that it is exactly the sort of book I want my kids to read when they’re a bit older. And I am almost kind of jealous that they’ll get to grow up with books of this calibre, books which joyfully and proudly and non-didactically teach wonderful lessons about accepting difference and looking beneath the surface and diving into the world as non-judgementally as Amari does. The generation of kids who will grow up with Amari are very, very lucky indeed.

About the Author

Joshua Aaron Photography

B. B. Alston lives in Lexington, SC. Amari and the Night Brothers is his debut middle grade novel. When not writing, he can be found eating too many sweets and exploring country roads to see where they lead.

Twitter: @bb_alston

Review: The Unravelling of Maria by F J Curlew (2020)

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Lovers separated by the Iron Curtain.

Two women whose paths should never have crossed.

A remarkable journey that changes all of their lives.

Maria’s history is a lie. Washed up on the shores of Sweden in 1944, with no memory, she was forced to create her own. Nearly half a century later she still has no idea of her true identity.

Jaak fights for Estonia’s independence, refusing to accept the death of his fiancée Maarja, whose ship was sunk as she fled across the Baltic Sea to escape the Soviet invasion.

Angie knows exactly who she is. A drug addict. A waste of space. Life is just about getting by.

A chance meeting in Edinburgh’s Cancer Centre is the catalyst for something very different.

Sometimes all you need is someone who listens.


Huge thanks to the author for inviting me on the blog tour and for providing me with a digital copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. I was drawn to this book for many reasons: I love multiple perspectives, shifting timelines, and learning about the history of places I am unfamiliar with, so I was very intrigued by all the different ingredients of The Unravelling of Maria.

I have to admit, it took me a little bit of time to get used to shifting between the three very different narratives of Maria, Angie and Jaak. In some ways, it feels like three separate stories, completely different in tone and style. However, as the book progressed, I began to enjoy the variety, and the really quite original sensation of moving between ‘modes’. Maria is a delightful character, and her first person narrative is full of charming understatement and wonderfully formal language and expressions which, it becomes clear, are a result of her having to learn an entirely new ‘first language,’ her own native tongue lost to her along with her memories. It’s very clever, and contrasts brilliantly with Angie’s Scots dialect in the sections she narrates. Jaak’s chapters are told in the third person, which has an appropriately distancing effect as we watch history unfold and Estonia move slowly towards independence.

There is a lot happening in this novel, but Curlew balances the many strands with skill, and it was refreshing to read a story with such a wide scope. It feels unfettered, imaginatively daring, boldly taking in grand themes of war, loss, memory and illness as well as the smaller, everyday moments of connection that build up a friendship. I also have to give a shout-out to Albie the dog, whose presence in the novel is like a ray of light – I loved his silliness and stubbornness, and it definitely made me think about how rarely the absolutely central role pets can play in our lives is actually explored in fiction! I also very much appreciated learning more about Estonia’s journey to independence, and I found the sections set in that country fascinating.

This is a novel that grew on me as I read, with Angie in particular making her way into my heart. I love the bond that she forms with Maria, and the way that Maria’s kindness and lack of judgement brings out the best in her new friend. The story is very well-paced; it doesn’t rush towards resolution but takes its time to allow the characters to develop and change: it feels organic and realistic, despite the dramatic events that occur in the book. The ending feels truly earned, sincere and moving and real, and I finished this book feeling very satisfied indeed.

About the Author

Fiona worked as an international school teacher for fifteen years, predominantly in Eastern Europe. Seven of those years were spent in Estonia – a little country she fell in love with. She now lives in East Lothian, Scotland, where her days are spent walking her dog, Brockie the Springer, and writing.

The Unravelling Of Maria is her fourth novel.

Purchase Links

Author Website

Social Media



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Post: My Top Reads of 2020

First things first, I have read so many good books this year that this was really, really difficult. So my strategy was: choose quickly, don’t overthink it, and try not to feel too sad for the ones you loved that didn’t make the list! And of course I’ve since read another couple that I want to add…but I’ve got to call it at some point!

I’m going to keep this straightforward, so here are my lists of 20 novels, 10 short story collections, 10 non-fiction books and 5 books in translation (reading more translated literature is top of my priorities for 2021!) that I absolutely adored this year, along with links to my reviews where relevant. Everything is in the order I read it in, not any kind of super-advanced ranking system or anything!

I also want to take this opportunity to send HUGE thanks to all the authors, publishers and publicists who have sent me books to review this year. It is an enormous privilege, and I feel very, very lucky. And to my fellow book bloggers, who have been such a support this year in so many ways: I love you, even though you have made my TBR grow to preposterous levels! I am really happy to have found the bookish community this year.

Right, onto the lists!

Top 20 Novels Read in 2020

  1. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  3. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  4. The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen
  5. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught
  6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
  7. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  8. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr
  9. The Sound Mirror by Heidi James
  10. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
  11. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  12. A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley
  13. For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley
  14. Inside the Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock
  15. Love Orange by Natasha Randall
  16. A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington
  17. Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal
  18. The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville
  19. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor
  20. Exit Management by Naomi Booth

Top 10 Short Story Collections Read in 2020

  1. You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South
  2. Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley
  3. The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine
  4. Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley
  5. The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley
  6. Famished by Anna Vaught
  7. Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks
  8. A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin
  9. Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie
  10. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat

Top 10 Non-Fiction Books Read in 2020

  1. Kilo by Toby Muse
  2. Watermarks by Lenka Janiurek
  3. What Doesn’t Kill You edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska
  4. How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  5. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  6. PMSL by Luce Brett
  7. Sway by Pragya Agarwal
  8. Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter
  9. I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite
  10. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel

Top 5 Books in Translation Read in 2020

  1. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany translated by Humphrey Davies
  2. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk translated by Jennifer Croft
  3. The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees translated by Max Weiss
  4. Long Live The Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth translated by Charlotte Barslund
  5. Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur translated by Anna Aitken and Polly Mackintosh

I may or may not do a full list of all my 2020 reading at the end of the year – we’ll see! Do let me know if you’ve read and loved any of these, or if you have any on your TBR! And if you fancy commenting with your top read of 2020, please do!

Ellie x

Review: Understanding Children and Teens by Judy Bartkowiak (2020) @JudyBart @LiterallyPR @FAB_Publishing


The recent pandemic has turned family life upside down. Now, more than ever before, children and teens are experiencing anxiety, low self-esteem, fear, and a host of other, unfamiliar feelings. This book aims to give parents and those who work with children the tools to help them overcome these difficulties and to enable them to express themselves, and to build emotional intelligence and resilience.

Children and teens are given the means to believe in themselves with unconditional love and acceptance, empowering them to achieve all they wish for in life.

Understanding Children and Teens shows the reader how to use Neuro Linguistic Programming, and Emotional Freedom Technique as well as mindfulness and Art Therapy in order to connect with children and teens to help them overcome their problems. With clear explanations, examples, and easy-to-follow exercises, this book will enable those who care for children to gain valuable insight into their world, and to understand what they are thinking and feeling.

This practical guide is aimed at parents, teachers, coaches, and everyone who works with children and teens and is informed by the author’s experiences of working with this group over the last 30 years.


I am very grateful to the author and to Helen at @literallypr for my spot on this blog tour and for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. There are many reasons why I jumped at the chance to read this book: as a mum of two small people, as a former teacher who is planning to re-enter the classroom soon, and as someone who knows what it means to suffer from mental health issues, anything I can do to better understand my children, and, if I go back to work, my students, you’d better believe I am going to try it!

I only knew a small amount about NLP before reading this book, and one of the things I most appreciated was the way in which Judy breaks down the jargon and demystifies all the terms. There are a lot of acronyms to get your head around, but Judy talks you through it all step by step, and I found her explanations clear and easy to follow.

Since this book is subtitled “a practical guide,” I decided that the most useful way of approaching this review was to try out some of the many exercises provided in the book. My five-year-old daughter was a willing guinea pig – she was very excited to help Mummy with her homework for once! We started out by doing an exercise which involved drawing the outline of a body, writing down emotions, and assigning each emotion a colour. We then coloured in the outlines we’d drawn to show where we felt each emotion. It felt really good to be talking about our feelings together, and I was surprised at how engaged my daughter was in the activity. She seemed to find it very easy to assign a colour to each feeling, and she had quite a definite sense of where she felt each one.

Another exercise we tried involved creating a ‘world’ on a tray by placing objects on it that represent things or people that are important in our lives. Again, my daughter was very enthusiastic about this, and seemed to really enjoy talking me through her ‘world’. She was also very good at guessing why I had chosen certain objects when it was my turn! I definitely feel as if I learned a bit more about her through this activity.

We worked through a few more exercises, with me occasionally adapting them to make them more suitable for a young child. There is a lovely range of activities in this book, and the teacher in me was already imagining which ones I might use with which age group. One exercise involved writing down three things you wish for, and this led to a surprising insight. My daughter wished for cake (she’s five, she always wants cake), three mummies, and for her brother to be good. When we started talking about the second two (having promised to provide the first later!) it turns out that she doesn’t like it when her three-year-old brother gets upset about me paying attention to her, or when he has a meltdown and demands my attention and/or I get stressed about it. She thought if there were three of me, she might not get interrupted by him when she is having ‘Mummy Time’! Now that I know how she feels, it is something I will make an effort to look out for, to make sure she isn’t suffering because of how I’m coping/not coping with her brother’s (hopefully temporary!) three year old angst!

There were a few other interesting things that came up, but I do owe my daughter a smidgen of privacy! Suffice to say, I have already found this book incredibly useful, and I can see myself referring to it again and again. We did have a go at the tapping, which I am very interested in, but I think I want to become more confident in it myself (I have a feeling it could be very useful for my own anxiety issues) before I try it out on my kids.

I think the author is absolutely right when she states in her introduction that the mental and emotional repercussions of Covid-19 are sadly going to be with us for a very long time. It therefore seems more important than ever that parents and practitioners have as many tools as possible at their disposal for helping young people and trying to understand them. This book is a valuable part of that toolkit, and I would recommend it to anyone who has dealings with kids or teenagers.

About the Author

Judy Bartkowiak is an NLP trainer and coach as well as an EFT trainer and coach who specialises in working with children and teens.  Before becoming a therapist, she worked in market research, and then ran a Montessori nursery alongside her therapeutic work. She has written extensively on NLP. 

Understanding Children and Teens by Judy Bartkowiak is published by Free Association Books and is available to purchase here.

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


In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers.

For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result.

When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope – of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man.

And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE is the powerful, intense story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.


I am so grateful to Antonia Whitton and the author for my proof copy of this incredible book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

I have just finished reading this, and I am still reeling. The sheer force and power of the narrative has left me feeling as if I have been standing on a beach in a storm, giant waves crashing terrifyingly close, drenching me with icy water. It has been such a visceral, emotional experience reading this novel that I am not sure I can articulate my thoughts on this brilliant novel with the eloquence it deserves, but I’ll have a go.

This story is awash with violence, and I do need to add a warning that if themes of domestic abuse, child loss, rape, to name a few, are triggering for you, this is not the right book for you. If, however, you want a story that takes you deep into the heart of the lives of characters whose very survival is a precarious thing, their existence balanced on a knife edge, their bodies vulnerable and exposed, their options narrowed to desperate choices in extreme circumstances, then I can tell you that this could well be one of the most impactful reads I’ve ever experienced.

Cherie Jones exposes the disparity between the picture postcard beauty of Barbados as a tropical paradise and the dark reality of poverty-stricken life, showing how the rich tourists who make the island their playground have become a warped part of the ecosystem. The relationship between the locals and the tourists is explored in all its intricate complexities, and the ways these separate but dependent lives intersect and collide is explosive and often destructive.

The characters in the novel are what held me gripped, unable to tear myself away: Lala, Tone, Adan, Mira Whalen, Wilma, Beckles the policeman, each one was so real to me, so complex and nuanced and such a clever mixture of products of their environments and strikingly unique individuals. Lala is one of the most heart-wrenchingly real protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time, and I cried for her on more than one occasion while reading this book. And Esme, her mother, whose story hangs in the background almost as apocryphal as the titular Sister: even as I knew what was coming for her, the final reveal of her fate broke me.

I am absolutely in awe of how fiercely talented Cherie Jones is as a writer. Even amid all the violence, what shines through is the utter inventiveness and confidence of her style: the Bajan dialect leaking out of the dialogue and into the prose at strategic points; the startlingly effective use of “tricky” voices such as second person “you” and a beautiful section in the collective first person plural “we”; whole passages written as hypotheticals that spin the reader out of the narrative and then haul us back in – it is stunning. This is the work of a writer who has such firm control over her material, such courageous urgency in the desire to share this story – I was physically affected by how powerful the writing was.

If you haven’t already gathered, I was completely blown away by How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. I find it hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It has the tension and life-or-death stakes of a thriller, some of the most intricately-drawn characters I’ve ever read, and huge, powerful themes that beat an insistent, captivating rhythm as the skilfully constructed narrative surges to its dramatic conclusion. I am going to be thinking (and shouting!) about this book for a very long time.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones will be published by Tinder Press on 21st January 2021 and is available to pre-order here.

Review: Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams (2020)

Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams


“Your problem is you have a Russian soul,” Anna’s mother tells her. In 1980, Anna is a naïve UConn senior studying abroad in Moscow at the height of the Cold War—and a second-generation Russian Jew raised on a calamitous family history of abandonment, Czarist-era pogroms, and Soviet-style terror. As Anna dodges date rapists, KGB agents, and smooth-talking black marketeers while navigating an alien culture for the first time, she must come to terms with the aspects of the past that haunt her own life. With its intricate insight into the everyday rhythms of an almost forgotten way of life in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Forget Russia is a disquieting multi-generational epic about coming of age, forgotten history, and the loss of innocence in all of its forms.  


First of all, I want to say a massive thank you to the author, who reached out via my blog to see if I would be interested in reviewing her book. Lisa had taken the time to read my blog, noticed my enthusiasm for Molly Gartland’s wonderful debut novel, The Girl From The Hermitage, and on the basis of that, thought that Forget Russia might be my sort of book. It’s so lovely to get review requests from people who have carefully matched their book to my interests, and in this case, Lisa was 100% right! Forget Russia is exactly my type of book, and I am absolutely thrilled to have had the privilege of reading it.

The analogy of Russian dolls is almost too easy, but I kind of want to use it, as Bordetsky-Williams has created a structure that really does feel like a puzzle being pieced together. The sense of the past rippling forward, pursuing the generations, is skilfully done: this novel is rich in echoes and resonance. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Heidi James’ brilliant novel The Sound Mirror, in the way that it shows how trauma is passed down through generations. The focus is mostly on the women: Anna’s first person narrative follows her search for answers about her family in Moscow in 1980, her attempts to understand the way in which the experiences of her family have shaped her. The tragedy of her great-grandmother’s rape and murder sets in motion a chain of voices, and with a lovely sense of movement through both time and space (journeys to and from America feature heavily in this novel), we are rocked towards a deeply satisfying conclusion.

The novel is so well researched and so vividly imagined that it has the feel of a documentary. This sense is bolstered by the use of letters, of snatches of poetry and folk song lyrics, and the sectioning off of the story into subtitled chapters. Anna’s sections in particular have an almost journalistic quality, blurring the line between fiction and memoir, and her observational skills and empathetic manner build up a wonderfully detailed and realistic portrait of life in the Soviet Union. It is a setting rich in secrecy, in mystery, and it marries with Anna’s personal search for answers beautifully. But Anna is not merely an observer – she faces her own traumas, her own emotional entanglements, all of which add further layers to this complex, expertly shaped story.

There is so much to admire in Forget Russia: it is a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. It seems to take the genre of historical fiction and merge it with a kind of journalistic sensibility, adding in a dose of family memoir and self-exploration, so that while this may be fiction, it rings startlingly true. I love it when a book transports you to a time and place you know little about, and leaves you with a feeling of greater understanding, and Bordetsky-Williams’ novel delivers this sense in spades. Balancing the sweeping and the specific with expert skill, the author takes us on a journey that shines a light on a fascinating stretch of history, and on characters whose stories deserve to be remembered. I highly recommend this book, and am so grateful to have had the chance to read it.

Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams is published by Tailwinds Press and is out now.

Review: Panenka by Ronan Hession (2021)

Panenka by Ronan Hession


His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story. Panenka has spent 25 years living with the disastrous mistakes of his past, which have made him an exile in his home town and cost him his dearest relationships. Now aged 50, Panenka begins to rebuild an improvised family life with his estranged daughter and her seven year old son.

But at night, Panenka suffers crippling headaches that he calls his Iron Mask. Faced with losing everything, he meets Esther, a woman who has come to live in the town to escape her own disappointments. Together, they find resonance in each other’s experiences and learn new ways to let love into their broken lives.


I am making a bit of a habit of starting my reviews by praising Book Twitter, but honestly, joining the book community and discovering fantastic new books has been a real highlight in a year in dire need of silver linings. I have become a massive fan of Bluemoose Books, and will read everything they have published and will publish: they do proper good books. Leonard and Hungry Paul was all over Book Twitter when I joined, so I duly bought and read it, and it was such a quiet joy of a book, so deeply comforting without being in the least bit twee. Ronan Hession’s writing is original, quietly courageous, and deeply moving. I’m honestly in shock that a few months later, I have been entrusted with a proof copy of Hession’s new novel, Panenka – it is a privilege I will never take for granted, and I am so grateful to the author and the publisher for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

As Panenka isn’t out until next May, I am going to keep this brief, cryptic and spoiler-free, but I couldn’t resist sharing some initial thoughts on this wonderful book. Natasha Randall has recently been posting some interesting thoughts on Twitter about ‘quiet’ books, the ones which don’t have a juicily baited hook, or a huge drama at their centre. Hession absolutely excels at ‘quiet’. I would argue that his genius lies in revealing the truth and beauty at the heart of the everyday, in taking a story about ‘nothing’ (in big, dramatic plot terms, that is) and showing us how it is really about ‘everything.’ Panenka is suffused with poignancy in the purest sense of the word: it pierces the heart, it contains the sting of truth within its gentle rhythms and ‘small’ events.

As a character, Panenka himself is different from Leonard or Hungry Paul, not as innocent, perhaps less immediately appealing. He has lived life and made mistakes, and his flaws are woven into his character. But this adds a richness and maturity to the book: for all the quirks of Panenka’s life story, he is deeply relatable and realistic. He is not a bad man, but he is far from perfect, and his complexities and struggles ring absolutely true. As his history is gradually revealed, each strand adds to the picture, and we come to understand him in a way that feels organic and meaningful. This book is delicately and expertly crafted – Hession is a storyteller in whom a reader can place absolute trust. Panenka flows along so smoothly and subtly that the writer side of my brain couldn’t help but marvel at how much work must have gone into making it all seem so effortless, while the reader side of me just revelled happily in the quiet intricacy of the story.

The care that Hession takes in this book is evident firstly in the beautifully rounded cast of characters. Everyone gets their turn; every character is lavished with attention. We are given little insights into their situation, their feelings, their true selves that shine a spotlight on even the most minor characters. It is a kind of generosity of spirit from the author, it seems to me, and it makes the book teem with life. The second type of care that is obvious in this book is the attention Hession pays to language. I know Ronan Hession is an avid reader of translated fiction; I suspect he is also a linguist, for he has clearly has an utter delight and amusement in language, a love of words, and of turning them over to examine their hidden sides, and it makes reading his prose a joy. In terms of the story, this careful approach to language manifests itself most affectingly when Esther and Panenka converse. Esther is a wonderful character: I loved her deeply, and the way she talks to Panenka and draws him out made me think, on more than one occasion, that if we all spoke to each other like that, life would be better. Words matter, and when we choose them as carefully as Esther does (with Hession at the helm), we can change lives.

Panenka is a subtle masterpiece: the fascinating painting on the cover art could not be more appropriate. With careful, intentional strokes, Hession paints a word-portrait of a man who is neither better nor worse than any of us: he is simply a flawed human being who has made mistakes, who faces obstacles, who tries to live his life in relation to those around him. A good heart beats at the centre of this book, and though Panenka is sadder in tone than Hession’s first novel, it still has that warm glow of gentle faith in humanity, in the power of connection, in finding a way in the world that makes sense for each one of us. It is a beautiful book, and I loved it.

Panenka by Ronan Hession will be published by Bluemoose Books in May 2021 and is available to pre-order from The Gutter Bookshop or Waterstones now.

Review: Exit Management by Naomi Booth (2020)

Exit Management by Naomi Booth


“At minus five degrees, even the densest blood materials start to turn: the beginnings of a human heart will still into black ice.”

Callum has been given an opportunity: Jozsef’s house is the perfect place to live – plenty of room, a sought-after London location and filled with priceless works of art. All that Jozsef asks in return is for some company while he’s ill and the promise that if it all gets too much, someone will be there to help him at the end. It’s fortunate then, when Callum meets Lauren who works in Human Resources and specialises in getting rid of people. Jozsef welcomes them both inside, and so begins a deadly spiral of violence.

Pushed ever onwards by the poison of ambition, and haunted by loses from the past, these characters are drawn together in a catastrophe of endings. Naomi Booth’s second novel is a groundbreaking dissection of class, xenophobia and compassion. Exit Management will seize you in its cold hands and show you the dark heart within us all.


One of the many absolute joys of joining Book Twitter has been discovering indie publishers whose output consistently amazes me with its quality. It is a very reassuring feeling to know yourself to be in good hands with a publisher, and there are lots of indies who give me this feeling: Influx, Bluemoose, Comma, Louise Walters, and now, added to the list: Dead Ink. Having recently read and loved Cat Step by Alison Irvine, I went straight onto another Dead Ink release, and I have to say, Exit Management by Naomi Booth has catapulted straight onto my top reads of 2020 list. It is an incredible book, and I am sure my review won’t do it justice, so I will keep it brief. Huge thanks as always to Jordan Taylor-Jones for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’ll start with the title: Exit Management wins the award for most layered, meaningful title of any book I’ve read this year. The word “exit” has such powerful contemporary connotations, and indeed, the shadow of Brexit looms over this book. But there are so many more “exits” to be managed in this story, each one deepening the significance of the title in a way which honestly left me in awe. I won’t say more here for fear of spoilers, but trust me, this book has LAYERS. I could probably write an essay on the title alone.

The two main characters, Lauren and Cal, are complex, nuanced and utterly believable, even as the events of the plot skew sideways from the expected. Booth employs a dazzlingly effective close third person, with staccato sentences and sensory impressions aligning the reader with their point of view. Written in urgent present tense, the viewpoint feels only just outside their heads: in a film, the camera would be grazing their cheek as it jolts and shudders with their every movement. It is intense and incredibly powerful. Words like ‘gripping’ or ‘immersive’ are not quite enough to describe the effect this book had on me – I couldn’t have stopped reading if I wanted to (which I didn’t!)

All of the characters in the novel are exquisitely drawn. Josef is a fascinating character, a voice from the past, his italicized stories bringing history into the present, and his relationship with Cal is deeply moving. I love that Booth doesn’t question or judge their closeness, or try to explain it too fully: it is simply a beautiful friendship, a slice of tenderness at the heart of the book. It also contrasts nicely with Lauren’s relationship to her mentor, Mina, a tough, cool woman who teaches Lauren how to survive in London. The city itself also becomes a character in the book, and the descriptions of properties are an effective way of highlighting the disparities of London life. Josef’s house, and the changes it undergoes, provides some of the most meticulously detailed, wonderfully visual descriptions in the book. Again, I found a kind of cinematic, camera-panning quality to the writing, which I adored.

This novel explores so many themes: it seems to cover everything, all of life, wrapped up in a cool, stylish, sometimes cynical package, but with aching truth underneath. It is London itself in novel form: sleek, hard exterior hiding the beating hearts and manifold small tragedies of its inhabitants. Objects, possessions, feelings, ambitions, past, present, possible futures; all collide in this exquisite examination of modern city life.

I was absolutely blown away by the sheer scale and complexity of this novel: it is a staggering achievement. Exit Management is a book I will be thinking about for a very long time, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. I would even go so far to say it’s my favourite book of the year, which is no small claim, as I have read some fantastic books this year! But this one really got its hooks into me, and left me feeling absolutely exhilarated, as only the very best books do. I can’t wait to read more by this author.

Exit Management by Naomi Booth is published by Dead Ink Books and is available to purchase here.