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