February 2021 Reading: Circus of Wonders; The Hobbit; Kololo Hill; The Mysterious Affair at Styles; The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson; The Strays of Paris; Nightshift; The Murder on the Links; Old Bones; Cemetery Boys; Fortune’s Hand

Somehow, I have managed to read eleven books this month, probably helped by the fact that I’ve not been sleeping all that well. I have read some brilliant new books, revisited some old friends, and discovered authors I can’t read more of. I’ve also been cracking on with Ducks, Newburyport – I am really enjoying it, and if I wasn’t a book blogger (perish the thought!) I’d be very tempted to just devote a couple of months to it and let it take me over! BUT there are many other literary delights awaiting, and I do enjoy the spice of variety!

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

I was so excited to receive an advanced copy of Elizabeth Macneal’s second novel, having loved her debut The Doll Factory. It isn’t out until May, but I just couldn’t resist diving straight in. It was just what I needed to kick off the reading month – a fabulous novel that ticked every box for me. I adored it. You can read my full thoughts here. This is one to get pre-ordered for sure!

The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien (1937)

I reread this as a precursor to a marathon Lord of the Rings readalong I’m doing with some of my crew from The Write Reads. I haven’t read it in years, and it was an unexpected joy to return to Bilbo’s story. I had such a lovely, nostalgic time rereading The Hobbit – I’d forgotten enough of the details to keep me interested, and the parts I remembered felt like visiting old friends. I’m really glad I decided to join in with this readalong. I’ve started rereading LOTR and I am absolutely loving it, too.

Kololo Hill by Neema Shah (2021)

Sometimes I get a really strong feeling about a book before I even read it. I just knew that I was going to love this debut novel by Neema Shah, and it did not disappoint for a moment. This is a powerful story beautifully told, and I can’t stop shouting about how wonderful it is! For more, see my full review here.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

I do love a debut novel, even if it’s one from over a hundred years ago! Along with some of my crew from The Write Reads, I’ve embarked on a Poirot readalong, so I’ve gone back to the start. I enjoyed this one, though not quite as much as the two I read last month. It was good to meet Hastings, though, and I love the dynamic between him and Poirot.

The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson (2019)

I am a big fan of indie publisher Louise Walters Books, and since I managed to get a spot on the blog tour for Helen’s second novel, Old Bones, this month, I decided to read her first novel, too. I have to admit, it took me a while to get into this book, as the story is really quite peculiar, but once I abandoned myself to the quirks of the narrative, I really enjoyed it. It serves as a good introduction to the village of Morevale, too.

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley (2021)

I am a big fan of Jane Smiley, and I was really excited to discover that she has a new novel out. The Strays of Paris is a lovely slice of escapism, beautifully written, the perfect distraction from all the chaos going on in the world right now. You can read my full review here.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner (2021)

I was completely sucked into the half-lit, nocturnal world of this gripping debut novel. I read the whole book in one go, unable to stop reading the story of Meggie’s obsession with the mysterious Sabine. Highly recommended – check out my full review here.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (1923)

More Poirot, and more Hastings, in this France-set adventure. It took me a bit longer to read this one, possibly because it gets even more complicated than usual towards the end, with red herrings leaping about all over the place, and rather a lot of mistaken identity. I enjoyed it, though, and I liked seeing Hastings get more involved in the action.

Old Bones by Helen Kitson (2021)

My second Helen Kitson book of the month returns to the village of Morevale, this time centring on three women in their sixties. Past disappointments cast a shadow over their present, and secrets come to light in surprising ways. You can read my full review here.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (2020)

This was another Write Reads crew readalong, and I am so glad I read it. I don’t read much YA at all, and I really don’t know why! This story of the brujx in LA ,who have access to the spirit world, and Yadriel’s quest for acceptance by them, is fresh, funny, occasionally terrifying, and often very moving. I loved it, and it has made me want to read more in this genre. Luckily I know a few readers who might have one or two further suggestions for me!

Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris

My final read of the month was perhaps the biggest surprise. A historical novel based on the life of Walter Raleigh may not sound like it is going to be a particularly wild ride, but that is exactly what this bold, experimental, thrilling book is. The writing is astounding – R.N. Morris is a fiercely talented author – and the originality of this book absolutely blew me away. You can read my full review here. If you are at all tempted, do check this one out, it is something very special indeed.

All in all, it’s been another fab reading month. I have also launched my new business, providing creative writing feedback, which is off to a good start, and of course juggled the joys of lockdown life with two smalls. I have masses of exciting books to look forward to in March, and I am holding out hope for a little more sleep, too!

Happy reading!

Ellie x


Review: Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris (2020)

Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris


Adventurer, soldier, courtier, poet, prisoner – outsider.

Drawn by ambition to Elizabeth’s court, Walter Raleigh soon becomes the queen’s favourite. But his meteoric rise attracts the enmity of powerful rivals.

Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spy master, proves a dangerous enemy.

While the Earl of Oxford is an equally dangerous friend.

Even Elizabeth’s favour is an uncertain gift. It can be withdrawn on a whim as easily as it is granted and earns him as much trouble as it does profit.

Seeking gold for his queen and glory for himself, Raleigh launches a series of ever more reckless adventures.

The ultimate prize he dreams of is the fabled city of Eldorado in the New World. He is possessed by the dream.

After Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh fails to find favour with the new king and is imprisoned in the Tower.

To restore his reputation, he embarks on his most desperate venture yet.

By now an old and broken man, he risks everything to discover the city of his dreams.

Recommended for fans of Hilary Mantel, Joseph O’Connor and CJ Sansom.


First of all, huge thanks to the author for sending me a copy of Fortune’s Hand in exchange for an honest review. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get around to reading it, especially as when I finally did, it blew me away! I think maybe the cover and tagline out me off subconsciously, as it might seem like this is a slightly dry historical tome, but it really is anything but. It also has quite small print, so if you struggle reading smaller fonts, you’d be better off getting the ebook. Right, that’s the superficial gripes dealt with, sorry. In terms of content, Fortune’s Hand was a revelation. This book is daring, different, and a real treat.

The prose is so powerful: muscular, meaty, surging – it reminded me not only of Mantel but of Emily Bullock, whose brilliant historical novel Inside the Beautiful Inside I read last year, and, like Bullock’s book, it also put me in mind of William Golding’s Rites of Passage trilogy. It is important to state that I don’t mean Morris’ prose imitates or approximates these writers – I mean it is just as strong and unique – a take-no-prisoners style (ironically, as Raleigh does his fair share of prisoner-taking) that marches to its own inexorable rhythm. What I loved most was the way the novel marries a contemporary, experimental narrative style with perfectly pitched old-fashioned language. Like Mantel, Morris inhabits his protagonist fully and utterly convincingly, so that character of Raleigh completely takes over the book. It is masterful.

Raleigh himself is depicted as complex, often unlikeable, but strangely admirable for his ability to play the game at court and, as he says of another courtier, to always land on his feet (until he doesn’t). The opening chapter gives a flavour of the kind of telescopic vision Walter possesses in the novel, sending his eyes out over the ocean and under the sea, questing and seeking out knowledge and discoveries in a beautifully poetic way. His all-seeing point of view works so gorgeously with his role as explorer, and the balance of these really quite intellectually and philosophically complex ideas of omniscience with the raw, brutal action scenes in the book is perfectly done.

All the way through Fortune’s Hand, the sublime walks hand in hand with the ridiculous, or rather, the beauty of much of the prose is shot through with coarse humour (much of which made me chuckle out loud). The swearing is some of the best I have come across – Morris takes his cue from Shakespeare and reminds us just how colourfully and crudely the Elizabethans could curse. If you object to the ‘c’ word, this is not the book for you. There is horrific violence, shocking brutality, a whole host of heinous behaviours that rip the velvet curtain from ‘genteel’ courtly ideals, and it is brilliant. Each chapter is short, almost vignette-like, and at times Morris plays with form in inventive ways that add yet another layer to this complex novel. It isn’t always easy to orientate yourself as a reader in the narrative, but I really enjoyed puzzling out where we’d got up to in Raleigh’s story.

I read this book much more quickly than I thought I would, unable to put it down. Special mention must go to the depiction of Gloriana herself: Elizabeth I is here painted as you’ve never seen her before, and it is indeed glorious. The grotesque crumbling of her face behind the white mask, the way ‘Water’ reassesses the expression in her eyes as he gets to know her better – the connection between Raleigh and Elizabeth is one of the absolute highlights of this book.

For me, the most exciting thing about historical fiction is how surprisingly contemporary and innovative it can be. Fortune’s Hand is not an easy read, both in terms of structure and subject matter, but my god it is exciting. I was left buzzing, feeling as if I had been introduced to a blazing writing talent, an author who dares to tread where others would not. It is an extraordinary work of fiction, and I’ll never be able to think of Walter Raleigh in the same way again.

Fortune’s Hand by R.N. Morris is published by Sharpe Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Old Bones by Helen Kitson (2021) @Jemima_Mae_7, @LouiseWalters12, @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours


Diana and her sister Antonia are house-sharing spinsters who have never got over their respective first loves. Diana owns a gift shop, but rarely works there. Antonia is unemployed, having lost her teaching job at an all girls’ school following a shocking outburst in the classroom after enduring years of torment. Diana is a regular at the local library, Antonia enjoys her “nice” magazines, and they treat themselves to coffee and cake once a week in the village café.

Naomi lives alone, haunted by the failure of her two marriages. She works in the library, doesn’t get on with her younger colleagues, and rarely cooks herself a proper meal. Secretly she longs for a Boden frock.

When a body is discovered in the local quarry, all three women’s lives are turned upside down. And when Diana’s old flame Gill turns up unexpectedly, tensions finally spill over and threaten to destroy the outwardly peaceful lives all three women have carefully constructed around themselves.

Helen takes us back to the fictional Shropshire village of Morevale in this, her brilliant second novel which exposes the fragilities and strengths of three remarkably unremarkable elderly women.


If there is a pattern developing to the books I do the most blog tours for, it is this: Damp Pebbles-run tours featuring books published by fab indie press Louise Walters Books. Dream team! Thank you to Emma and Louise for having me on the tour, and for providing me with a digital copy in exchange for an honest review. Although, of course, I couldn’t resist buying both Old Bones and Helen Kitson’s previous novel The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson!

The two books are both set in Morevale, but are standalones (with a couple of sly references to the first book in Old Bones, which I always enjoy!) and while I am glad I read them both, you don’t need to read The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson before you dive into Old Bones. Which you should – this book is quirky, original, and, most importantly, focuses entirely on three women ‘of a certain age’ – a group which is often neglected in fiction. The relationship between the ‘spinster sisters’ Diana and Antonia is painfully fraught and antagonistic, riven with the hurts and rivalries of many years, and yet they are curiously dependent on one another. It isn’t always pleasant to listen to them bicker and needle each other, but it rings true, and as their pasts come to light, it is clear where these old wounds come from. There are brilliantly depicted moments of arrested development, where their childish sniping and petty revenge schemes tip over into humour (particularly in the case of Antonia, who is a constant source of exasperation for her sister). The third protagonist, Naomi, is a sadder, lonelier figure, and I found Kitson’s exploration of her character interesting and insightful.

The story itself is full of twists and turns, and, like The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson, it is always surprising in terms of how and when Kitson chooses to make revelations. We often find things out, or at least infer them, long before some of the characters, and this makes for an intriguing reading experience. I found myself waiting for confirmation rather than new information a lot of the time, which fits with the hazy rumours and second-guessing that flies around the village. It is hard to explain how Kitson manages to keep up the element of surprise in this book – it isn’t through startling disclosures (important plot points are dropped in almost casually at times) but rather through picking over the ramifications of these disclosures, surprising us with the characters’ reactions, rather than the dramatic events themselves. It is very clever, and very original.

The themes of disappointment and missed opportunities hang heavy in this book, but there are glimmers of hope. At its heart, Old Bones seems to me to be a book which explores the fact that everyone has their own peculiar trajectory, that the mundane and the dramatic weave together to form personal histories which echo into our present reality. As we follow these women through their everyday lives, we see how the past haunts each of them, a tangible presence that they cannot escape from. But we also see how they endure, survive, get on with things, make their own way as best they can. Old Bones is a quietly intriguing book, shining a light on characters all too often written off or forgotten, and it provides an enjoyably different reading experience.

About the Author

Helen lives in Worcester with her husband, two teenaged children and two rescue cats. Her first poetry collection was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. She has published three other poetry collections and her short fiction has appeared in magazines including Ambit, Feminist Review and Stand. She holds a BA (Hons) in Humanities.

Helen’s debut novel The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson was published in March 2019. Her second “Morevale” novel, Old Bones, will be published on 16 January 2021.

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jemima_Mae_7

Purchase Links

Louise Walters Books: http://bit.ly/37dpwKM

Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2LPuDKI

Foyles: https://bit.ly/3pdjamn

Waterstones: http://bit.ly/3660WMc

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/365gdwN

Publishing Info

Published by Louise Walters Books in paperback and digital formats on 18th January 2021

Blog Post: In Which I Muse on a (sort of) One Year Anniversary of Bookishness

Right, this is going to be a bit of a sentimental, rambling post, for which I would apologise, but hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll witter on if I want to. It is just over a year since I started getting involved with the book blogging community. I’ve had this blog for a lot longer than that, but it was an intermittent, personal reading record that never got any views, and for long periods of time I did nothing at all with it. Last year, I decided to share it on my previously inactive Twitter account, and looking back, I am amazed and delighted by all the joyous things that have sprung from that spur of the moment decision.

I’ve always been a big reader, and it feeds into my writing, but there was a stretch when I didn’t read at all. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it coincided with having two babies in two years. Getting back into reading was a lovely feeling for me – it made me feel more like ‘Ellie’ again, and, even better, it made me want to write again. In 2019 I managed to complete a novel draft, and to read more books than I had done for a very long time. So last year, little knowing how much I would come to appreciate my new online community with all that 2020 had in store for us, I took the blog ‘public’, and, I guess, officially became a Book Blogger.

It is honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done. I feel as if I have found my tribe, my people – a massive group of avid readers who love books just as much as I do. It is quite wonderful. The support I have received has been amazing. I remember getting a message from the lovely Jodie, who blogs at Witty and Sarcastic Book Blog, suggesting I get in touch with Dave at The Write Reads and join the newbie book blogger group. Now I have a massive support group of wonderful bloggers, and I do readalongs every month with a bunch of them (currently reading Cemetery Boys, all the Poirots, and about to start a Lord of The Rings reread marathon.) I also got to know some very special women who have been an absolute lifeline for me, my gorgeous Squadpod bloggers. Their support has got me through the last year, and it has meant so much to me. The fact that I’ve never met any of these people in real life doesn’t change how much I value their friendship. Stop me before I start welling up.

And the books! I could not believe it the first time I was offered a review copy of a book – I didn’t know such things existed. I was happy to potter on writing reviews of books I had bought, not paying much attention to publication dates and so forth, but joining Book Twitter opened up some fantastic opportunities to read and review advanced copies of books that weren’t even out yet, and it blew my mind. It is an absolute privilege, one I will never take for granted, and it seems to me to be mostly a really lovely symbiotic relationship whereby readers get the joy of an early read, and authors/publishers get a bit of a boost. My husband was delighted at first as he thought this meant no more book buying – how wrong he was! If I like a proof, I’ll usually buy a finished copy to support the author (and always if it is one I have specifically requested) and of course, the recommendations of other bloggers are far too tempting! I have never owned as many unread books as I do at the moment – and sometimes it does make me feel a bit guilty – but I know I will get to them all. Eventually. I don’t request a lot of proofs, just ones I really can’t resist, but I do buy more books these days, and I’m also starting to get sent surprise books, which is so exciting and lovely.

I’ve been introduced to so many new authors, to wonderful indie publishers, to a whole group of fantastically supportive book lovers, and even if, from time to time, the nastier side of social media gives me a bit of a shock, I still generally find Book Twitter an absolutely joyous place to ‘be’. I’ve enjoyed dipping my toe into Bookstagram, too, and although I feel a bit silly stacking up books for arty snaps, I have to admit, I also find it pretty fun. (I still don’t entirely understand Instagram, though.)

Just a few of the highlights have been: discovering indie presses like Bluemoose Books and their wonderful authors (who have shown me such kindness); doing some fab blog tours with the lovely Emma at Damp Pebbles; being invited by Helen Cullen to take part in a Christmas reading of the first chapter of her book The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually; having a phone consultation with Louise Walters Books author Diana Cambridge and getting some brilliant advice for moving forward with my own novel; and recently, finally taking the leap to set up my own little writing feedback business, something I have wanted to do for a very long time.

I know this is a bit of a self-indulgent post, but at the risk of sounding like an Oscars acceptance speech, I really just wanted to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone. It has been a hell of year, for global and personal reasons, but the community and support I’ve found here has meant the world to me, and I can’t wait to see what the next year of sharing the book love will bring.

Happy reading!

Ellie x


Review: Nightshift by Kiare Ladner (2021)

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner


Nightshift is a story of obsession set in London’s liminal world of nightshift workers.

When twenty-three-year-old Meggie meets distant and enigmatic Sabine, she recognizes in her the person she would like to be. Giving up her daytime existence, her reliable boyfriend, and the trappings of a normal life in favour of working the same nightshifts as Sabine could be the perfect escape for Meggie. She finds a liberating sense of freedom in indulging her growing preoccupation with Sabine and plunges herself into another existence, gradually immersing herself in the transient and uncertain world of the nightshift worker.

Dark, sexy, frightening, Nightshift explores ambivalent female friendship, sexual attraction and lives that defy easy categorization. London’s stark urban reality is rendered other-worldly and strange as Meggie’s sleep deprivation, drinking and fixation with Sabine gain a momentum all of their own. Can Meggie really lose herself in her trying to become someone else?

A novel of obsession and desire, Kiare Ladner’s Nightshift is a beautiful and moving debut which asks profound questions about who we are and if we can truly escape ourselves.


Many thanks to Grace Harrison at Picador for sending me a beautiful finished copy of Nightshift in exchange for an honest review. I was very keen to read this as it sounded right up my street, with shades of Exit Management by Naomi Booth, my top book of last year. I was not disappointed. I read this stunning debut novel in one night, appropriately enough (it is the perfect companion to insomnia, by the way) because I could not put it down once I had started.

What I loved most about this book is how far beneath the surface it pushes. We are all familiar with the stories of early twenty-somethings living in the city, trying to make sense of their lives, but often it is a rather cliched, light version. If you’ll excuse the pun, it is the darkness of Nightshift that makes it so striking. Meggie, the narrator, is indeed a drifting, rootless young adult searching for some kind of meaning, but there is a nihilistic edge – and a sharp intelligence – that take her journey deeper into existential psychology than most portrayals of this age group. She has a kind of experimental approach to her existence which put me in mind of the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s brilliant novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, though I found Meggie more sympathetic and easier to identify with.

The relationship between Meggie and Sabine is so deliciously complicated. It is sexual, and sexy for that matter, but there is so much more to it than that. The way that Meggie fixates on Sabine, takes on her gestures and habits, longs to be her – I feel as if Ladner has really tapped into that early twenties out of control feeling, that search for something out of reach that often leads us to latch onto friends and members of our social group. As well as recognising the impulse, I was shocked and surprised by how far the notion is pushed. This is a fantastic portrayal of obsession, nuanced and gripping and completely all-consuming for the reader.

The other members of the nightshift crew round out the cast of characters beautifully. Earl, Prawn, Lizard, Sherry – it throws you back to those times when your coworkers became your friends, your family even, in some ways. I lived abroad in my early twenties, and that sense of creating your own family substitute, a group you saw day after day (and night after night) came flooding back to me as I read this book (as did the epic all-nighters, but my Dad sometimes reads my posts, so I’ll keep quiet about that).

The whole mood of Nightshift is so cleverly allied to Meggie’s sleep-deprived, fuzzy, substance-fuelled state. There is that feeling of unreality you get from nocturnal adventures, the sense that out of sight of the bright light of day, anything is possible, good and bad. The novel did loosen its grip on me slightly towards the end, but the whole experience of reading it was so thrilling and visceral, it was like being submerged in another consciousness. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be thrown into the murky, half-lit world of London by night, with two fascinatingly complex characters as your reckless guides.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner is published by Picador and is out on 18th February. It is available to purchase here.

Review: The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley (2021)

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley


Paras is a spirited young racehorse living in a stable in the French countryside. That is until one afternoon when she pushes open the gate of her stall and, travelling through the night, arrives quite by chance in the dazzling streets of Paris.

She soon meets a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, two irrepressible ducks and an opinionated crow, and life amongst the animals in the city’s lush green spaces is enjoyable for a time. But everything changes when Paras meets a human boy, Etienne, and discovers a new, otherworldly part of Paris: the secluded, ivy-walled house where the boy and his nearly one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother live quietly and keep to themselves. As the cold weather of Christmas nears, the unlikeliest of friendships blooms between human and animals.

But how long can a runaway horse live undiscovered in Paris? And how long can one boy keep her all to himself? Charming and beguiling in equal measure, Jane Smiley’s novel celebrates the intrinsic need for friendship, love and freedom, whoever you may be . . .

From Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand AcresThe Strays of Paris is a captivating story of a group of extraordinary animals – and one little boy – whose lives cross paths in Paris.


I am a huge fan of Jane Smiley, and A Thousand Acres was one of the first books to make me think seriously about the idea of becoming a writer myself, so I was utterly delighted when Camilla Elworthy kindly sent me a beautiful copy of her latest book. As you can see from the blurb, this book is…different.

I’m going to come out and say right now that I have absolutely NO problem with anthropomorphic animals at all. The very first story I ever wrote was about a pride of lions who, let me tell you, went through some STUFF. (This was at least a year before The Lion King came out, by the way, just saying.) I am all in favour of whimsical tales of talking animals, so even though the premise came as a slight surprise, it didn’t take me long to hop on board. There is of course a certain amount of buying into the concept that has to be done, but I honestly found it a relief and a joy to leave cynicism at the door and enter into this strangely calming world for a few hours. I was entranced by Paras, the racehorse whose escape from her stall is not so much a daring break-out as an idly curious wander; Frida the cautious street-dwelling dog; Raoul the raven with his lofty proclamations – and later in the book, Kurt, the rat who dreams of one day finding a mate.

The city of Paris is beautifully depicted in the novel; you can smell the wafted scents from the bakeries and picture the Tour all lit up at night. It is the perfect setting for such a whimsical, dreamlike story, and Smiley leans into the French romanticism of it all with enthusiasm. I could practically hear the accordion music as I read. The whole vibe of the book is gentle and soothing; there is a strong emotional core, especially once the boy Etienne enters the story, but true peril hangs back – the stakes are never raised too high, and danger is always a vague idea rather than a real threat. Smiley is such a skilled writer that the characters quickly become established in all their complex, quirky glory, and I really liked the nuanced differences between the ways the different species view their environment. Paras is always on the look-out for a tasty morsel, nibbling and munching her way around the city. Frida, her senses heightened by her years on the street with Jaques, has a distrust of humans that creates some of the more tense moments in the book. Raoul is hilarious – his superior, pretentious monologues were one of my favourite bits of the novel. And Kurt, the rat who only wants to be out in the world to seek his mate, is a lovely character. Etienne’s story is tinged with sadness, but the joy he takes in bonding with the animals is beautiful.

This novel is not one for hardened cynics, but if, like so many of us, you are feeling bruised and battered by the harsh reality of the past year, The Strays of Paris provides a wonderful respite. I felt bathed in nostalgia, taken back to my childhood when I devoured endless stories of intelligent animals overcoming the odds. This book feels to me like a brilliant writer has decided to write exactly the book that will most please themselves, an escape and a bit of an indulgence, a world of kindness and small acts of generosity. And it’s a world that is an absolute pleasure to retreat into. This is a warm bubble bath of a book, self-care in novel form, and I felt refreshed and restored after reading it.

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley is published by Mantle Books on 18th February and is available to purchase here.

Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal


1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.


Firstly, I want to say a huge thank you to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for sending me a beautiful ARC of this book. I was a huge fan of The Doll Factory, which I read last year, and as soon as I heard that not only did Elizabeth Macneal have a new book coming out, but also that it is set in a circus, I was desperate to read it! Circus settings are my very favourite, from Nydia Hetherington’s wonderful A Girl Made of Air, another one of my top reads last year, to Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, one of my all-time favourite books. I am so grateful for the chance to have had an early read of this novel – it is honestly a privilege I will never take for granted.

I am going to speak plainly: I LOVED this book. It was everything I wanted it to be and more: a dazzling, intricate, powerful story that takes you deep inside another time and place. Circus of Wonders is exactly the sort of historical fiction I enjoy the most; it transports you to another time while keeping you firmly in the moment, hurling you into the midst of the action so that you feel like you are right there. I absolutely adored the plot: entering the circus alongside Nell allows the reader to experience it for the first time as she does, and the sections set in the Crimean War were both a contrast and a parallel to circus life. The conflation of the circus and the arena of war is so interesting: the images Macneal paints of spectators looking down on the battlefields and munching on their posh picnics, applauding the victors and gasping at their skill, are just genius. Like The Doll Factory, which interrogated the idea of art, this novel manages to bring in huge, powerful themes about spectacle and exploitation while also remaining immediate and gripping.

Elizabeth Macneal excels at creating complex, three-dimensional characters, avoiding any clichés with her protagonists. The relationship between Jasper, the circus owner, and his brother Toby is absolutely central to the novel, and this works really well, as it gives Nell more space. She isn’t defined in terms of her relationships to the two men – her story is linked with theirs, but not inextricably. Nell herself is a wonderful creation: the journey she goes on as the story progresses is fascinating and complicated, and the power her skill and fame gives her counteracts the moments of victimhood she experiences. Jasper could so easily have been painted as pure villain, but he, too, is nuanced in his motivations and intentions. Even less prominent characters such as Stella, the bearded lady, are fully realised and carefully drawn. The book pulses with the lives of its inhabitants.

The writing style in Circus of Wonders is perfectly pitched. It is the sort of unshowy, focused prose that immerses the reader in sensory detail and surges forward with the power of the story. It is only when you pause and reread a line here and there that the beauty of Macneal’s writing comes to the fore. This is expert storytelling, even better than The Doll Factory, and it makes me so excited for the future of this incredibly talented writer. I know this novel is going to be a massive hit, and it is one I will definitely return to as well. The characters I met in this book will stay with me for a long time.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal will be published by Picador on 13th May and is available to preorder here.

Review: The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen translated by David Hackston (2017)

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen translated by David Hackston


A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists. 

With a nod to Fargo and the best elements of the Scandinavian noir tradition, The Man Who Died is a page-turning thriller brimming with the blackest comedy surrounding life and death, and love and betrayal, marking a stunning new departure for the King of Helsinki Noir.


I was very lucky to win a fabulous giveaway from Orenda Books – thanks so much to Karen Sullivan and the author for my lovely prize of THREE of Antti Tuomainen’s books. Book Twitter loves Orenda, and I am delighted to have had the chance to see why. I’m converted to Orenda Books, and to Antti Tuomainen’s writing.

The Man Who Died is a crazily fun book. I loved it – I laughed so much while reading it, which is not what I was expecting from a book told from the perspective of a dying man. The premise is great – Jaakko investigating his own murder before it happens is an immediately gripping prospect, and from the opening pages, I was all in.

This is a hard book to review, because the twists and turns of the plot are what makes it so fun, so I need to be careful not to spoil anything here. My husband did not get such courtesy – I breathlessly recited the whole story to him with rising excitement after each instalment, in a tone of “and then, and then, guess what happens, oooh, you’ll never guess…” – so yeah, I’ve ruined it for him. But for anyone else who is yet to read this fabulous book, I shall keep my lips sealed on plot points. Suffice it to say, a lot happens, and almost all of it is totally unexpected.

Jaakko is a great character to follow as he tries to solve the crime-in-progress. He has a neat line in dry humour, and an acceptance of his increasingly bizarre situation that results in some wonderfully deadpan moments. And there is a quote about a hedgehog that had me snorting with glee. Look out for it.

The present tense narrative is thrilling and immersive, and as far as I can tell, the translation, by David Hackston, does an excellent job of bringing to life Jaakko’s idiosyncratic use of expressions and his joyous talent for understatement. The story is meticulous in the level of detail, and the mystery unravels in a satisfying way (there was one revelation that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it fits with the quirkiness of the plot). I liked the ending very much.

All in all, I had a brilliant time reading this book. For sheer entertainment value, The Man Who Died is right up there. I am really looking forward to reading more of Tuomainen’s work, and to exploring more translated delights from Orenda.

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen translated by David Hackston is published by Orenda Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Kololo Hill by Neema Shah (2021)

Kololo Hill by Neema Shah


When you’re left with nothing but your secrets, how do you start again?

Uganda 1972

A devastating decree is issued: all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. They must take only what they can carry, give up their money and never return.

For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing. Will they all make it to safety in Britain and will they be given refuge if they do?

And all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them, threatening to tear the family apart. 

From the green hilltops of Kampala, to the terraced houses of London, Neema Shah’s extraordinarily moving debut Kololo Hill explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.


Ever since I first heard about Kololo Hill, I have had a very strong feeling that I MUST read this book. I am a firm believer in the power of historical fiction to illuminate the stories we have a duty to remember, to explore the hurts of the past to help us better understand our present world. So I was utterly thrilled to get my hands on a pre-publication copy. Massive thanks to the author and to Katie Green at Picador for providing me with a beautiful copy of Kololo Hill in exchange for an honest review.

I devoured this book, reading most of it in one night. Right from the opening pages, the power of the story had me gripped. The shadow of Idi Amin looms large, his regime threatening the safety of the characters from the very beginning. And yet, despite the huge, terrifying political events that shake the country, it is one family that carries the heart of this story, and in this way, the book is a surprisingly intimate one. Asha, recently married to Pran, is concerned not only by the bodies piling up but also by her husband’s secretive behaviour, by the gap that has already opened up between them. Throughout the novel, Shah keeps the focus tightly on a core cast of characters, with chapters alternating between the points of view of Asha, her mother-in-law Jaya, and her brother-in-law Vijay. Our exclusion from Pran’s point of view is extremely effective – his motives and behaviour is often as much of a mystery to the reader as it is to the rest of his family.

One of the many aspects that struck me about Kololo Hill, and that really got me thinking, was the economy of the prose. I have to admit, I probably went in expecting lush, exotic, poetic descriptions of Uganda, of the landscapes and the cities, and instead, Shah’s writing is unadorned, piercingly focused, almost journalistic in its matter-of-factness. It works so well – not only did I start questioning my own assumptions, my expectations of poetic exoticism, but it emotionally cleaved me to the characters, whose actions and feelings and domestic realities are so relatable, so real – it was easy to forget that they were fictional creations and to become totally invested in their story.

And I was seriously invested. Reading about their escape from Uganda, my heart was pounding, and I was as tense as I can remember being with a book. It is a kind of writerly alchemy to make the reader care so much about their characters, and Neema Shah achieves this in spades. The fact that this happened, that the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was a real event, sent further chills down my spine, and once again made me think deeply about the power of historical fiction. I have read about these events, but here, in this novel, seeing it through the eyes of characters I had come to think of as friends, as people I cared about – it was a truly emotional reading experience.

The genius of Kololo Hill is that the story doesn’t stop there. Escape is not a happy ending. It is not an ending at all. In England, the family must start again, must try to rebuild their lives, while encountering prejudice and a sense of not being wanted. This section is necessarily less dramatic than what precedes it, but it is no less important – and by this stage, I never wanted to leave these characters. I won’t say too much here, but there is a striking symmetry to Asha’s story in particular that is so cleverly done. I loved her as a character – she provides some of the most nuanced commentary in the book, from her attempts to explain why the expulsion of Ugandan Asians came about, to her refusal to cling blindly to the notion of ‘home’ at any cost.

I could say so much more about this book. It is heart-breaking, devastating, emotional – all the more so for its portrayal of real events, albeit through fictionalised characters. It is one of the most powerful explorations of home and belonging, two themes that fascinate me, that I have ever read. There is a sharp intelligence behind the emotional heft of the story, and, I think, a deeply relevant, non-didactic push for empathy. This novel is both moving and thought-provoking, gripping and reflective, reaching the very pinnacle of what historical fiction can achieve. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kololo Hill by Neema Shah is out on 18th February from Picador Books and is available to pre-order here.

Review: Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez translated by Christina MacSweeney (2021)

Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez translated by Christina MacSweeney


It was as if we’d reached the minimum critical point of a mathematical curve. Imagine a parabola. Zero point down, at the bottom of an abyss. That’s how low we sank.

The year is 1993. Cuba is at the height of the Special Period, a widespread economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

For Julia, a mathematics lecturer who hates teaching, Havana is at Year Zero: the lowest possible point, going nowhere. Desperate to seize control of her life, Julia teams up with her colleague and former lover, Euclid, to seek out a document that proves the telephone was invented by Antonio Meucci in Havana, convinced it is the answer to secure their reputations and give Cuba a purpose once more.

From this point zero, Julia sets out on an investigation to befriend two men who could help lead to the document’s whereabouts, and must pick apart a tangled mystery of sex, family legacies and the intricacies of how people find ways to survive in a country at its lowest ebb.


I have been eyeing up the books from Charco Press for a while now, intrigued by their enticing collection of Latin American literature and – let’s be honest – their stunning covers. So I jumped at the chance to read and review my first Charco title. Huge thanks to Carolina for sending me a copy of Havana Year Zero in exchange for an honest review. I can officially declare myself a fan.

The central premise of the book reminded me of Vigdis Hjorth’s wonderful novel Long Live The Post Horn! (about the Norwegian postal service!) in that it sounds fairly mundane on paper. Searching for a missing document to prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba hardly seems like the stuff of gripping fiction; but, like Hjorth’s book, the plot is utterly transformed by the skill of the author, and I was surprised by how totally and utterly invested I became in unravelling the mystery of the Meucci document. The story twists and turns and grows more intricate by the page; it is impossible to know who is telling the truth, so layered are the motives of everyone involved, and I was practically giddy with excitement every time another screwball development knocked the story sideways.

The protagonist and narrator, who gives us the false name ‘Julia’, is brilliant. Rarely have I enjoyed following a character as much as I did the shrewd, calculating, self-interested and yet hilarious, honest, forthright narrator of Havana Year Zero. She is a genius creation – neither affable nor odious; she is intelligent, complicated, funny, and utterly engaging. Honestly, I am going to miss her. The other characters, too, are expertly drawn, and our perspective is so closely aligned with Julia’s that they are as slippery and hard to pin down to the reader as they are to the narrator. The shifting allegiances and changing dynamics among the central characters are an absolute joy to observe. This is really clever, fun storytelling.

And yet, as well as the delicious mix of mathematical precision and absurd narrative twists, there is also a poignant social and historical commentary in this novel. Havana in 1993 is a place of deprivation, of food and electricity shortages, of a lack of hope verging on despair. Against this backdrop, the fixation on the Meucci document becomes something more profound: a way of reclaiming an identity to be proud of, a way to start forging a new, better future. The significance of the characters’ actions in terms of where they are in history adds another layer to this already intricate book, and I was swept along by Suárez’s vivid descriptions of the city.

I loved this book: it has the perfect combination of humour and poignancy. Suárez takes a point in time and spins a damn good story around it, precise and intricate as a spiderweb. It is a beautifully crafted and hugely enjoyable novel, and I highly recommend it.

Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez translated by Christina MacSweeney is published by Charco Press on 23rd February and is available to preorder here.