I have managed to read 13 books in May (including finishing off my reread of LOTR), and I have honestly enjoyed them all. There have been some real stand-outs this month, and plenty that are likely to end up on my Top Reads of 2021 list! Here’s a quick summary, with links to my full reviews where relevant.
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden (2021)
Mrs Death Misses Death is such a special book. I think it is one of those works that will mean different things to different people – it is a generous book that leaves space for the reader, as well as being a linguistically dazzling novel that pushes the boundaries of the form. You can read my full review here.
Fridge by Emma Zadow (2021)
The first playscript I have reviewed on my blog! Fridge is an original, engaging work, and reading it was almost as good as visiting the theatre! You can read my full review here.
Yes Yes More More by Anna Wood (2021)
I absolutely loved this vibrant, joyful short story collection – it is bright and bold and full of energy. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one. My full review of this brilliant book is here.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (2021)
I’m so pleased I managed to make time for this gorgeous book this month. It’s not only a physical thing of beauty, it also combines stunning prose with a gripping story, making for an almost perfect reading experience. I highly recommend it! My full review of The Lamplighters is here.
Mrs Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury (2021)
This is a lovely, gentle book, full of humour and surprisingly poignant truths, especially about the nature of long term relationships. And Rose is a new favourite character of mine! My full review is here.
100neHundred by Laura Besley (2021)
This is a stunning micro-fiction collection – each story is exactly 100 words long, and these bite-sized pieces back a real punch! The whole spectrum of human emotion is represented. A wonderful book. My review is here.
Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic (2021)
I was blown away by this fiercely original novel, which has been translated into English by the author. You NEED to meet Sara and Lejla! You can read my full thoughts on this brilliant book here.
Still Life by Sarah Winman (2021)
I knew I was going to love this book, and I was not disappointed for a second. Still Life is going to be right up there with my top reads of 2021. Don’t miss it! My full review of this gorgeous book is here.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)
I read this book along with our ‘book club that isn’t a book club’ – I’d been meaning to get around to it for a while, so it was great to finally find an excuse. It is a staggering piece of non-fiction, reclaiming the narrative for the victims of Jack the Ripper, recreating their stories and shining a light on the brutal choices they faced as women in an unforgiving era. I’ll hopefully get a full review of The Five up soon.
The Big Four by Agatha Christie (1927)
I’m working my way through the Poirot books, along with some friends from The Write Reads, and it was nice to return to a novel after last month’s short stories. I enjoyed The Big Four – there was a surprising ‘international man of mystery’ vibe that I haven’t come across in the Poirot novels yet, and I liked the global conspiracy aspect! Hastings really does annoy me, though, his poor wife! Lots of fun reading this one, looking forward to the next installment!
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer (2021)
This is SUCH a good book – I read it in one sitting, and absolutely loved it. Original, moving, unexpected, and above all, beautifully written. Definitely one to pre-order. You can read my full review here.
Gold Fury by Kieren Westwood (2020)
My second flash fiction book of the month, Gold Fury is a wonderful novella-in-flash that has a True Detective/Fargo type vibe, taking you on a whirlwind journey as the pieces of various criminal activities gradually slot together. I’ll have a full review up on the blog this week – look out for it!
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
I’ve been rereading this along with some friends from The Write Reads, and I have finally finished! It has been an utter joy to revisit Middle Earth. The sheer scope of Tolkien’s imagination never ceases to astound me. We’ve buddy-watched the first two films, as well, and I am looking forward to finishing up with the film of The Return of the King!
It really has been a cracking month for reading. I’ve felt as if I’ve been on a winning streak, with cracking read after cracking read, and it has been really nice to be a bit more flexible and mood read more than I usually do. I hope you’ve had a great reading month, too – do let me know what you’ve enjoyed this month!
Ruth lives in the heart of the city. Working, drinking, falling in love: the rhythm of her vivid and complicated life is set against a background hum of darkening news reports from which she deliberately turns away.
When a new romance becomes claustrophobic, Ruth chooses to leave behind the failing relationship, but also her beloved friends and family, and travels to the other side of the world in pursuit of her dream life working with whales in New Zealand.
But when Ruth arrives, the news cycle she has been ignoring for so long is now the new reality. Far from home and with no real hope of survival, she finds herself climbing into the mouth of a beached whale alongside a stranger. When she emerges, it is to a landscape that bears no relation to the world they knew before.
When all has been razed to the ground, what does it mean to build a life?
The Stranding is a story about the hope that can remain even when the world is changed beyond recognition.
Since I first heard about this book, I’ve had a feeling it was one for me. I was thrilled, therefore, to win a proof copy on Twitter, and since this month I’ve been trying to do more ‘mood reading’ and be less rigid about my TBR, when I got the urge to read The Stranding, I happily indulged myself.
I was not disappointed. This is a gloriously original book, a story that takes you on a proper journey, that immerses you in its characters and language and its wonderfully compelling dual structure. I read it in one sitting, staying up far too late, and I regret nothing.
There are a lot of clever things about this book. It is unexpected in a lot of ways – from the intense contrast between Ruth’s Before life in London and her life on the beach in New Zealand with Nik, highlighted by the alternating chapters, to the way Ruth is presented as a character. She is great – she’s flawed and indecisive and she makes mistakes, she’s so real and vivid, even a more conventional narrative with her at the centre going about her life and struggling to work out what she wants would be well worth reading. There is a lot going on in London, with (horrible) Alex’s gaslighting of Ruth, her own inability to be honest in her relationships and friendships, her itchy feet and longing to escape. But Sawyer offers us SO much more than this – the horrific global incident that changes everything is also a catalyst for a new way of life for Ruth, and the story mode changes from contemporary woman-in-the-city to something much more profound, apocryphal even. I was deeply moved by the New Zealand-set sections of the book, all the more so because of how skilfully they are interwoven with the more conventional narrative. It is just so well done.
I can’t bang on too much about my favourite characters and scenes, because a lot of the joy is in discovering these for yourself as you read, and I am not about to spoil this gorgeous book for anyone. I’ll content myself with saying that as the story progressed, I became more and more attached to the characters, more invested in their future, to the point where the closing pages were an extremely emotional experience. Sawyer writes beautifully, and has an uncanny ability to marry humour with wisdom, levity with truth. There are powerful symbols and almost biblical overtones in some of the passages, but it is all delivered with a leavening touch of down-to-earthness (I think the Kiwi slang helps a lot with this!). At times I was reminded of Lucy Irvine’s non-fiction book Castaway, which I read years ago, but which really stayed with me as a vivid portrayal of what survival means on a day to day basis; everything about Ruth and Nik’s struggle to survive feels absolutely authentic and real.
There is a resonance to this story that really touched me – although not (quite) comparable to the apocalypse, this past year has been hard on all of us, and I think there has been, for some of us, a reassessment of what is really important. This may sound trite, but in my own life this has had very real consequences in terms of the decisions we’ve made as a family recently, and something in The Stranding really struck a chord with me. The pandemic has not stripped away the trappings of our lives to such a dramatic extent as the disaster that befalls the characters in Sawyer’s book, but maybe it has taught some of us to re-examine our priorities. There is nothing didactic about this novel, but I think there is a gentle, beautiful lesson in it, about family, about love, and about nature.
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer is out on 24th June from Coronet Books and is available to pre-order here.
By the bestselling, prize-winning author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man, Still Life is a beautiful, big-hearted, richly tapestried story of people brought together by love, war, art, flood… and the ghost of E.M. Forster.
We just need to know what the heart’s capable of, Evelyn
And do you know what it’s capable of?
I do. Grace and fury.
It is 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.
Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier and one-time globe-maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.
These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.
Moving from the Tuscan Hills, to the smog of the East End and the piazzas of Florence, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
As a huge fan of Tin Man, Winman’s previous novel, I had Still Life firmly on my bookish radar. I was, therefore, absolutely delighted to win a proof – many thanks to Liv Marsden and 4th Estate Books for my copy.
This is another tough review to write, because this book just meant so much to me. I don’t know Florence well, having only visited briefly, but I know and love Italy, and it was an utter joy to ‘spend time’ there with such an eloquent guide. The sights, sounds, smells are all captured in exquisite prose, and as Winman describes the landscapes, architecture and art works, it begins to feel like more of a sensory experience than a purely literary one. And the food! Never has a book made me so hungry! I could practically taste the papparadelle and ragu – Italian food is my all-time favourite, and this book is mouth-watering.
Underpinning all of this beauty and sensory delight is the sheer joy of spending time with the characters of this book. Each and every one made their way into my heart, and it is the sort of magical novel that makes you ache at the sad fact that these people are fictional. I wanted nothing more than to be in the square listening to Alys strumming her guitar, to see Cressy sitting on the stone bench gossiping with le signore as they chat and knit, to have coffee with Ulysses and Massimo at Michele’s. I wanted to be a guest at the Pensione Bertolini, and I wanted to go to Col’s East End pub and listen to Pete playing the piano while Peg sings. I wanted to meet Claude, fiction’s greatest parrot, and go to Giglio for the summer; I wanted to visit an art gallery with Evelyn and hear her insights for myself. I don’t think there is a feeling quite like the one you get when you are reading a book and you just want it all to exist, to be true. It is rare and special and almost sacred.
The link to E.M Forster’s A Room With a View is extraordinary – this is no knowing nod or gentle homage; Still Life consumes the classic novel, absorbs it and offers us something greater, further-reaching, MORE. It pretty much eats Forster for breakfast, and gives us a banquet of better, alternative ways of falling in love in and with Florence. Towards the end there is a kind of coda that I wasn’t expecting, which added even more depth to this already profound novel.
What Sarah Winman doesn’t teach us about love in this novel isn’t worth knowing. This book is so big-hearted, so kind without being sentimental, so accepting of our imperfections – reading this story is like being part of a warm, loving family, and I felt utterly bereft at having to leave the characters on the final page. Still Life is, for me, a perfect novel.
Still Life by Sarah Winman is published by 4th Estate Books on 1st June and is available to pre-order here.
A man carries his girlfriend in the left-hand breast pocket of his shirt. During World War II, a young soldier searches the houses and barns of the families with whom he grew up. An astronaut wonders whether she can adapt to life back on earth… In her second collection of short fiction, Laura Besley explores a kaleidoscope of emotions through 100 stories of exactly 100 words each.
I absolutely loved Laura Besley’s first collection, The Almost Mothers, so I was really excited to read her second book. Huge thanks to Arachne Press for having me on the blog tour and for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. If you follow Laura on social media (which you really should!) you’ll know that even within the space limit of a tweet-length micro story, she can pack in one hell of a punch. It doesn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that the constraints of a 100-word format only serve to sharpen her considerable skills.
I won’t go into too much detail on the individual stories as I’m much more long-winded than Laura and would probably use more words than she does to write each one! The text is divided into four ‘seasons’ which is a neat way of grouping these deliciously varied tales. There is a kind of overriding mood to each section, and it is fun to move through the groups of stories and sense the changing tone.
Certain themes and character types are revisited; ‘The Monthly Checker’ has a Part I in Winter and a Part II in Spring, but what struck me the most about this collection is the huge variety of the material. So much of life is packed into these stories, precious moments and sad ones, humour and grief, gorgeous nuggets of hope and stinging barbs of hurt. I am constantly amazed at Laura’s ability to make each word count (pun intended) – though they take seconds to read, each story has a resonance that makes far more than a fleeting impression.
It is this lingering quality that makes 100neHundred so special. So many of the stories lodged themselves in my mind – to pick out just a few of my favourites: ‘Mother Tongue’, ‘Between Worlds’, ‘Modern Romance’, ‘Speed Reading’, ‘Blink’, ‘Too Many Words’, ‘Life Goes On’, ‘Five Digit Pin’. I love the balance of cynicism and faith in human kindness, the harshness of life offset by moments of grace.
If you haven’t dipped your toe into the world of micro-fiction before, this collection is a wonderful place to start. It crosses genres, timelines, moods and tones, and offers something for every reader. If you’re already a convert to the joy of flash, you’ll want to add this one to your library – Laura Besley is an expert practitioner of the form. I can’t wait to read more of her work.
About the Author
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments when her children are asleep. She has been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers. Her work has been nominated for Best Micro Fiction and her story, To Cut a Long Story Short, will appear in the Best Small Fiction anthology in 2021. 100neHundred is Laura’s second short fiction collection.
100neHundred by Laura Besley is published by Arachne Press on 27th May and is available to purchase here.
***LAUNCH EVENT*** To attend the virtual launch for 100neHundred and David Hartley’s Incorcisms on 27th May, click here and register!
“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”
Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from crisis to crisis; and not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment…
When Hugh’s pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn’t. But can she save her marriage? And does she really want Hugh back?
Funny, charming, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.
Back with the classic Damp Pebbles Blog Tours/Louise Walters Books combo! I love the books Louise publishes – so far I have readThe Naseby Horses, In The Sweep of the Bay, Old Bones(and Helen Kitson’s previous book The Last Words of Madeline Anderson) and, most recently, The Dig Street Festival, all of which I highly recommend! When I read the blurb for Mrs Narwhal’s Diary, I thought it sounded like just the thing for a bit of entertaining, escapist reading. And it is – but it is so much more than that as well.
It has been a while since I have read a book set out in diary format – there is something delightfully old-fashioned about the idea of a written journal, and it works really well for both the character and the setting. Mrs Narwhal, whose first name we never find out, is quite traditional – her life is centred around domesticity and her roles as wife and mother. I think she is younger than she seems at first, though, and she is by no means stuffy or snobby or closed-minded. She’s a refreshingly original character – a woman who seems to have reached a kind of understanding of herself, and those around her, that allows her to see the world in her own unique way. She is funny and kind, and a pleasure to spend time with.
As her relationship with her husband, Hugh, deteriorates, the central relationship of the book becomes that of Mrs Narwhal and her sister-in-law, Rose. Rose is a great character – impulsive, sometimes frivolous, an excellent foil to the more sensible Mrs N. Both women, however, are nursing deep hurts and disappointments, and although their friendship is far from frictionless, the tenderness they show towards each other is a beautiful thing to witness. In many ways, the help these two women give each other really is the main story of the novel – and it is really quite moving and, I think, different, to see this particular ‘sister-in-law’ relationship foregrounded.
I think I am probably in @brownflopsy‘s camp of NOT being a big fan of Hugh – his behaviour seems selfish and indulgent, and while Mrs Narwhal has compassion for his deep-rooted sense of familial obligation to the crumbling estate, I am afraid I couldn’t muster much of the same. However, his actions do allow for some really poignant and insightful observations from Mrs N on the nature of long-standing relationships, of love, of the way it ebbs and flows in a manner that people don’t like to talk about. At the risk of sounding like a total cynic, I struggle with the idea that “love is constant,” that we fall in love with someone and remain deeply and whole-heartedly in love with them for the rest of our lives. I think it is possible for love to come and go, to be lost and then found again, and this novel explores that idea in a surprisingly (for a book that is also very, very funny) deep way.
There is a lot of humour here, a lot of big, bold characters, set pieces, running jokes (where ARE all the scissors, though?) and general light-hearted fun. But there is also truth, heart and a real understanding of human nature and the relationships that get us through or hold us back. The ending is satisfying, without wrapping everything up in a neat bow, and I finished the book much as I started it, rooting whole-heartedly for Mrs Narwhal. This is a lovely book, which offers real insight as well as delightfully quirky humour, and I strongly recommend checking it out for yourself.
About the Author
S J Norbury lives in Herefordshire with her family. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is her first novel.
Sara hasn’t seen or heard from her childhood best-friend, Lejla, in years. She’s comfortable with her life in Dublin, with her partner, their avocado plant, and their naturist neighbour. But when Lejla calls and demands she come home to Bosnia, Sara finds that she can’t say no.
What begins as a road trip becomes a journey through the past, as the two women set off to find Armin, Lejla’s brother who disappeared towards the end of the Bosnian War. Presumed dead by everyone else, only Lejla and Sara believed Armin was still alive.
Confronted with the limits of memory, Sara is forced to reconsider the things she thought she understood as a girl: the best friend she loved, the first experiences they shared, but also the social and religious lines that separated them, that brought them such different lives.
Translated into English by Lana Bastasic, Catch the Rabbit tells the story of how we place the ones we love on pedestals, and then wait for them to fall off, how loss marks us indelibly, and how the traumas of war echo down the years.
Huge thanks to Alice Dewing and Picador Books for sending me a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Every so often, a book comes along that absolutely blows me away. If I’m honest, I find these books by far the hardest to write reviews for, as my feelings are so strong it is difficult to find the right words. I sometimes find it easiest to start by finding comparisons, making a sort of bookish cocktail of works that remind me of the novel in question. I read Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic earlier this year, and while on the surface this may seem like a lazy geographical comparison, as both novels have their protagonist returning to their Balkan homeland, I think there is more that links these two – the sense of truth cutting so deep it draws blood, of psychological complexity, of the weight of the word ‘home’. I also fully agree with the cover quote, which references Elena Ferrante – the Neapolitan Quartet definitely came to mind while reading about Sara and Lejla’s deeply complicated friendship; as did a dash of Kiare Ladner’sNightshift, a novel in which friendship tips over into both obsession and a desire to possess or be taken over by the other person. If you enjoyed any of these books, you will love Catch The Rabbit.
Comparisons aside, this is an incredibly original book. There is so much going on here in terms of the layers of meaning and language and characterisation – I could reread it ten times and still find more to marvel at. Language itself comes under scrutiny, as Sara examines her relationship with the mother tongue she has rejected. It is so interesting that the author herself translated the book into English, and that Catch The Rabbit has been translated into 12 languages, winning the European Prize for Literature in 2020 – it all feeds into the depth of the novel. Identity, childhood, education, literature, sexuality, religion, war and trauma – this book packs in so much, and yet manages, at its heart, to be an intensely focused book about two women and how their lives intersect.
Lejla is one of those characters you want to bottle – she is outrageous, infuriating, funny, desperately sad – she is everything at once, and her magnetism is beautifully captured. It is no wonder Sara can’t escape her siren call, and drops everything to assist her on her quest. This is one of the best ‘road trip’ novels I have ever read, excavating the past through the faulty lens of Sara’s memory as the two women head to Vienna to collect Lejla’s long-missing brother, Armin.
One of the many things that struck me about this brilliant book is how well it captures that bond between childhood friends who have grown apart, a bond that isn’t a sweet, sugary nostalgia so much as a chain, inescapable, heavy, painful. In fact I think Catch The Rabbit unearths a deep and uncomfortable truth about friendship, about how it can be based on hate as much as on love. The writing is so visceral, pulsating with blood and heat and terrible beauty. It is sharp and dangerous and revealing in ways that make for a tense, utterly consuming read. I finished the last perfect pages with tears in my eyes, trembling. And that’s how I know this book is something pretty damn special.
Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic is out on 27th May from Picador Books and is available to pre-order here.
Regular readers of my blog (hi, both!) will know that I have very eclectic tastes in books. I’ll read most genres, and I like to mix things up. One of my greatest pleasures is discovering great books published by indie presses – it’s been one of the best things about joining Book Twitter. Finding new, exciting writers who are pushing the boundaries and doing something different is such a thrilling feeling.
I could have made this list three times as long, but for now, here, in no particular order, is a selection of fabulous books I’ve read recently that will hit the spot if you’re looking for something just a bit different. I’ve linked to my full reviews if you want to find out more about my thoughts on any of them, and if you click on the publishers, you can find the link to buy direct, which is a great way to support indie presses!
Charity by Madeline Dewhurst
Published by Lightning Books, this debut novel is beautifully constructed. Echoes of past actions and crimes reverberate into the present day, and nothing is quite as it seems.
Here’s the blurb:
“Edith, an elderly widow with a large house in an Islington garden square, needs a carer. Lauren, a nail technician born in the East End, needs somewhere to live. A rent-free room in lieu of pay seems the obvious solution, even though the pair have nothing in common.
Or do they? Why is Lauren so fascinated by Edith’s childhood in colonial Kenya? Is Paul, the handsome lodger in the basement, the honest broker he appears? And how does Charity, a Kenyan girl brutally tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion, fit into the equation?
Capturing the spirited interplay between two women divided by class, generation and a deeper gulf from the past, and offering vivid flashbacks to 1950s East Africa, Madeline Dewhurst’s captivating debut spins a web of secrets and deceit – where it’s not always obvious who is the spider and who is the fly.”
This brilliant anthology from 3 of Cups Press contains some staggeringly good short stories. It is also really cohesive, the different voices coming together to build something that is more than the sum of its parts. I’m already looking forward to rereading this collection.
“This is an anthology about people who don’t fit in. These stories explore what it is to be an outsider, from some of the most exciting voices in short fiction.
From lovers to loners, moonlighters to midnight walkers, these pages are haunted by more than ghosts: loss, lack of direction, insecurity and otherworldly hunger.
But most importantly, it asks the question: if we’re us, then who are you?
With stories from: Julia Armfield, Jen Campbell, Sarvat Hasin, Beverley Ho, Emma Hutton, Susan James, Kirsty Logan, Lena Mohamed, Heather Parry, Leone Ross, Stephanie Victoire, Anna Walsh, Eley Williams, Lara Williams and Anna Wood and a foreword by Irenosen Okojie.”
Absorbed is out in a couple of weeks from brand new imprint New Ruins, a joint project by two fantastic indie presses, Influx and Dead Ink. I’ll let the blurb do the talking for this one – yes, it is as odd as it sounds, and also yes, it is VERY good:
“Allison has been with Owen since university. She’s given up on writing her novel and is working a dull office job at the local council – now it feels like the only interesting thing about her is that she’s Owen’s girlfriend. But he’s slipping away from her, and Allison has no idea who she’ll be without him.
Panicking, she absorbs him…
Soon Allison begins taking on Owen’s best qualities, becoming the person she always thought she should be. But is Owen all she needs to complete herself? Will Allison ever be a whole person?
Absorbed is the original and timely debut novel from Kylie Whitehead; a darkly comic story of female insecurity, body horror and modern relationships.“
You can read my full review here. Get your pre-order in now for a delicious slice of weirdness!
Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills
I feel like I haven’t read as much non-fiction this year as I normally do, but this essay, published by The Indigo Press, is a powerful, important read, and it really got me thinking. Here’s the blurb:
“The 2017 #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse felt like a flagship moment, a time at which women were empowered to share their stories in a spirit of empowerment and solidarity and demand change. But have some men simply changed tactics?
The latest addition to The Indigo Press’s Mood Indigo series sees Sam Mills, author of the acclaimed novel The Quiddity of Will Self (“ambitious and outrageous” Guardian), and recent literary memoir of caring, The Fragments of My Father (“brave and original” The Times) investigate the phenomenon of ‘chauvo-feminism’, where men present themselves as feminists publicly, in order to advance their careers, while privately exhibiting chauvinistic attitudes.
Through testimony from women and men, as well as her own experiences with a chauvo-feminist, Mills explores the grey areas of modern relationships, gaslighting and emotional abuse, the psychological underpinnings of the chauvo-feminist, and asks how we might move beyond ‘trial by Twitter’ to encourage an honest and productive dialogue between the sexes.”
This is such a joyous, funny, big-hearted book – a quirky, surreal adventure led by three of the most original characters I’ve come across in fiction for some time. Both playful and wise, The Dig Street Festival, published by Louise Walters Books, is a book that stays with you, and I highly recommend it.
“It’s 2006 in the fictional East London borough of Leytonstow. The UK’s pub smoking ban is about to happen, and thirty-eight-and-a-half year old John Torrington, a mopper and trolley collector at his local DIY store, is secretly in love with the stylish, beautiful, and middle-class barmaid Lois. John and his hapless, strange, and down-on-their-luck friends, Gabby Longfeather and Glyn Hopkins, live in Clements Markham House – a semi-derelict Edwardian villa divided into unsanitary bedsits, and (mis)managed by the shrewd, Dickensian business man, Mr Kapoor.
When Mr Kapoor, in a bizarre and criminal fluke, makes him fabulously credit-worthy, John surprises his friends and colleagues alike by announcing he will organise an amazing ‘urban love revolution’, aka the Dig Street Festival. But when he discovers dark secrets at the DIY store, and Mr Kapoor’s ruthless gentrification scheme for Clements Markham House, John’s plans take several unexpected and worrisome turns…
Funny, original, philosophical, and unexpectedly moving, The Dig Street Festival takes a long, hard, satirical look at modern British life, and asks of us all, how can we be better people?”
My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson
My Brother the Messiah, published by Barbican Press, was such an unexpected gem of a book. For me, this is an almost perfect novel. It is deeply intelligent but not at all pretentious, tender and profound and also highly readable, and I urge you to check it out. Here is the blurb to tempt you further:
“It’s 2096. Scientists work to protect a baking planet. What a drought-stricken Europe needs is rain. What it gets is a messiah.
Eli is born in a suburb of Prague. A rainstorm heralds the birth. Perhaps this messiah is for real. Eli’s father abandons the family to become the dictator’s right-hand man. Eli’s elder brother Marek guides Eli through his short and powerful life.
Can tales of a messiah be enough to heal a ravaged planet in which few babies are born? If so, Marek works with the zeal of a prophet. Aged 72, he’s still going strong. A new follower joins Marek’s community, young Natalia. She awakens the old man to the joys of the body. But what’s the worth of a human love when the environment is collapsing? Marek sets out to find his answer.
My Brother the Messiah is a story about daring to seed the future of our planet.”
This short story collection, published by The Indigo Press, is a breath of fresh air. Funny, piercing, original – I can’t wait to read more by this author. And I’ve never read anyone who writes nights out as well as Anna Wood!
“Two schoolgirls in Bolton take acid just before their English class. A film journalist shares tea and a Kitkat with Marcel Proust, more or less, during a long train journey. An afterparty turns into a crime scene. Colleagues, maybe in love, have lunch and don’t quite talk about their relationship. A woman flees to New Orleans and finds unexpected treasures there.
In her electric debut, Anna Wood skips through the decades of a woman’s life, meeting friends, lovers, shapeshifters and doppelgangers along the way. Delights and regrets pile up, time becomes non-linear, characters stumble and shimmy through moments of rupture, horror and joy.
Written with warmth, wit and swagger, these stories glide from acutely observed comic dialogue to giddy surrealism and quiet heartbreak, and always there is music – pop songs as tiny portals into another world. Yes Yes More More is packed with friendship, memory, pleasure and love.”
Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez translated by Christina MacSweeney
Published by Charco Press, this novel is beautifully crafted and hugely enjoyable. It has just the right mix of screwball humour and intricately plotted mystery, and I loved it. Here’s the blurb:
“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.”
This really was something completely different – the first playscript I’ve read for a long time. Published by Renard Press, Fridge is a really engaging, active reading experience, and I loved imagining myself at the theatre watching it unfold in front of me. Here’s the blurb:
“Alice hasn’t been home for a while – for seven years, in fact. But when her little sister Lo tries to take her own life, she has to return to the life she left behind. The change of scenery from London to Norfolk proves quite the culture shock, however, and Alice has to confront what she left behind all those years ago.
The sisters’ relationship hasn’t evolved in Alice’s absence, and when she steps through the door she’s plunged back into the same world she escaped from. Set against Norfolk’s bleak landscapes, but masquerading as childhood nostalgia, Fridge is an all-too-familiar exploration of the broken promises of youth, and a bitter exposition of a generation left behind.”
Published in the States by Braddock Avenue Books, this is a little harder to track down in the UK, but you can find it at Blackwell’s and it is absolutely worth it. I fell deeply in love with this novel – it is a book that I feel passionately about, that deserves to be shouted about and read so widely. It is lyrical, intelligent, subtle and moving, covering an era that is perhaps more familiar from films than from literature, and I will be raving about Sybelia Drive for a very long time. Here’s the blurb to encourage you to READ THIS BOOK:
“In the small lake town where LuLu, Rainey, and Saul are growing up, day-to-day life is anything but easy. Navigating the usual obstacles of youth would be enough for anyone, but for this trio a world marred by the Vietnam War, detached parents, and untimely death create circumstances overloaded with trouble. Yet through their unyielding resourcefulness and the willingness to expose their vulnerabilities, these three friends discover deeper bonds than even they could ever imagine.
Told through kaleidoscopic images and in prose that will keep you on the edge of your seat, Sybelia Drive is a story of three friends who push beyond the typical woes of childhood into teenage years transformed by the shared baggage of a generation, years when men walk on the moon; students are killed during a peace demonstration at Kent State; and the obligations of military service claim the lives of fathers, husbands, and children.
Investigating the personal impact of social upheaval with unparalleled sensitivity and depth, Sybelia Drive is a novel that will stay with you for a long, long time. It is an extraordinary debut.”
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero translated by Frances Riddle
Published by Influx Press, this short story collection is a fierce, searing exploration of the darkest places of the human soul – in highly original ways, Ampuero probes the subjects other writers would not dare to touch. It is not for the faint-hearted, but the emotional pummelling is well worth it – Cockfight is a stunning book. Here is the blurb:
“Named one of the ten best fiction books of 2018 by the New York Times en Español, Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero.
In lucid and compelling prose, Ampuero sheds light on the hidden aspects of the home: the grotesque realities of family, coming of age, religion, and class struggle. A family’s maids witness a horrible cycle of abuse, a girl is auctioned off by a gang of criminals, and two sisters find themselves at the mercy of their spiteful brother. With violence masquerading as love, characters spend their lives trapped re-enacting their past traumas.
Heralding a brutal and singular new voice, Cockfight explores the power of the home to both create and destroy those within it.”
Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson
The first book published by new indie publisher – and now bookshop owner – Bearded Badger Publishing, Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel is exactly the reason we need indie presses, willing to take a chance on books that don’t fit into a conventional mold. This book is hilarious, rude and downright bizarre at times, but it is also very clever and insightful, and it uses the unusual second person ‘you’ to wonderful effect. Here’s the rather enigmatic blurb – I urge you to visit the Flamingo Hotel and discover it for yourself:
“You could’ve been someone, you could’ve been a contender, yet instead you ended up here, a dishwasher at the Flamingo Hotel. From the death of your mother, to homelessness, to insanity, and back again, to an encounter with an American serial killer, a love affair with a performance artist, to the loss of your foreskin, to living in a shed, and certain bum operations, you have only ever wanted one thing…
They say we’ll never know what happened to those men. They say the sea keeps its secrets . . .
Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.
This book was another me-treat that I could not resist – I’d seen excellent reviews, and the Waterstones special edition is absolutely gorgeous (I’m a sucker for sprayed edges!). Despite my towering TBR, I decided I had been patient long enough, and finally managed to dive headfirst into life on the Maiden.
There is so much here to enjoy, from the beautifully atmospheric writing to the compelling mystery at the centre of the story. It is always refreshing to read a story with a really strong hook, a narrative drive that pushes you forward like a surging wave (I’m sorry, I’m going to find it very hard to avoid sea metaphors in this review – the sea is such a strong presence, almost a character in its own right). There is a delicious tension between wanting to unravel the mystery and find out the truth and revelling in the gorgeous language, not wanting the book to end – this, to me, is the sign of a pretty perfect novel.
I found so much to fascinate me in this book, from the day to day lives of the keepers in the Maiden tower, whose strange existence bears an odd resemblance to some of our own recent lockdown experiences, though their monotony and isolation is of course much more extreme, to the dynamics at play between the women ‘left behind’. It’s rare that two parallel narratives are both as interesting as each other, but I was as happy to spend time with Helen, Jenny and Michelle on the mainland, exploring their relationships with each other and with their absent partners, as I was on the Maiden with Arthur, Bill and Vince. There is a lovely ebb and flow (sorry, I’m doing it again) between the two strands of the narrative, and it’s a testament to Stonex’s skill that the complex structure works so well.
This book really hit the spot for me; I love beautiful prose and evocative writing, but I also love a damn good story, and when the two come together, it is reading heaven. I am entirely unsurprised by the praise that has been heaped upon this wonderful novel – every bit of it is thoroughly deserved. Both thrilling and literary, dramatic and meditative, this ticks all the boxes, and if you haven’t already had the pleasure, I highly recommend a trip to the lighthouse as soon as possible.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Picador and is available to purchase here.
Mrs Death has had enough. She is exhausted from spending eternity doing her job and now she seeks someone to unburden her conscience to. Wolf Willeford, a troubled young writer, is well acquainted with death, but until now hadn’t met Death in person – a black, working-class woman who shape-shifts and does her work unseen.
Enthralled by her stories, Wolf becomes Mrs Death’s scribe, and begins to write her memoirs. Using their desk as a vessel and conduit, Wolf travels across time and place with Mrs Death to witness deaths of past and present and discuss what the future holds for humanity. As the two reflect on the losses they have experienced – or, in the case of Mrs Death, facilitated – their friendship grows into a surprising affirmation of hope, resilience and love. All the while, despite her world-weariness, Death must continue to hold humans’ fates in her hands, appearing in our lives when we least expect her . . .
I decided to kick off May by doing something I rarely have time to do – reading a book I’ve bought for myself! I love book blogging, and have been absolutely delighted to receive so many wonderful proofs to review (when I took my blog ‘public’ last year, I had no idea such magical things as ARCs even existed!) but it is nice sometimes to just mood read and pick up a book I’ve chosen for myself. It is definitely something I want to do more of. I’d seen so many people I admire shouting about this book, I knew I’d love it. And indeed I did!
Mrs Death Misses Death is a very special book. As Wolf states in the Disclaimer: “This book is a matter of Life and Death,” and indeed, it seems to cover so much ground over its pages, through prose and poetry, that it really does seem to contain something essential. I came to the end of this book feeling wiser, more thoughtful, and grateful for the space this book gave me to reflect on those I have lost. This is a generous book, big-hearted and full of kindness. In places rude, funny, raw, beautiful, it contains within it the whole mess of being human, of living and dying, and trying to hold those experiences in language as best we can.
I think this is a book you need to be in the right mood for – you need to approach it in an open-hearted, open-minded way. It doesn’t pander to conventions, or to narrative expectations – this is a new kind of book, a new kind of reading experience, one that elevates your thinking and fills up your soul. Godden’s skill with language is dizzying – she pushes it into new shapes, breathes new life into old words, makes songs of trivia and ephemera and turns curses into words of love. It is exciting just to be in the presence of such linguistic gymnastics – to watch the story push forward the boundaries of what narrative is capable of is an incredible thing to behold.
It is hard to adequately capture my feelings about this novel in a few paragraphs – this book will mean different things to different people, there is space in between the lines for us all to inhabit this book (just as there is, literally, space at the end for our own annotations). This is a book which shows how an individual imagination can work for the collective good, and it’s a beautiful achievement. Read this book, make room for it, and let it make room for you.
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden is published by Canongate and is available to purchase here in the lovely cream indie bookshop edition (my choice!), or here in beautiful black.
Two schoolgirls in Bolton take acid just before their English class. A film journalist shares tea and a Kitkat with Marcel Proust, more or less, during a long train journey. An afterparty turns into a crime scene. Colleagues, maybe in love, have lunch and don’t quite talk about their relationship. A woman flees to New Orleans and finds unexpected treasures there.
In her electric debut, Anna Wood skips through the decades of a woman’s life, meeting friends, lovers, shapeshifters and doppelgangers along the way. Delights and regrets pile up, time becomes non-linear, characters stumble and shimmy through moments of rupture, horror and joy.
Written with warmth, wit and swagger, these stories glide from acutely observed comic dialogue to giddy surrealism and quiet heartbreak, and always there is music – pop songs as tiny portals into another world. Yes Yes More More is packed with friendship, memory, pleasure and love.
Huge thanks to the author, publisher and the lovely Jordan Taylor-Jones for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Having recently read one of Anna Wood’s stories in the excellent anthology Outsiders, I was very keen to read more of her work. What struck me about that story was how well Wood captures the utter joy of being young and with a bunch of friends with a whole night of fun and hedonism stretching out ahead of you, glittering with possibilities. I was delighted to find that same theme repeated in this stunning collection. I honestly don’t think I’ve read anyone who writes ‘nights out’ as well as Wood, who manages to encapsulate that youthful feeling of immortality and openness and excess, without loading on judgement or warnings. It made me so nostalgic for mad nights, for that feeling of staying up till dawn and still not wanting the party to end, of connections suddenly and intimately forged in the early hours. It wasn’t all good, and I actually wouldn’t go back to my late teens/early twenties if you paid me, but my God, there were some fun times, and I wouldn’t change it.
Amongst the beautiful excess, there are other, differently-hued moments. We dip in and out of the life of Annie, sometimes entering her first person point of view, sometimes held at more of a distance by the third person. Often she seems to be a at a crossroads, deciding on whether to stay on the conventional path of a stylish London career, or whether to jack it all in and head off into the sunset. We find her in France, sipping wine outside a café; in New Orleans, having a delicious fling with a beautiful young man; in Iceland, attending a friend’s wedding. This collection comes at you in flashes, bright and brilliant, sometimes darkly hilarious, sometimes so beautiful and poignant it brings a lump to the throat. The writing is dazzling – so sharp and fresh and vivid – every sentence zings with truth.
This is one of the most original and piercing short story collections I have read for a long time, and I am excited to read whatever comes next from this phenomenally talented writer. I highly recommend you get your hands on Yes Yes More More immediately.