June 2021 Reading: Assembly; The Mesmerist’s Daughter; Wounding; The Wolf Den; So The Doves; Grown Ups; Black Water Sister; Fallen; My Broken Language; The Sound Mirror

Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021)

For a short book, Assembly packs one hell of a punch. Formally inventive, hugely topical, and pulsing with energy and anger, this book is not to be missed. You can read my full review here.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James (2015)

Another short, powerful work, and the first of four books by Heidi James that I read in June. I’ve done a full post all about my Heidi James Month, so do check it out for more info on the works I read in June by this brilliant writer. The Mesmerist’s Daughter is a great place to start – a dark, unsettling novella that showcases her razor-sharp prose.

Wounding by Heidi James (2014)

My second Heidi James of the month. Wounding is, I think, a really important novel, which shows us a woman struggling to get to the heart of who she is, trapped by society’s expectations and her own life choices. It is subtly shocking, bold, and well worth reading.

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper (2021)

This was our first pick for the Squadpod Book Club, and I loved reading it and chatting about it with my fellow bloggers. A vibrant, brilliant novel – I can’t wait for the next in the series. You can read my full review of The Wolf Den here.

So The Doves by Heidi James (2017)

My third Heidi James! I can see a lot of you really enjoying this one – it’s more plot-driven than her other works, but still written in prose that is both fierce and delicate at the same time. The cold case element will appeal to many, as will the complex, brilliantly drawn characters. Do check it out on my full post!

Grown Ups by Marie Aubert translated by Rosie Hedger (2021)

This month has been a great reminder that a book doesn’t need to be lengthy to have a massive impact. Grown Ups is a great read, spotlighting the sibling relationship in a way that I haven’t really seen done before. You can read my full review here.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho (2021)

This is a really original and fun novel with YA vibes. It took me a little while to get into it, but once I had, I really enjoyed it. Ghosts, gods, and fast-paced adventure – this book is jam-packed with entertainment. You can read my full review here.

Fallen by Mel O’Doherty (2021)

Fallen takes a shocking slice of Irish history and weaves a deeply moving, beautifully told story. Another gem from Bluemoose Books. My full review of this powerful novel is here.

My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes (2021)

This memoir is going to be one of my top reads of 2021. I absolutely loved it – Hudes writes with fizzing energy, honesty and intellect, and the result is a captivating chronicle of the search for a voice of her own. You can read my full review of My Broken Language here.

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020)

One of my top reads of last year, this was the final Heidi James I (re)read in June, and I think it probably remains my favourite book of hers. Definitely rewards multiple reads. You can read my original review from last year here.

I feel like I am reading a little bit slower at the moment, but I am still really pleased by what I have read in June. There are plenty I didn’t manage to get to, as always, and I still have loads of highly anticipated reads staring at me from the TBR bookcases. Yes, cases, plural. I know, I know. But I am gradually learning to be at peace with the fact that I just can’t read ALL the books, and the most important thing is to enjoy what I do manage to read – and on that score, mission accomplished!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Cover Reveal: #TheRebelSuffragette by Beverley Adams @The_LadyB @penswordbooks #HiddenWomenOfHistorySeries

I am thrilled to be involved with the cover reveal for Beverley Adams’ forthcoming nonfiction book The Rebel Suffragette, which will be published on 30th September 2021 by Pen & Sword Books. The book is available to preorder here. Have a look at the blurb below – I am sure you’ll agree Edith’s story sounds fascinating!

Blurb

The suffragette movement swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by the Pankhursts, the focus of the movement was in London with demonstrations and rallies taking place across the capital. But this was a nationwide movement with a strong northern influence with Edith Rigby being an ardent supporter. Edith was a controversial figure, not only was she was the first woman to own and ride a bicycle in her home town but she was founder of a school for girls and young women. Edith followed the example of Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters and founded the Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was found guilty of arson and an attempted bomb attack in Liverpool following which she was incarcerated and endured hunger strike forming part of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ system with the government. During a political rally with Winston Churchill Edith threw a black pudding at a MP.

There are many tales to tell in the life of Edith Rigby, she was charismatic, passionate, ruthless and thoroughly unpredictable. She was someone who rejected the accepted notion of what a woman of her class should be the way she dressed and the way she ran her household but she was independent in mind and spirit and always had courage in her own convictions. As a suffragette, she was just as effective and brave as the Pankhurst women. This is the story of a life of a lesser known suffragette. This is Edith’s story.

Blog Post: Heidi James Month

Among one of the first books I was sent to review on this blog when I ‘went public’ with it last year was The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. I was only just getting my head around the idea that publishers and authors were starting to send me copies of books that WEREN’T EVEN OUT YET, when this beautiful package arrived on my doorstep:

Not only did I love the book (one of my Top Reads of last year), I knew it was one that I wanted to read again, and that Heidi James was an author I wanted to read more of. So, since I first read her work in June last year, I decided that June 2021 would be the perfect time for Heidi James Month, in which I would read/reread the four works I own by Heidi. What struck me most, apart from the beautiful writing, was the incredible range these books show. I honestly think EVERYONE will find a book they’d love among these treasures.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter

This novella won the Saboteur Award in 2015, and it is easy to see why. Here is the blurb:

“Heidi James’s novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter is the hypnotic tale of a child with a wolf for a mother. The narrative of this haunting story hovers somewhere between memory and delusion, as a woman closeted in a psychiatric facility recounts the tale of a particularly difficult time in her childhood. James’s writing is highly-detailed and immediate, each page bursting with details so fresh that they’re almost tangible. From the opening sentence The Mesmerist’s Daughter is as unsettling as it is magical, as arresting as it is darkly evocative.”

This short work, which comes as a lovely chapbook from Neon Books, is, I think, a great introduction to Heidi James’ writing. Her crisp, taut descriptions crackle with energy, the sacred and the profane nuzzle up against each other – it is a grim fairy tale, a horror story, but also a deeply moving portrait of a traumatic childhood.

It reminded me a little of Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead, in the way that the horror is subsumed by the everyday – the acceptance of the very real (to her) fact that the narrator’s mother is a wolf adds a deeply unsettling resonance to even the most mundane exchanges. There is an eerie sense of the boundaries between reality and nightmare dissolving, of a mind unravelling and letting the subconscious find its own truth. Visceral, intense, sharp as a knife-edge, this novella is well worth reading if you like to wander into the dark.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter is available to purchase here.

Wounding

“Cora has everything a woman is supposed to want – a career, a caring husband, children, and a stylish home. Desperate for release and burdened with guilt she falls into a pattern of ever increasing violence and sexual degradation till a one night stand tips her over the edge and she finds herself in a Dominatrix’s dungeon. Wounding explores a woman’s search for redemption, identity and truth.”

I’m probably starting to be a bore about the beauty of James’ prose, but I am not going to apologise! Wounding is such a complex, detailed, finely-drawn depiction of what it means to fall into society’s expectations, to find yourself living a life that bears no relation to your inner truth. The structure, alternating between Cora’s third person point of view and the increasingly frustrated and desperate first person addresses of her husband, shows the widening gap between them and emphasises just how alone Cora is in her feelings.

I found Cora’s journey subtler than the blurb suggests – rather than a dramatic fall into a life of degradation, what Wounding represented to me was a bold exploration of a woman trying to find the core (oh, is there a pun there?! Sorry!) of herself in a world which probably doesn’t want her find it. It is thought-provoking and occasionally piercingly close to the bone (I have to state for the record that I love being a mother, but when I read works like this, or Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, for example, I feel a drop in my stomach at how unexamined my decision to have children was, how the assumption of it took precedence over any real soul-searching about whether it was right for me. It is, by the way, but that shouldn’t be a given). This topic is so important, and I think Wounding adds a really brave voice to the conversation.

Wounding is available to purchase here.

So The Doves

“When award-winning journalist Marcus Murray’s latest story involves a corrupt alliance between a UK bank, the arms trade and the government, it seems he has triumphed again in his quest for the truth. But he is accused of fabrication and nothing in his life makes sense any more, including the disappearance twenty years ago of his best friend, Melanie. Why did she vanish, and who is the body recently discovered in a Kent orchard? A timeless story of how love and enduring friendship shape who we are, the novel exposes the fault lines in our own reality and who and what we believe to be true, including ourselves.”

There is a shift in tone here from Wounding, a move towards a more plot-driven story, with a mysterious disappearance at its centre. Fans of cold case thrillers will find much to enjoy in this book. For me, once more, it was the beauty of the prose that had me hooked, and the brilliant way that James shows the divide between Marcus as he is now and Marcus as a teen. Shifting between the first and third person for the same character is not as easy as it sounds, and I was in awe of how effectively James uses the technique here. As someone who has a terrible long-term memory, my past often feels like someone else’s story, and I guess for this reason, it resonated extra strongly with me!

Melanie is a fascinating character, not someone I can compare to other characters off the top of my head – she is resolutely her own person, and her friendship with Marcus is so carefully and beautifully explored. As the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, and the drama ramps up, it becomes harder and harder to tear yourself away from the page. The ending feels exactly right, extremely satisfying but with enough of an ‘opening out’ to move the story beyond these characters.

So The Doves is available to purchase here.

The Sound Mirror

I’ve been wanting to do more rereading this year, but it hasn’t really happened, mostly because there are TOO MANY BOOKS! I’m really pleased that I managed to reread The Sound Mirror, confirming my suspicions that this marvel of a book would only improve on repeated readings, yielding up more of its secrets each time. My original review, written last year, is here. If you want to stay firmly in the present, here’s the blurb:

“Tamara is going to kill her mother, but she isn’t the villain. Tamara just has to finish what began at her birth and put an end to the damage encoded in her blood. Leaving her job in Communications, Tamara dresses carefully and hires a car, making the trip from London to her hometown in Kent, to visit her mother for the last time. Accompanied by a chorus of ancestors, Tamara is harried by voices from the past and the future that reveal the struggles, joys and secrets of these women’s lives that continue to echo through and impact her own.

The Sound Mirror spans three familial generations from British Occupied India to Southern England, through intimately rendered characters, Heidi James has crafted a haunting and moving examination of class, war, violence, family and shame from the rich details of ordinary lives.”

I loved rereading this book – cracking open the first pages, I was reminded of how beautiful and gripping it is, right from the very start. This time around, what struck me was the almost dizzying sense of time looping, of history repeating itself, of the echoes of trauma moving forwards and backwards and reverberating through these women’s lives like a hum of tinnitus, constantly there.

Some traumas are explored in more detail, some are mentioned almost in passing, a shocking blow struck, in a couple of cases, very near then end of the book. This creates such a powerful sense of the cyclical nature of trauma, and, reading The Sound Mirror straight after her other works, I could feel characters and themes rising up again from her previous books – Cora finds her echo in Ada, for example – and this strengthens the vertiginous feeling of everything being connected, of the collective ‘we’ voice that is found in Tamara’s sections opening out beyond the novel, spilling into other works and into real life in a way that I found intensely emotional.

Reading The Sound Mirror again has confirmed my opinion that this book is something very special indeed, and I would urge you to check it out for yourselves if you haven’t already.

The Sound Mirror is available to purchase here.

It was such a good decision to read all of these works close together (if I do say so myself!) – I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s been really interesting to note both the variety and the common threads that run through James’ work.

If this post has whetted your appetite and you want to read a far more eloquent and detailed examination of Heidi James’ work, check out this brilliant lithub article by Dr Heather Martin, in which she compares James to Lee Child. It is a fascinating read, and gives a wonderful insight into this exceptional writer. I think the fact that Heidi James evokes such powerful responses to her work from her readers speaks volumes.

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho (2021)

Blurb

This mischievous Malaysian-set novel is an adventure featuring family, ghosts and local gods – from Hugo Award winning novelist Zen Cho.

Her grandmother may be dead

But she’s not done with life… Yet

As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it’s not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she’s abandoning America to return ‘home’. But she last saw Malaysia as a toddler – and is completely unprepared for its ghosts, gods and her eccentric family’s shenanigans.

Jess soon learns her ‘voice’ belongs to Ah Ma, her late grandmother. She worshipped the Black Water Sister, a local deity. And when a business magnate dared to offend her goddess, Ah Ma swore revenge. Now she’s decided Jess will help, whether she wants to or not.

As Ah Ma blackmails Jess into compliance, Jess fights to retain control. But her irrepressible relative isn’t going to let a little thing like death stop her, when she can simply borrow Jess’s body to make mischief. As Jess is drawn ever deeper into a world of peril and family secrets, getting a job becomes the least of her worries.

Review

Thank you very much to the publisher for sending me a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

It took me a little bit of time to get into this novel, but I think that was mostly due to my own concentration levels at the time of reading! Once I did, I had loads of fun with this book. The story is fast-paced, almost breathlessly exciting at times, and the momentum really carries the reader along as we follow Jess on her adventures. There is a kind of energy and originality to the story that reminds me of YA, though Jess is a slightly older protagonist.

The way the gods and ghosts are integrated into the narrative is striking – Cho manages to use them in both frightening and funny ways, and I loved the sense of see-sawing between real peril and mild irritation as Jess faces the Black Water Sister and gets annoyed by her grandmother’s spirit, sometimes simultaneously! I really enjoyed the way the ancestral spirits are not relegated to myth or metaphor, but are real, physical presences in the novel.

A lot happens in Black Water Sister, and I did find myself getting a little bit confused at times, but I think that’s partly due to the fact that the story is so original and unexpected. It’s easy to get slightly disorientated when you never know what’s around the next corner, and it’s not an unpleasant sensation at all! Cho catapults you into a world where anything can happen, and it is enormous fun to go along for the ride. Jessamyn is a great protagonist, and the conclusion is satisfying and moving. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes to be surprised by a twisty adventure full of energy and spirit(s).

Black Water Sister is published by Macmillan and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper (2021)

Blurb

Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den…

Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father’s death plunged her family into penury. Now she is a slave in Pompeii’s infamous brothel, owned by a man she despises. Sharp, clever and resourceful, Amara is forced to hide her talents. For as a she-wolf, her only value lies in the desire she can stir in others.

But Amara’s spirit is far from broken.

By day, she walks the streets with her fellow she-wolves, finding comfort in the laughter and dreams they share. For the streets of Pompeii are alive with opportunity. Out here, even the lowest slave can secure a reversal in fortune. Amara has learnt that everything in this city has its price. But how much is her freedom going to cost her?

Set in Pompeii’s lupanar, The Wolf Den reimagines the lives of women who have long been overlooked.

Review

The Wolf Den was our first pick for the Squadpod Book Club, and I am extremely grateful to Head of Zeus for providing me with a gorgeous hardback copy of the book (complete with bookmark ribbon – one of my very favourite things!) We have had so much fun discussing this brilliant debut – I highly recommend it to book clubs as there is SO much to say!

I am a sucker for a classical setting, and as soon as I heard about this book, I knew it would be right up my street. What I was not expecting was for the novel to feel so fresh and modern, despite being set in ancient Pompeii. The characters, especially the women of the Wolf Den, are so relatable and realistically drawn – they swear and curse and find their own ways of coping with the harsh reality in which they find themselves; they are complex and nuanced and extremely engaging. Even the villains are complicated, and as we get to know the characters better, we learn that no one is quite what they might seem at first.

Amara is a fantastic protagonist, and watching her adapt and do what she needs to do to survive in awful circumstances is fascinating. Her connections to the other characters propel the story along, and her relationship with Dido in particular is beautifully moving. The writing is brilliant – so immediate and immersive. Pompeii comes alive before our eyes, and the descriptions are wonderfully visual, creating a world around the reader.

The novel plunges you into the characters’ world right from the start, and as the story progresses and the action ramps up, it becomes harder and harder to tear yourself away. I read most of the book in two sittings, and it probably would have been one if I’d not had to pause for our lovely book club chat! I am so looking forward to reading the next book in the series and finding out what’s next for Amara and co.

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper is published by Head of Zeus and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)

Blurb

Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London – the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told.

Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

Review

I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, which is something I need to rectify, so I was pleased when our ‘book club that isn’t a book club’ selected this as our May read. I’ve been wanting to get to The Five for a while, and I was not disappointed.

I really liked the writing style, which felt almost novelistic. Rubenhold writes in a vivid, engaging way, painting a portrait of life in late-nineteenth-century London that takes in all the contrasts and contradictions, the huge disparity between the lives of those who exist practically side-by-side, the shocking hardships experienced by so many. It is really eye-opening, a social history that brings the past to life.

I was so impressed by how the author manages to construct coherent, rounded narratives about these five women based on the often scanty facts that survive. It is always clear where she is conjecturing, and there is a real sense of respect and, at times, protectiveness towards these women. The false narratives that have been perpetuated are meticulously picked apart, and there is a deeper lesson here about how readily we accept the conventional ‘wisdom’ of any given historical event. I especially liked the way that the murderer himself was relegated to little more than a footnote – he does not get to define these women, he is not given space in their stories. It feels right that the shift in focus should be so extreme as to almost cut him out completely.

In reclaiming the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, in letting us see them as individuals, and in upending the convenient, lazy labelling of them as ‘prostitutes,’ Rubenhold performs an incredible feat with The Five. It is a remarkable book, and I am so glad I finally read it.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold is published by Transworld and is available to purchase here.

Review: My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes (2021)

Blurb

Quiara Alegría Hudes was the sharp-eyed girl on the stairs while her family danced in her grandmother’s tight North Philly kitchen. She was awed by her aunts and uncles and cousins, but haunted by the secrets of the family and the unspoken, untold stories of the barrio–even as she tried to find her own voice in the sea of language around her, written and spoken, English and Spanish, bodies and books, Western art and sacred altars. Her family became her private pantheon, a gathering circle of powerful orisha-like women with tragic real-world wounds, and she vowed to tell their stories–but first she’d have to get off the stairs and join the dance. She’d have to find her language.

Weaving together Hudes’s love of books with the stories of her family, the lessons of North Philly with those of Yale, this is an inspired exploration of home, memory, and belonging–narrated by an obsessed girl who fought to become an artist so she could capture the world she loved in all its wild and delicate beauty.

Review

A big thank you to Matt Clacher and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I loved everything about this book. It isn’t often that a work of non-fiction grabs me as firmly as a novel, but this memoir is absolutely stunning, and I was fully immersed in Hudes’ story. It is written with openness and honesty, but also, entirely unsurprisingly, with enormous artistry, of the very best kind, because it is subtle and not distracting. The narrative flows seemingly effortlessly, and yet it is carefully woven, creating a sense of progression and discovery that is bound up with Quiara’s journey and her attempts to find a language of her own. It is so clever and meta it hurts, but Hudes’ fearsome intellect is coupled with an incredible story-telling ability that makes this a hugely entertaining book as well as an intelligent and thought-provoking one.

This memoir is so insightful on the struggle to find a voice, to find a language that expresses our true selves in a way that feels authentic. It sent my mind spinning down all sorts of avenues – I have a special fondness for books with Spanish scattered in the text, as I used to be fluent, and learning and speaking it regularly actually changed my thought processes (I miss it so much!). But this isn’t simply about speaking Spanglish or straddling different cultures – this is about a much deeper search for self-expression, when the ‘self’ contains within it all the multitudes of histories and ancestors and stories and new beginnings and false starts and EVERYTHING that makes us US.

The very best books seem to distil all of life – its joys and sorrows, struggles and celebrations, into a kind of heady cocktail, and that is what reading My Broken Language is like – getting drunk on words, imbibing the fizzing, powerful energy of the Perez women, their gods, their messy lives, their fierce love for each other. This book is by turns achingly cool, self-aware, awe-inspiring, curious, sad, funny – it is both a tribute and a testament, a poignant examination of the communal and a deep-dive into a fascinating individual mind. I know this is a book I will be returning to, and I can’t recommend it enough.

My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes is published by William Collins and is available to purchase here.

Review: Fallen by Mel O’Doherty (2021)

Blurb

When Michael Connolly was a child in the 1970s, his mother told him about all the things that happened to her in that place. All that the nuns had done. The doctors encouraged her to talk, and talk she did. She even tried to tell the public. She wrote letters to the newspapers. She made signs and picketed Mass. The good pious parishioners silenced her. The doctors told her she was delusional. Her husband didn’t post her letters. Her son didn’t believe her.

Three decades later, still caught in the guilt from that time, Michael sits watching the news about the mother and baby homes unfolding, and realises, with his mother long gone, that she had been telling the truth all those years ago. Fallen is a stark and beautifully written account of the impact on one family of a shameful chapter in modern Irish history.

Review

Many thanks to Kevin at Bluemoose for sending me a proof copy of Fallen in exchange for an honest review. I have loved everything I’ve read from this wonderful indie publisher, which always makes me ever so slightly nervous, as it sets a very high standard!

Luckily, Mel O’Doherty’s novel is yet another triumph. I could tell from the opening pages that the quality of the prose was outstanding, and the story that unfolds is an incredibly powerful one. This is a heart-breaking book: the horror of what Elaine goes through, and the effect it has on her family, makes for difficult reading at times. It is absolutely shocking to read about what went on in the mother and baby homes, even more so because the structure of the novel cleverly moves backwards in time as well as forwards, so that we are completely emotionally invested in Elaine by the time we see the full, nightmarish reality of the home.

What struck me most about this book is that it is not only an expose of the criminal practices that went on, but it is also a deep exploration of shame and guilt. The fact that Michael and his father, who both love Elaine deeply, betray her by not believing her at the time is so poignant, and the traumatic results for Michael in particular are explored with nuance and subtlety. He can’t simply join in the outcry at the discovery of what really went on – because he had already been told. It’s so tragic and complex and really quite devastating. That moment when the penny drops, when Michael realises what we, as readers, already know – that Elaine wasn’t delusional, that it all happened as she said – is one of the most powerful, affecting moments I’ve read in a novel this year.

By refusing to use the reality of the situation as a ‘plot twist’ for the readers, and instead having us be aware before Michael is that Elaine is telling the truth, O’Doherty avoids ‘shock factor’ tricks and allows for a much more complicated psychological exploration of the effects of trauma on both Elaine and her son. There are also plenty of wonderful characters – John, Michael’s eccentric friend, and Jill, whom Michael admires from afar, both inject some much-needed levity into proceedings, while also providing another perspective on themes such as finding your own path and writing your own story.

Fallen is strikingly original, but it does have shades of other brilliant books I have read. I was reminded of two of my favourite books of last year: The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen, and The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (also published by Bluemoose). If you loved either of these books, then Fallen will be for you. It is a tough read in terms of its subject matter, but the way it is written and structured is exquisite, and I highly recommend this profound, intelligent, beautiful book.

Fallen by Mel O’Doherty is published by Bluemoose Books and is available to purchase directly from the publishers here.

Review: Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021)

Blurb

Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Step out into a world of Go Home vans. Go to Oxbridge, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy a flat. Buy art. Buy a sort of happiness. But above all, keep your head down. Keep quiet. And keep going.

The narrator of Assembly is a Black British woman. She is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself. As the minutes tick down and the future beckons, she can’t escape the question: is it time to take it all apart?

Assembly is a story about the stories we live within – those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers. And it is about one woman daring to take control of her own story, even at the cost of her life.

Review

Thanks so much to Alexia at Penguin UK for sending me a proof copy of Assembly in exchange for an honest review. The back cover is littered with praise from writers I deeply admire, like Bernardine Evaristo, Olivia Sudjic and Diana Evans, and I’d seen Book Twitter folk whose opinion I really value raving about it, so I was expecting this to be good.

Still, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for just HOW good this book is. The physical book itself is very slim; the chapters are short and often experimental in form, sometimes approaching poetry, and the total word count must be pretty low. But Brown makes EVERY SINGLE WORD count. I’ve been reading flash fiction recently, and there is a hint of that here – the absolute precision of pared down prose, of making each word work to earn its place in the text. It is an astonishing feat, really, because you finish Assembly feeling as if you’ve been absorbed in a much longer work. I need to read it a few more times to work out exactly how she does it, as at the moment the method behind the brilliance is beyond my skills to articulate. You’ll just have to read it for yourselves!

The sharp, meticulous layering of theme and structure creates a work that feels utterly fresh, utterly new. As the narrator digs deep into the ugly heart of British society, as her own experiences of prejudice and racism are revealed, there is a strong sense of forging a new path, of picking apart the hierarchies and traditions, both societal and literary, in order to expose the possibility of something different. It is confronting and angry and brilliant, and the personal decisions she comes to seem both shocking and somehow inevitable.

This is a book that demands to be reread, to be treated with respect, to be paid attention. I am certainly going to revisit it, and marvel again at its razor-edged prose and defiantly original structure. I’d go so far as to say: you NEED to read this book.

Assembly by Natasha Brown is published by Hamish Hamilton and is available to purchase here.

Review: Gold Fury by Kieren Westwood (2020)

Blurb

Gold Fury is a short novella of flash fiction, tracing twenty moments in the journey of a stolen car as it moves through the criminal landscape of a rural town.

It was shortlisted for the Bath novella-in-flash award 2020.

“They guy told me to run and not look back, and he had a gun.”

“Yes, that’s all I know. I already told you what he looked like.”

“Yes, that’s my car, a gold Plymouth Fury 1970.”

“Why would you be looking through my letters? It’s my personal property. It had nothing to do with what happened.”

“I wasn’t trying to blackmail anyone.”

NO ONE RUNS FOREVER.

Review

I am a big admirer of flash fiction, and anyone who can write it well. It is such a skill. I recently reviewed Laura Besley’s micro fiction collection, 100neHundred, which put me in the mood to explore more of this form, so I was thrilled to be offered a copy of Kieren Westwood’s novella-in-flash in exchange for an honest review.

Gold Fury is a short but thoroughly immersive read. The flashes work brilliantly to slowly build up a picture of the various strands of the story, and there is a strongly visual sense created by the vignette-like sections. It reminded me very strongly of series like Fargo and True Detective, in which the careful set-up and framing of each striking shot is just as important as what is actually happening on screen. The crime anthology feel works really well, and although the plot is murky and elusive at first, this only serves to add to the tension and the focus on the intensity of the language.

Good flash fiction is an almost poetic thing, a microscopic examination of the power of words, used sparingly and to maximum effect. Westwood excels at eking out the full meaning of each sentence, creating an intense experience, so that even characters we only spend a page or two with have an impact. Diane in her jewellery store, looking out at the “gold junkmobile” on the car transporter; Harley calling half-heartedly after his dog then settling down to watch the news and trying to convince himself he’s just a “tired old man” imagining things – all these small moments in amongst the bigger, more dramatic events of cop chases and police station raids and car crashes are what elevates Gold Fury, what makes it seem real and human and honest as well as being a fast-paced crime drama.

I am completely unsurprised that Gold Fury was short-listed for the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award last year – it is compelling and immersive, wry and clever, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to try something a bit different. If you’re a fan of the shows I mentioned, I think you’d really enjoy this, as would anyone wanting to explore the bright, brilliant world of flash fiction.

Gold Fury by Kieren Westwood is out now and is available to purchase here.