Review: All About Evie by Matson Taylor (2022)

Blurb

Evie Epworth is ten years older. But is she any wiser?

Ten years on from the events of The Miseducation of Evie Epworth, Evie is settled in London and working as a production assistant for the BBC. She has everything she ever dreamed of (a career, a leatherette briefcase, an Ossie Clark poncho) but, following an unfortunate incident involving a Hornsea Pottery mug and Princess Anne, she finds herself having to rethink her future. What can she do? Is she too old to do it? And will it involve cork-soled sandals?

As if this isn’t complicated enough, her disastrous love life leaves her worrying that she may be destined for eternal spinsterdom, concerned, as she is, that ‘even Paul had married Linda by the time he was 26‘. Through it all, Evie is left wondering whether a 60s miseducation really is the best preparation to glide into womanhood and face the new challenges (strikes, power cuts, Edward Heath’s teeth) thrown up by the growing pains of the 70s.

With the help of friends, both old and new, she might just find a way through her messy 20s and finally discover who exactly she is meant to be…

Review

Many thanks to the author, publisher and the lovely Squadpod for my copy of All About Evie in exchange for an honest review.

I was so excited to catch up with Evie again, having adored the first book The Miseducation of Evie Epworth. It also provided another opportunity to bake, and to celebrate with Matson and the Squad, which is always a joy!

It can feel like a bit of a risk to catch up with a beloved character, but I knew I was in safe hands, and this second installment is just as joyous and jubilant as the first. The time jump works well, giving Evie a gap to settle into her London life, and when we meet her again it is in full 70s, Biba-frocked glory. I was hooked from the wonderful opening paragraph to the very last page.

Despite initial setbacks of a typically unique and hilarious nature, Evie has lost none of her lust for life, her enthusiasm, or her kindness. She’s just a pleasure to spend time with on the page, as are the new characters we are introduced to, and the old ones we meet again.

There are some beautifully written flashback sections that cast new light on the backstories of certain characters, and it is these sections in particular that evoke the strongest emotional response. I think in a way that is representative of Evie herself – she is not just the star of the show, but she also shines her light on other people, allowing them to step into the spotlight. We root for Evie so strongly because she roots for others – she’s exactly the sort of person you want to have on your team.

I don’t want to give anything away about the plot, but if you enjoyed Evie’s first (mis)adventure, you will not be disappointed with this sequel. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet, you need to get right on it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: EVERYONE needs Evie Epworth in their life.

All About Evie by Matson Taylor is published by Simon & Schuster and is available to purchase here.

Review: Every Trick in the Book by Iain Hood (2022)

Blurb

There’s only control, control of ourselves and others. And you have to decide what part you play in that control.

Cast your eye over the comfortable north London home of a family of high ideals, radical politics and compassionate feelings. Julia, Paul and their two daughters, Olivia and Sophie, look to a better society, one they can effect through ORGAN:EYES, the campaigning group they fundraise for and march with, supporting various good causes.

But is it all too good to be true? When the surface has been scratched and Paul’s identity comes under the scrutiny of the press, a journey into the heart of the family begins. Who are these characters really? Are any of them the ‘real’ them at all? Every Trick in the Book is a genre-deconstructing novel that explodes the police procedural and undercover-cop story with nouveau romanish glee. Hood overturns the stone of our surveillance society to show what really lies beneath.

Review

Many thanks to the author and to Renard Press for my spot on the blog tour and for sending me a proof of Every Trick in the Book.

I was a massive fan of Iain Hood’s previous novel This Good Book so I jumped at the chance to read more of his work. I also really like the link between the titles (I’m having fun thinking of what his next book might be called) and the gentle intertextual reference to Susan Alison MacLeod which appears early on in Every Trick. These little touches of playfulness are what the author does so well, and it sets the reader up nicely for the meta, modernist journey that Hood takes us on.

To borrow from the artistic theme of his previous novel, reading Every Trick feels like wandering through an eclectic art gallery. From the camera-panning opening, in which we zoom in on the everyday objects that represent the family’s ‘Sunday supplement’ life; to Paul’s interactions with Sarge and the Chief; to his surreal spell in an institution; to the Woolfian consciousness-flitting of imagined passers-by: each set piece has a different tone, and yet the author manages to pull it all together through clever mirroring techniques (of plot, character and indeed whole passages).

This is definitely a book you have to concentrate on, and I’m sure my brow was deeply furrowed while reading (except when it relaxed for the humour that is liberally sprinkled throughout), but like This Good Book, Every Trick wears its intellectual credentials lightly, and the play(fulness) is the thing. And just when you think it has wandered too far into stylistic trickery, it pulls you back in with a sucker punch of emotion, bringing Olivia and Sophie to the forefront at just the right moment.

I think what I admire so much about Iain Hood’s writing is that rather than ‘making you think,’ it invites you to do so, with a wink and a nudge and the comforting hand of levity laid gently on your shoulder. Yes, it is deeply intelligent, self-referential, stylistically daring work, dealing with large, important themes, but it is also tremendous fun, and pulling off this particular trick is no mean feat. I’m so glad that Renard Press has given us the opportunity to enjoy his work, and I look forward to His Next Book

About the Author

Iain Hood by Jeremy Andrews

Iain Hood was born in Glasgow and grew up in the seaside town of Ayr. He attended the University of Glasgow and Jordanhill College, and later worked in education in Glasgow and the west country. He attended the University of Manchester after moving to Cambridge, where he continues to live with his wife and daughter. His first novel, This Good Book, was published in 2021.

Every Trick in the Book by Iain Hood is published by Renard Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan (2022)

Blurb

1955: In an apartment on the Lower East Side, school teachers Dovie and Gillian live as lodgers. Dancing behind closed curtains, mixing cocktails for two, they guard their private lives fiercely. Until someone guesses the truth…

1975: Twenty years later in the same apartment, Ava Winters is keeping her own secret. Her mother has become erratic, haunted by something Ava doesn’t understand – until one sweltering July morning, she disappears.

Soon after her mother’s departure, Ava receives a parcel. Addressed simply to ‘Apartment 3B’, it contains a photo of a woman with the word ‘LIAR’ scrawled across it. Ava does not know what it means or who sent it. But if she can find out then perhaps she’ll discover the answers she is seeking – and meet the woman at the heart of it all…

Review

I’m extremely grateful to the publisher and to the Squadpod for my review copy of That Green Eyed Girl. Apologies for the lateness of this review – I did read the book and get my cake made in time, though, so perhaps that compensates a little!

This was one of those books that I’d been looking forward to for a long time – something that always makes me a little bit nervous, just in case I don’t love it as quite much as I hoped. Fortunately, the opposite was true, and Julie Owen Moylan’s debut exceeded my high expectations.

It takes a lot of skill to thoroughly immerse the reader in a certain era, and in this story, the author manages this trick beautifully not once but twice. We flit between the New York of the seventies, all sweltering heat and teen anguish as we follow Ava on her quest to find the owner of the photograph, and the same city, streets and apartment in the fifties, with all the smoky jazz-filled glamour you could wish for. The dual timeline is handled so deftly – I could almost see the cinematic fade from one era to the other – and, rarely for me, I was equally invested in both timelines.

There is so much quiet elegance in this book, so much careful heart-breaking, an assembling and dissecting of feeling done with a masterfully light touch. Dovie and Gillian’s story would be enough to crack the hardest of hearts, but counterpoised with Ava’s mother’s tragic mental illness storyline, the emotional resonance of the book is so thick it hums. I really felt a kind of throbbing, aching urgency as I read this book, despite the gentle, almost lyrical tone. It is a book that taps into the core of what it means to feel, to love, and I was deeply moved by it.

It would be impossible to review this book without mentioning that there is a character you’ll love to hate – I suspect many other readers did a similar thing to me and shouted out loud at her! It is another strength of That Green Eyed Girl – there’s beauty and love and kindness, but also the messier, uglier side of humanity – betrayal and jealousy and dishonesty. It’s the perfect New York novel in that it encapsulates so much of life within its pages.

It’s a real pleasure to read a novel that feels so well-crafted, so elegant and stylish, and yet so full of emotion. It’s like music, each note perfectly placed, drawing out unexpected feelings with its careful pattern. I’m so glad to have discovered a new favourite writer, and I can’t wait to see what Julie Owen Moylan brings us next!

That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan is published by Penguin Michael Joseph and is available to purchase here.

Review: Hope & Glory by Jendella Benson (2022)

Blurb

Glory arrives back in Peckham, from her seemingly-glamorous life in LA, to mourn the sudden death of her father, and finds her previously-close family has fallen apart in her absence. Her brother, Victor, has been jailed; her sister, Faith, appears to have lost her independence and ambition; and their mother, Celeste, is headed towards a breakdown. Glory is thrown by their disarray, and rather than returning to America she decides to stay and try to bring them all together again. However, when she unearths a huge family secret, Glory risks losing everyone she truly cares about in her pursuit of the truth.

Hope and Glory is a rich, heart-warming story of loss, love and family chaos, and marks an exciting new voice in fiction.

Review

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review, and huge apologies for the delay!

Glory is my favourite type of protagonist – complex, engaging, and flawed. Watching her navigate her return to London and the various complicated relationships she left behind, I felt by turns sympathetic and frustrated, not always agreeing with her actions but always keen to find out what was going to happen next.

The writing hooks you immediately, and the story carries you along – it’s one of those books that you think to yourself, “I’ll just read a few pages,” and then suddenly you find you’re over halfway through. The prose has an easy flow to it that is deceptive – it’s the kind of writing that seems effortless but is in fact the mark of great talent. What struck me most about the story was just how intricate it is, each strand connecting the characters delicately woven, and yet nothing feels contrived, it all feels absolutely real. Glory’s relationship with Julian is especially well done – I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.

This is a character-driven novel that does not shy away from the complexities of family dynamics – even without the shocking secret at the core of the story, there are myriad other examples of the difficulties of negotiating relationships with parents and siblings, and wonderfully perceptive depictions of how the past shadows the present, and how tricky it can be to ‘start over.’ And yet – if you’ll excuse the pun – there is hope – a realistic, tempered kind of hope, that leaves the reader with a sense of optimism at the story’s close. The characters – especially Glory, Faith and Celeste – have stayed with me long after reading, and I’m looking forward to reading more by this talented author.

Hope & Glory by Jendella Benson is published by Trapeze Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Love & Other Dramas by Ronali Collings (2022)

Blurb

THREE WOMEN. TWO CULTURES. ONE SECOND CHANCE.

West London. Tania Samarasena (recently divorced), her mother Helen (recently widowed), and her best friend Priya (recently nearly sacked following The Outburst) are three women at a crossroads in their lives.

As they make plans to reinvent themselves, a series of shocks, old secrets and surprises plays havoc with their relationships, as well as their futures.

A warm, witty and wonderful debut about second chances, Love & Other Dramas tells the story of three women dealing with the drama of life, love, family, friendship and keeping people out of your business in a culture where Aunty knows best.

Review

Many thanks to Embla Books and the author for providing me with a beautiful proof copy of Love & Other Dramas in exchange for an honest review. I was thrilled to get a chance for an early read of this debut novel.

This is a wonderfully character-driven novel, and all three protagonists have complex, nuanced storylines that balance each other extremely well. The way their stories are woven together is very clever, and I found I was equally invested in each of the three women. The author has chosen their starting points intelligently, avoiding cliches by moving beyond the usual narrative openers. For example, rather than being on the cusp of discovering her husband’s affair, Tania is already divorced; her mother, Helen, is already in the process of trying to reinvent herself after the death of her husband. Similarly, when characters meet their new partners, it isn’t presented as a happy ever after – there is plenty that needs unpacking before their relationships can progress. The book probes the question ‘what comes next?’ in various ways, and it does so with an emotional maturity that is refreshing.

I loved all three main characters – Tania is so relatable in her struggle to carve out an identity for herself away from motherhood and marriage; Priya is so strong and yet so vulnerable in ways she doesn’t even realise at first – but I think Helen is my favourite character. I really admire the way the author has taken the ‘side character’ of the meddlesome mother and given her depth and nuance, exploring her issues and traumas with a sensitivity too often only reserved for younger female characters. I felt for her so much, and longed for her to see herself as the lovely Oscar does (again, proof that mature characters can be wonderful romantic heroes!) – and I also enjoyed the way that her relationship with Tania evolved as mother and daughter get to know each other properly – it’s very naturally done, a gradual erosion of the barriers they’d put up between them.

Love & Other Dramas is a beautifully subtle, moving, portrait of three women moving towards finally understanding what they deserve. It shows the work that goes into overcoming past mistakes and learned behaviours, and I finished the book with so much admiration for these three women for finding their truth. It’s an inspiring, intelligent book, written with grace and humour and the kind of empathy that we should all aspire to. I can’t wait to read more of Ronali Collings’ work.

Love & Other Dramas by Ronali Collings is published by Embla Books and is available to purchase here.

Spotlight: Oh, I Do Like to Be by Rachel Canwell (2022) – Author Q & A and Extract

I’m delighted to be bringing you a spotlight post on Rachel Canwell’s fantastic flash fiction collection, Oh, I Do Like to Be. Published by Alien Buddha Press, here’s what people are saying about this brilliant book:

“Rachel Canwell’s “Oh, I Do Like to Be” is a stand-out debut flash fiction collection from an accomplished and masterful writer. Unfolding against the evocatively rendered backdrop of a seaside town, these stories are daring, often magical, at times humorous, and utterly compelling. Canwell grapples with themes of motherhood, disability, and women coming into their own, among others, with skill and precision. “Oh, I Do Like to Be” showcases the very best of what flash can be – exquisite, powerful, rule-breaking, breath-taking – and I absolutely loved it.”
– Kristen Loesch, author of The Porcelain Doll (Allison & Busby, 2022)

“A wonderful set of flash fiction where the author skilfully carries the reader from shock to laughter to empathy for her cast of characters by the seaside. From the fantastic originality of Cold Hard Cash to the humour of Stone Tales 2, I really enjoyed this collection.”
-Orla Owen, author of ‘Pah’ and ‘The Lost Thumb.

“Clever, insightful and laugh out loud funny. Rachel Canwell will have you flipping through the pages of her flash fiction faster than a seagull can crap on the promenade. If you’re like me, you will revel in the compelling and poignant tales of the seaside dwellers and visitors, sipping your tea and feeling grateful the worries and torments of these folk are not the same as yours. Then you’ll find yourself grinning at their antics. By the end, Rachel will have you zipping back to the beginning to enjoy it once again, maybe this time at a more leisurely pace.”
-Sidra Ansari, author of Finding Peace Through Prayer and Love

“In this fantastic collection, Canwell captures the tiny details and inner workings of a range of women living by the sea with succinctness, tenderness and intrigue. She takes us through many emotions and situations in few words, with skilful story telling that keeps you turning the pages. While, sometimes she also throws in a twist that takes you in a completely different direction.”
-Nikki Dudley, Streetcake editor, author and poet.

Author Q and A with Rachel Canwell

I caught up with Rachel to ask her some questions about Oh, I Do Like to Be. Many thanks to the author for lending her time!

Q: What inspired the collection Oh, I Do Like To Be?

The sea and my slight obsession with it. The collection evolved when I noticed that there was a definite theme to my stories both in content and setting. The British seaside is such a vibrant and complex place. A real mix of pleasure and pain. Fun and often real deprivation. I love the idea of two sides of a coin and hidden stories.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the stories?

The stories are all based by the seaside; the British Seaside to be exact. They are the stories of women, some visitors, some local. All living both ordinary and extraordinary lives, not matter what their age or circumstances.

Q: Do you have a favourite story in the collection?

That is like asking for my favourite child!! It’s very hard to pick. I do have a soft spot for the four linked pieces of flash ‘Stone Tales’ and the second piece, told as post on a local Facebook feed was great fun to write.

Q: How did you get into flash fiction?

Laura Beasley basically!!! I did a wonderful course with Laura and Sidra Ansari last year. They both encouraged me to think of myself as a writer. Reading Laura’s book The Almost Mothers opened my eyes to a whole genre I had never known existed.

Q: What was the hardest thing about writing the book?

Believing in my words. Not getting bogged down the end product and it’s destination but trusting in myself and what I was creating.

Q: What was your journey to publication like?

The collection was turned down on several occasions. I am not very patient and I was starting to think about cutting my losses and breaking the collection down into smaller submissions. Then Alien Buddha came alone and the process shot off like a rocket.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a published author?

Simply having a book with my name on it. It is a life long dream.

Q: What kind of books do you like reading? Any current favourites?

Flash fictions and short stories are great. They pack a punch and fill up the word bank. I love good historical fiction and books with strong female characters, particularly those women who are doing remarkable things in plain sight. The kind of women we all know. I’m currently reading Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine and Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly 

Q: When do you find time to write? Do you have a ‘writing routine’?

I work full time so that can be a challenge. Weekends and evenings. The school holidays are hives of creativity for me. My children are older and I teach, so when other writers on Twitter are bemoaning they school holidays coming I am rubbing my hands. No real routine but I try to write something or think about writing everyday.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

I am just about to launch into the second draft of my first historical novel. I am also playing with some ideas for a new flash collection and have a couple of untamed ideas for novellas in flash.

Extract from Oh, I Do Like To Be

Thanks again to Rachel and to the publisher, Alien Buddha, for letting us read one of the stories from the collection. I asked Rachel to tell us about the story she’s chosen:

“This story is about a very reluctant clairvoyant, who has been left the business by her mother and grandmother. She is in no way at peace with what she is doing and the place she finds herself in. It’s really about the ties that bind us and how we break out of being a square peg in a round hole.”

You Can’t See The Join

Tina opens up the booth, spilling coffee as she goes; red hot macchiato right down her jeans. Instinctively and instantly she blames this one on Gran, exacting her own brand of scolding judgement from the other side. 

Telling Tina she should be drinking tea. 

Telling Tina she is getting nothing right.

 ‘Fuck it’ 

The shock makes her drop the cardboard cup and liquid puddles, running towards her brand-new suede boots. The ones she knows her Mum would have told her she can’t afford.

 She leaps backwards, smacking her head on the booth’s low swinging sign. 

‘Fuck again.’

She attracts the attention of an early morning dog walker; all muscle vest and ear buds, who laughs out aloud and says, pointing at the words above,

‘Didn’t see that one coming then did you?’’

Palmist and Fortune Teller – Third Generation 

Tina gives him the finger and takes great pleasure in imagining his future. 

She crafts for him some really grizzly bullshit and tells herself it’s the beginning of her gift.

He laughs and shakes his head, and Tina turns towards the door, bracing herself for the smell of the incense and the clatter of the beaded curtain. The one she should replace.

Few people have an office that looks like hers. 

A place where people come cradling desperate hope, waiting to hear that things are on the up, to hear that they are saved. 

A place where Tina is reminded of her failure every single day. 

She opens the door and edges around the velvet covered table, heading for the furthest corner. Here Tina squats and wedges herself. Hoping she is hidden from view, she awkwardly pulls off her stained and stinking jeans. Usually she wears them under the oversized robes hanging on the back of the chair, but today she guesses she’ll go commando. 

She has no time to go home and change. Her first appointment is in ten minutes and she has to prepare. Light the candles, polish the ball, shuffle the cards. Give everything around her the appropriate other-worldly glow. 

For all the good it does. 

This space makes her sick. It fills her with anxiety, with a feeling of being entirely trapped and having precisely nowhere to go.

 Nothing in these cramped, salt-damp four walls belongs to her. And today, just like every day other day, she is wearing other women’s clothes.

Oh, I Do Like to Be by Rachel Canwell is published by Alien Buddha Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Still Lives by Reshma Ruia (2022)

Blurb

‘The glow of my cigarette picks out a dark shape lying on the ground. I bend down to take a closer look. It’s a dead sparrow. I wondered if I had become that bird, disoriented and lost.’

Young, handsome and contemptuous of his father’s traditional ways, PK Malik leaves Bombay to start a new life in America. Stopping in Manchester to visit an old friend, he thinks he sees a business opportunity, and decides to stay on. Now fifty-five, PK has fallen out of love with life. His business is struggling and his wife Geeta is lonely, pining for the India she’s left behind. One day PK crosses the path of Esther, the wife of his business competitor, and they launch into an affair conducted in shabby hotel rooms, with the fear of discovery forever hanging in the air.

Still Lives is a tightly woven, haunting work that pulls apart the threads of a family and plays with notions of identity. Shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize.

Review

I am a massive fan of Renard Press, who not only publish beautiful new editions of classic works, but also push the boundaries with exciting new fiction. After absolutely loving their recent offerings This Good Book and The Green Indian Problem, I was delighted to be given the chance to read an advance copy of Reshma Ruia’s novel. Many thanks to the lovely Will for sending me a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Speaking of honesty, for personal reasons the subject matter of this book is one that slightly made my heart sink when I read the blurb, and I wasn’t sure I’d be in the emotional space to be able to cope with it. However, Ruia’s incisive, deftly plotted book completely won me over. It is so nuanced, so intricately layered with all the debris and clutter of accumulated disappointments, heartache, longings and all the mess that comes with the business of living life. Nothing here is clear-cut; nothing is quite as simple as it seems at first.

I did not like PK, but I have never had a problem with unlikeable protagonists, and his delusions and lack of awareness make for compulsive reading. I felt for Geeta, of course, but I also found myself feeling for Margaret, his long-suffering assistant, who could definitely have done a much better job of running the business than PK! I think it’s a first for me to want to shake a character and say “sort out your business plan, you fool!” Esther, too, definitely deserved the odd shake. Their affair plays out so realistically – the startling excitement of its beginning, the impossibility of walking away, the hints of disillusionment creeping in. There is such subtlety in the writing in this story – it really is beautifully crafted.

For me, the centre of the book is Amar, PK and Geeta’s son. PK’s attitude towards him is often pretty vile, and Geeta’s indulging of him is also sometimes hard to watch, but the real genius of the book is the way you can almost feel Amar clamouring for page space, to be understood, to be looked at, and yet, in the very plot itself, he is sidelined, dismissed, treated as an annoyance and a disappointment by his father, and, despite being his mother’s world, her coddling and excuses serve him little better. I don’t know quite how this incredible literary trick is pulled off, but this is, somehow, a book about Amar without being about him. God, it’s clever.

The final brilliant thing about Still Lives is the way Ruia creates a sense of tension, of the inevitability of disaster, and yet, when it hits, it is completely unexpected. I can’t say much more about the ending, but it is powerful, and it made me re-evaluate everything that had come before. I love the idea that even a first person confessional narrative can almost ‘miss the point,’ or rather, can have hidden truths within it that even the narrator can’t see. I don’t know if I am explaining this well at all – what I’m trying to say is that Still Lives does something really intelligent and original, something that I don’t think I’ve seen very often at all. I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time.

Once again, I want to thank Renard Press for bringing us such exciting work, and for introducing me to another wonderful writer. I’ll definitely be seeking out Reshma Ruia’s short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness – I can’t wait to read more work by this author.

About the Author

Reshma Ruia is an award-winning author and poet. She has a PhD and Master’s in Creative Writing from Manchester University, as well as a Bachelor and Master’s from the London School of Economics. Her first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy’. She has published a poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, and a short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness; her work has appeared in international anthologies and journals, and she has had work commissioned by the BBC. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani – a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Born in India and brought up in Rome, her writing explores the preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging.

Still Lives by Reshma Ruia is published by Renard Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg (2022)

Blurb

Steven Harding is a handsome, well-respected professor. Ellie Masterson is a wide-eyed young college student. Together, they are driving south from New York, for their first holiday: three days in an isolated cabin, far from the city.

Ahead of them, the promise of long, dark nights – and the chance to explore one another’s bodies, away from disapproving eyes. It should be a perfect, romantic trip for two.

Except that he’s not who he says he is. But then again, neither is she…

Review

Thank you so much to the publisher and the Squadpod for sorting out a proof copy for me in exchange for an honest review.

I’m not sure if I devoured this book, or if this book consumed me, but either way, I could not put it down. This is one of the most tense – and intense – reading experiences I’ve had for a while, and I loved every second of it. From the dramatic opening to the gradual unveiling of what has taken place, Nobody But Us is an absolute masterclass in creating narrative tension. It’s a tricky book to review in terms of the story, because so much of the twisted pleasure comes from discovery as you read, so I’ll keep this brief and focus instead on what I love about Laure Van Rensburg’s writing.

There is a sharpness to the prose, a piercing accuracy – each sentence has the ability to startle, to awaken new ways of seeing. It is beautiful, clever writing – shaped and polished, with the glassy sleekness of the house itself. The descriptions of the house where these disturbing events unfold are some of the sharpest writing in the novel: the author could not have chosen a more perfect setting for Ellie and Steven’s weekend away. Its stylish modernity contrasts with the wildness of the landscape around it, and the visual quality of the writing creates a cinematic effect. I really felt like I was watching the events unfold rather than reading about them – it’s a very powerful effect.

Nobody But Us isn’t my usual type of book – but I have come to realise that I pretty much only have a ‘usual’ type in order to attempt to manage the ever-growing list of books I want to read! Every time I step outside my comfort zone, I realise how much can be learned from books outside my typical genres. This is some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time, and Laure Van Rensburg is a debut author to watch. It’s a book that will have you messaging your friends to say “text me when you’ve finished!” – a book you’ll want to talk about and recommend to everyone you know.

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg is published by Michael Joseph. A special signed edition with sprayed edges is available to preorder here.

Review: Wet Paint by Chloe Ashby (2022)

Blurb

Since the death of her best friend Grace, twenty-six-year-old Eve has learned to keep everything and everyone at arm’s length. Safe in her detachment, she scrapes along waiting tables and cleaning her shared flat in exchange for cheap rent, finding solace in her small routines.

But when a chance encounter at work brings her past thundering into her present, Eve becomes consumed by painful memories of Grace. And soon her precariously maintained life begins to unravel: she loses her job, gets thrown out of her flat, and risks pushing away the one decent man who cares about her.

Taking up life-modelling to pay the bills, Eve lays bare her body but keeps hidden the mounting chaos inside her head. When her self-destructive urges spiral out of control, she’s forced to confront the traumatic event that changed the course of her life, and to finally face her grief and guilt.

Review

Thank you very much to Alex at Orion for sending me a proof copy of Wet Paint in exchange for an honest review.

I love it when you start reading a debut novel and know straight away that this is a writer you’ll want to read more from. There’s a tingling excitement that comes from discovering a new voice, and from the opening pages of Wet Paint, I was all in.

Eve is a complicated, frustrating, endlessly fascinating protagonist, and watching her negotiate the haze of 20-something life is an engrossing experience. It’s all there – the bad decisions, the quickly-formed friendships, the drunken nights, the blurred boundaries between making choices and stumbling into the dark. It feels raw and real, and brought back the vivid feelings of that time in my life.

For Eve, of course, she is also wrestling with a deep grief, one that taints everything whether she realises it or not. I loved the flashbacks of Eve and Grace – that level of friendship that I think only exists at that specific time, when you can spend hours and hours together, day after day, becoming closer than lovers, closer than siblings. It’s beautifully depicted. I liked that in many ways the relationship between Eve and Grace is the centre of the novel – there is a love interest, Max, and he’s wonderful (I had a book crush) but Ashby doesn’t let the romance storyline take over. I think it’s very cleverly done – a nice reminder that there is so much more to life.

The connection Eve feels with the Manet painting she visits, and the artistic themes explored when she becomes a life model, add another layer of interest to an already multi-faceted book. And yet, despite heavy themes of grief and art, there is a light touch here, a humour and a readability that reminded me of Meg Mason’s brilliant novel Sorrow and Bliss. And, as the novel reaches its dramatic climax, there are thriller-ish touches, a rising tension that honestly had me frightened to read on, and put me in mind of Magpie by Elizabeth Day.

This is one of those books you want to race through and savour at the same time: a taut, fresh, emotional story that envelops you in its reality while you’re reading, and leaves you thinking about its themes and characters for a long time afterwards. I can’t wait to read more by this talented author.

Wet Paint by Chloe Ashby is published by Trapeze Books and is available to pre-order here.

Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Sola translated by Mara Faye Lethem (2022)

Blurb

When Domenec – mountain-dweller, father, poet, dreamer – dies suddenly, struck by lightning, he leaves behind two small children, Mia and Hilari, to grow up wild among the looming summits of the Pyrenees and the ghosts of the Spanish civil war.

But then Hilari dies too, and his sister is forced to face life’s struggles and joys alone. As the years tumble by, the inhabitants of the mountain – human, animal and other – come together in a chorus of voices to bear witness to the sorrows of one family, and to the savage beauty of the landscape. This remarkable English-language debut is lyrical, mythical, elemental, and ferociously imaginative.

Review

Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a beautiful finished copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Sometimes, you pick up a book, and it just speaks to you. From the opening chapter, told from the point of view of the clouds, When I Sing, Mountains Dance captured my attention with its lyrical prose and dazzling imagination. This is a novel that swoops and soars, that zooms in and out with all the panache and confidence of a brilliantly talented writer. Sentences lodged themselves in my mind: beautiful images, profound truths, and humour, too. All of life is contained within its pages, from the beauty of nature to the stink of it, the mess and the decay as well as the majesty.

And humanity, too, is represented in myriad ways. We meet and become attached to a whole cast of characters, whose paths and stories cross at intervals, giving this book a much more epic feel than its modest size might suggest. I loved the moments when, as a reader, I could make connections between the characters, when someone from the past appeared in a new storyline. It creates a sense of continuity, of life carrying on regardless, of a series of moments stretching on and on. And the drifting point of view, taking us from singular to plural, from animals to people, from past to present and back again, just adds to this incredible sense of connectedness. The book feels woven rather than written.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance had a real effect on me – it is poetically beautiful, deeply moving, delicate and light while also containing tragedy and brutality. It feels perfect to me – a book that I know I will return to again and again. I can’t recommend this powerful novel highly enough.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Sola translated by Mara Faye Lethem is published by Granta and is available to purchase here.