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.

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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.

March 2022 Reading: Good Intentions; The Exhibitionist; The Green Indian Problem; Small Things Like These; Nobody But Us; My Phantoms; Wet Paint; When I Sing, Mountains Dance

March was a better month for reading – I’m pleased I managed to get through 8 books, and every single one was a brilliant read. I love being on a winning streak with reading! Here’s what I read, with links to my reviews where relevant:

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali (2022)

A wonderful contemporary love story that had me full engrossed in Nur and Yasmina’s complicated relationship. You can read my full review here.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson (2022)

This is the first book by this author that I have read, but it will certainly not be the last. You can read my full review of The Exhibitionist here.

The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts (2022)

Another gem from fab indie press Renard – everyone should read this book. My blog tour review is here.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

This is a short but powerful read, showing just how much can be packed into a few pages by a talented writer. My review of Small Things Like These is here.

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg (2022)

This is our Squadpod Book Club pick for April, and it is incredible. I’ll have a full review up after our Twitter chat – do join us on @squadpod3 if you have a copy of this gripping read!

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021)

Another short but perfectly formed book. This story of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship is fascinating and powerful. You can read my full review here.

Wet Paint by Chloe Ashby (2022)

I loved this book – a brilliant debut that announces the author as a talent to watch. Look out for my review on the Wet Paint blog tour – my spot is on 18th April!

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

This book is as beautiful inside as the gorgeous cover promises. Every sentence is a revelation. I only finished it last night, so I will get a full review up soon – but this is a book that will stay with me for a long time. A stunning read.

I hope you’ve seen something you like among my March reads! Do let me know in the comments if any of these are on your TBR.

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021)

Blurb

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022

Helen Grant is a mystery to her daughter.

An extrovert with few friends who has sought intimacy in the wrong places; a twice-divorced mother-of-two now living alone surrounded by her memories, Helen (known to her acquaintances as ‘Hen’) has always haunted Bridget. Now, Bridget is an academic in her forties. She sees Helen once a year, and considers the problem to be contained.

As she looks back on their tumultuous relationship – the performances and small deceptions – she tries to reckon with the cruelties inflicted on both sides. But when Helen makes it clear that she wants more, it seems an old struggle will have to be replayed.

From the prize-winning author of First Love, My Phantoms is a bold, heart-stopping portrayal of a failed familial bond, which brings humour, subtlety and new life to the difficult terrain of mothers and daughters.

Review

My thanks to FMcM Associates for sending me the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, which My Phantoms was on. It’s a fantastic list of books – if you are looking for reading inspiration, do check it out!

This is a book that cuts close to the bone: a subtly devastating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The tragedy of Bridget’s situation creeps up slowly, folded into the myriad layers of complexity that make up her relationship with Hen. It is an utterly brilliant depiction of just how damaging failed family relationships can be – and yet, we also see how Bridget has worked hard to build her own life, to keep her mother at a distance in order to preserve her own stability.

The barriers that Bridget has put up to protect herself are really cleverly drawn in the novel, because the reader, too, is kept at a kind of distance from Bridget’s personal life, from her interiority as it pertains to anything other than her parents – her partner, John, remains on the periphery, and we only get the briefest of glimpses of their life together. For a first person narrative to be so carefully selective, so guarded is rare, and it’s an incredibly intelligent way of echoing her strategy with her mother. It makes the book all the more poignant, as it highlights just how much effort Bridget has to put into constructing a safe space for herself; how complex it is for her to negotiate her mother’s whims and shortcomings.

This is a brilliant novel: piercingly intelligent, agonising in its unsparing examination of a virtually impossible relationship. I felt so, so deeply for Bridget, though she herself never slips into self-pity. She does what she has to do – she treads the line that keeps her safe as delicately as possible – and I found myself glad that she has her private life with John that she can keep away from prying eyes, even if those eyes belong to the reader. It’s a completely original book – I haven’t read anything like it.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta and is available to purchase here.

Review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

Blurb

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022

The new novel from the internationally bestselling author of FosterAntarctica and Walk the Blue Fields.

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.

The long-awaited new work from the author of FosterSmall Things Like These is an unforgettable story of hope, quiet heroism and tenderness.

Review

I was incredibly lucky to be sent the full shortlist for the fantastic Rathbones Folio Prize – huge thanks to Zara at FMcM Associates for my copy of Small Things Like These and the other wonderful books on the list, which is well worth checking out.

Some of the most powerful books I’ve read recently have been among the shortest. I think there is growing recognition that a novel doesn’t have to be a lengthy tome to pack a punch – a brilliant writer can do a lot within a few pages. Small Things Like These is, indeed, small, but it is a book that will linger long after you read the final page.

The writing reminded me of Carson McCullers’ beautiful classic The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in the way it delves straight into the psyche of the protagonist, Furlong, and catches him mid-point, interacting with his family and community at a moment of internal shift. The story itself sheds light on the dark history of Ireland’s mother and baby homes, but it is Furlong who provides the novel’s centre. There is a wonderful sense of having dipped into his life for a time – a life that existed before we started reading and will continue after we close the book. That, to me, is the mark of a great piece of fiction.

Small Things Like These is a remarkable achievement. Tender but unsentimental, the book takes us on a short yet powerful journey, and it is not one that I will soon forget. I am very keen to read more by this author, and am grateful to have been introduced to her words.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Faber & Faber and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson (2022)

Blurb

The longer the marriage, the harder truth becomes…

Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make…

And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice.

The Exhibitionist is the extraordinary fifth novel from Charlotte Mendelson, a dazzling exploration of art, sacrifice, toxic family politics, queer desire, and personal freedom.

Review

Many thanks to Mantle Books for sending me a proof copy of The Exhibitionist in exchange for an honest review.

I have just binge-watched Succession (I’m always slightly behind the times when it comes to TV!) and have realised just how much I enjoy really horrible protagonists. Ray Hanrahan is a deliciously awful man – egotistical in the extreme, utterly deluded in his sense of self-importance, and pretty vile to almost everyone around him. Fantastic stuff – but what makes it work best is that we orbit him at a slight remove, never entering into his point of view, but instead seeing him through the eyes of his supposed nearest and dearest.

Although it is a very different type of family drama, the roving viewpoint put me in mind of one of my favourite sagas, The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Mendelson’s writing is sharper, closer to the bone, but it has that sweeping feel that I love so much in EJH’s books. We get to know all of the members of the Hanrahan clan – self-sacrificing Leah, whose entire life is dedicated to her father’s whims; Jess, who seems by far the most sensible member of the family; gentle Patrick, perhaps the most endearing of the bunch.

But the real heart of the story is Lucia, a talented artist in her own right, who has given up her dreams time and time again in order to try and preserve marital harmony with her beast of a husband. Her journey is an intricate, beautifully written transformation tale, and I really enjoyed seeing her change as the story progressed.

Mendelson’s writing is stunning; the prose is taut and surprising and full of piercing images that make you see the world afresh. I’m really looking forward to exploring this author’s back catalogue, and I’m sure that The Exhibitionist will gain her many new fans like me.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson is published by Mantle Books. A special edition with gorgeous stencilled edges is available here.

Review: The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts (2022)

Blurb

Set in the valleys of South Wales at the tail end of Thatcher’s Britain, The
Green Indian Problem is the story of Green, a seven year-old with intelligence
beyond his years – an ordinary boy with an extraordinary problem: everyone
thinks he’s a girl.


Green sets out to try and solve the mystery of his identity, but other issues
keep cropping up – God, Father Christmas, cancer – and one day his best
friend goes missing, leaving a rift in the community and even more
unanswered questions. Dealing with deep themes of friendship, identity, child
abuse and grief, The Green Indian Problem is, at heart, an all-too-real story of
a young boy trying to find out why he’s not like the other boys in his class.


Longlisted for the Bridport Prize (in the Peggy Chapman-Andrews category)

Review

I am a huge fan of indie publisher Renard Press, who published one of my favourite books of last year, This Good Book by Iain Hood. So I was delighted to be asked to be on the blog tour for their latest offering, The Green Indian Problem. Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Green, our narrator, is seven years old at the start of the novel. I have to confess that I sometimes struggle with child narrators; getting the balance between authenticity and readability is very tricky to pull off, and attempts at charming naivety often tip over into just plain annoying. (I’m the same with kids on screen). However, right from the start, I LOVED Green. The author has absolutely nailed the voice – he is engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully empathetic, all while sounding completely realistic as a young child. He has a unique way of looking at the world, cleverly reflected in the short, headed sections which cover everything from ‘Earth’ to ‘Conkers’ to ‘Rambo’ to ‘God.’ The structure works so well, echoing the child’s efforts to understand the world around him and his place in it.

Green’s central dilemma, that everyone sees him as a girl, is handled with poignancy and heart. When certain characters show glimmers of acceptance of who he really is, it feels like a glimpse of a better world, and when Green is denied the chance to express himself, you can feel the hurt and confusion. It’s a really moving story in and of itself, but Green’s identity is not the only plot point by any means. When Michael goes missing, the tone becomes more urgent, and the Green-as-detective sections are tense and thrilling. The setting, too, is woven into the story: Thatcher’s Britain and the difficulties faced by this small Welsh community spill over from the adults’ lives into their children’s.

There is such a subtle, beautiful combination of so many aspects in this book, from the political to the deeply personal, all told through the eyes of one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve come across for a long time. Green is a character who will stay with you, who will make you see the world a little differently, and who may even make you a better person for having spent time with him.

About the Author

Jade Leaf Willetts copyright Scarlett Arthur 2021

Jade Leaf Willetts is a writer from Llanbradach, a strange, beautiful village in South Wales. He writes about extraordinary characters in ordinary worlds and has a penchant for unreliable narrators. The Green Indian Problem, his first novel, was longlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize in the Peggy Chapman-Andrews category. Jade’s poetry has been published by Empty Mirror, PoV Magazine and Unknown Press. His short story, ‘An Aversion to Popular Amusements’ was shortlisted for the inaugural Janus Literary Prize. He is currently working on a coming of age follow-up to The Green Indian Problem.

Author’s website: https://jadeleafwilletts.com

Purchase Links

Renard Press: https://renardpress.com/books/the-green-indian-problem/

Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-green-indian-problem/j-l-willetts/9781913724528

Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/the-green-indian-problem/9781913724528

Blackwells: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Green-Indian-Problem-by-J-L-Willetts-author/9781913724528

Review: Good Intentions by Kasim Ali (2022)

Blurb

A heart-wrenching and beautifully told debut novel about love, family obligation and finding your way.

Nur and Yasmina are in love
They’ve been together for four happy years
But Nur’s parents don’t know that Yasmina exists

As Nur’s family counts down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, Nur is watching the clock more closely than most: he has made a pact with himself, and with his girlfriend, Yasmina, that at midnight he will finally tell his Pakistani parents the truth. That he has spent years hiding his personal life from them to preserve his image as the golden child. That he has built a life with a woman he loves and she is Black.

Nur wants to be the good son his parents ask him to be, and the good boyfriend Yasmina needs him to be. But as everything he holds dear is challenged, he is forced to ask, is love really a choice for a second-generation immigrant son like him?

Deftly exploring family obligation and racial prejudice alongside the flush of first love, Good Intentions is a captivating and powerful modern love story that announces a thrilling new voice in British fiction.

Review

Many thanks to 4th Estate and the Squadpod for arranging a proof copy for me in exchange for an honest review.

I enjoyed so many things about Good Intentions, but one of the aspects I loved the most was its nuance. The story feels fresh and modern, and it elegantly negotiates the complexities of Nur’s situation without either getting didactic or simplifying the issues. I did get frustrated with him at times, but he’s a sympathetic protagonist, and he’s doing what he feels is right, however misguidedly. As someone who suffers with anxiety, I thought the sections where Nur experiences struggles with his mental health were really well done – and it was refreshing to see other characters accepting those parts of him.

At its heart, Good Intentions is a great contemporary love story: the relationship between Nur and Yasmina is so realistically portrayed, I absolutely thought of them as real people as I was reading. I love the banter between them, the witty back-and-forth, their utter irritation with each other which strengthens rather than undermines their feelings for each other. Their exchanges are funny and intelligent, and they’re just a wonderful couple to spend time with. Of course, this makes it all the more poignant when they encounter difficulties – we’re rooting for them so hard.

There is so much going on in this book, but it never feels like an effort to read. The story carries you along, and the clever non-linear structure allows us to build up a picture of the relationship in scenes that are both self-contained and part of a whole. It’s very intelligent writing, and I look forward to reading more by this author in the future.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali is published by 4th Estate and is available to purchase here.

February 2022 Reading: Black Drop; The Marsh House

February was not a great reading month for me in terms of quantity – and I wasn’t even going to post a wrap-up – but for the sake of continuity, and because I really enjoyed the two books I DID manage to read, here is my February reading!

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass (2021)

A fantastically intricate historical novel, full of intrigue and secrets and lies. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel! You can read my full review of Black Drop here.

The Marsh House by Zoe Somerville (2022)

I was a huge fan of Zoe Somerville’s first novel, The Night of the Flood, and I loved this one just as much! I was honoured to be offered a spot on the blog tour for The Marsh House – you can read my full thoughts on this wonderfully atmospheric story here.

So that was it for February! Short and sweet! Sometimes life gets in the way of reading, and that’s okay. There’s always another month!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass (2021)

Blurb

This is the confession of Laurence Jago. Clerk. Gentleman. Reluctant spy.

July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Political radical Thomas Hardy is to go on trial for treason, the war against the French is not going in Britain’s favour, and negotiations with the independent American colonies are on a knife edge.

Laurence Jago – clerk to the Foreign Office – is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, which may lead to the destruction of the British Army, and Laurence is a suspect. Then he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide.

Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence, and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?

A thrilling historical mystery, perfect for readers of C.J. Sansom, Andrew Taylor, Antonia Hodgson and Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

Review

I like to think I have pretty broad tastes when it comes to reading, but in all honesty, historical fiction is where my heart really lies. I picked up Black Drop from Bert’s Books as a Christmas present to myself (that’s totally a thing, right?) and had been looking forward to diving in.

It did not disappoint. As the daughter of a diplomat, I do enjoy a bit of political intrigue, and I was totally engrossed by the Foreign Office setting. There is quite a lot to keep track of, but Leonora Nattrass is such a skilful storyteller that as the web grows more tangled, the tension ramps up, and I found myself racing through the pages. Laurence Jago is a great protagonist – I do like a flawed narrator – and it is a pleasure to follow him on his thrilling adventures through the streets of London.

The sense of threat around every corner, of the real peril in which Jago finds himself, is wonderfully done, and his dependence on the ‘black drop’ heightens the paranoia and feeling of unease. This is a superbly dark and twisty historical thriller, with some fantastic set pieces: I especially enjoyed the scenes at the menagerie. Like Laurence, I found myself unsure who to trust, assessing characters with a suspicious mind, not taking anyone at face value. It’s a tremendously engaging and fun position to be in as a reader.

Black Drop is astonishingly accomplished; an intricate story plotted with incredible attention to detail. And I am very excited that Laurence Jago will return in the sequel, Blue Water, coming later this year – it’s on my list already!

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is published by Viper Books and is available to purchase here.