Category Archives: reviews

Review: Beyond Kidding by Lynda Clark

A disclaimer to start the review with – Lynda Clark is a friend of mine, we used to work together at a branch of a well-known bookselling chain. Aha! You say, you may have some exciting author insights? Well, not really no. My overriding impression of Lynda was how well she wore wide legged trousers, striding forth from the back of the shop all in black, looking splendid, and how jealous I was since my legs are far too short to pull those off successfully.

What I didn’t know about Lynda is how much of her sense of humour appears to be down the toilet! Beyond Kidding has a lot of pooh talk, and all sorts of bad taste jokes. Once I got beyond the initial surprise, this had an appeal and I spent much of the read snorting with laughter.

Beyond-Kidding-RGB-195x300However, I should start at the beginning. Beyond Kidding is Lynda’s debut novel and comes with a short blurb comparing her to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Coupland on the back. No pressure there. I’ve only read one of Coupland’s books and found that not only did it not have toilet humour but it also had a dreadfully disappointing ending so Lynda has already done better on two counts.

Beyond Kidding starts with a great premise. The ‘hero’ – more of an anti-hero, I suppose – Rob works in a porn shop run by his childhood friend Bummer (yep) and one day decides to go for a better job and a better life. At an interview in some soulless corporation he attempts to ingratiate himself by inventing a son, Brodie, and makes such a good impression he is forced to keep up the pretence when he gets the job. In order to get round this, he then lies to say Brodie has been kidnapped. But when the police ring to say they’ve found Brodie, he has to take home a child who looks uncannily like the non-existent boy Rob photoshopped.

The book starts with Rob trying to explain the whole story to a work colleague, and as such, this frames the narrative, with the two of them commenting on each episode as it happened. Aside from the smutty humour, what I liked about the book is that Rob is so unlikeable, and so are practically all the characters. They’re hopeless for the most part, but Lynda carefully layers on their actions and their motivations throughout the book so that by the end you have found their hidden hearts of gold beneath the mess, the pooh and the peculiar family set ups.

I also liked that although the work is classed as literary sci-fi, you don’t have to read it that way. If you’re not a sci-fi person (and on the whole I’m not) you’ve nothing to fear here. It has some moments, especially by the end, but as I said earlier, I felt that the ongoing characterisation was the most satisfying part of the novel for me and as such, the genre is less important. To go back to the comparisons with Vonnegut, this is perhaps where Lynda succeeds the most, and the final chapters land emotional sucker punches with the best of them.

Beyond Kidding is published by Fairlight Books on 31 October, in paperback at £8.99.

PS When you know an author it does lead you to wonder why their partner’s name is in the book as a milk frother. I may never know.

 

Review:The Woman in the Photograph – Stephanie Butland

I thought the opening to this book was as engrossing as anything I’ve read in a while, with an intriguing set up, historical notes and a heroine off to do her own thing in the face of her father’s and fiance’s disapproval. Veronica Moon is a photographer, one who rose to fame in the heady days of feminist Seventies Britain but has now been forgotten and lives a reclusive life alone. A retrospective exhibition, the work of a tired mum and the relative of Veronica’s great friend and love Leonie, is about to open in London and bring Veronica back to life. Will it help solve the mystery of why she faded from public life and help heal old rifts? 


The book is split into flashback scenes from Veronica’s and Leonie’s friendship, and modern scenes as preparations for the exhibition go ahead. Each chapter also has historical notes and writings from Leonie and Veronica, both of them mainly unpublished. It focuses on the British feminist movement, starting with the Ford Dagenham strikers, before looking at Miss World protests, Greenham Common and many things in between, such as the more private and violent side of the women’s movement – Veronica documents injuries caused by domestic abuse to potentially use as evidence in court. It makes a positive change to read about the British wave of protests, since so many historical moments always seem to look at America – it’s good to remember how radical British women were at the time. And how we still need them. 


I enjoyed Veronica’s growth as a character very much, and her encouragement of the younger woman to go to a protest, and to have confidence in her self was fun to read. Leonie’s chapter were a little hectoring, but she’s an old school feminist and there are still plenty of those around. 


This is a great book – if you want to learn more about the women’s movement of recent times, or remind yourself why it’s so important for us all to don our DMs and take to the streets – but it’s also well written, intricately researched and full of authenticity.

Review: Expectation by Anna Hope

2019 seems to be the year for novels about modern womanhood. Following Hannah Beckerman’s If Only I Could Tell You and Katy Mahood’s Entanglement comes Expectation from Anna Hope.

You may know Hope from her historical novels, The Ballroom and Wake, but this is a departure from those to modern day London. We meet three friends, Hannah, Cate and Lissa, sharing a house in East London with great expectations for their futures. Careers, romance, fun and above all, friendship, are their goals.

Ten years on, we meet them again and, you may have guessed it, life has not panned out how they wanted. Lissa is still trying to make it as an actor, battling against industry prejudice on middle aged women; Hannah is trying her third round of IVF and desperate for a child; and Cate has recently moved to Kent with her new baby and a husband she is no longer quite sure of, especially feeling isolated but near his family.

Anna Hope’s great strength in her historical novels was her characters, and Expectation is no exception. The three women are well drawn, and we see their flaws, irritations and good points in all their glory – well rounded, real people on the pages. As such, reading Expectation feels like it does when you catch up with your mates after a few months apart.

Expectation, along with the novels I mentioned earlier, are all honest about womanhood, discussing what we ask of women – what society expects – and how we can never live up to this. Expectations of women, from their parents to the glossies, from their partners to their employers, are examined here – how can anyone live up to these? All three characters at some point feel like a failure, through no fault of their own.

And yet, how glorious to feel like we’re finally being seen properly. While reading I nodded several times in recognition, and said ‘yes’ as the characters were allowed to behave badly, to make their mistakes and not be punished for them. Not too much anyway.

I read this quickly, it’s an enjoyable and engaging book full of life, good sense and real people. And occasional moments of drinking too much and saying what you’ve always wanted to say to some pompous overbearing arsehole. (I particularly enjoyed that scene – no further spoilers coming.)

Thanks to Alison Barrow for my proof copy of Expectation.

Review: Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis

How exciting to review a book by someone I know. (To clarify, I do not actually know Lia but we chat on Twitter – she posts about food, parenting, exhaustion and Bon Jovi, and who am I to diss any of that?)

Somewhere-Close-to-Happy-1-1Somewhere Close to Happy is Lia’s debut novel and has the loveliest cover with a dear little caravan on it (the significance of this becomes clear when you read the book). It is the story of Lizzie James, in her twenties and working in a steady but dull job, living at home with her dad, and trying to deal with a family wedding where she’s been invited to be a bridesmaid out of obligation on the bride’s part. So far, so ‘women’s novel’ but the book soon tells us more about Lizzie’s life so far.

For into her life comes a letter, from Roman, a boy who was Lizzie’s best friend, her rock, her salvation when she struggled with terrible mental health issues as a teenager. Lizzie met Roman in a youth facility for ‘troubled teens’ and together they helped each other survive. Until Roman disappeared. Now, 12 years later, Lizzie takes his letter and, with her friend Priscilla, tries to track him down.

Once in a while you read stories in the media about how children are growing up too fast and what they can and can’t handle, what we should or shouldn’t be teaching them etc. And oftentimes, you forget what reality is like for many kids across the country. But Lizzie and Roman are trying to deal with divorce, bereavement, alcoholism and neglect, even before you talk about their mental ill health. Their story is told through a mixture of present scenes, flashback scenes and instant messaging chats that Lizzie finds in the attic. This way, Louis tells us just enough at a time, while giving us accomplished glimpses of their characters.

There is some wicked humour here. Lizzie’s family, in the pre-wedding scenes, are ghastly, and her best friend Priscilla is a blast, despite facing sad times of her own. The humour is there to offset some poignant scenes, as the truth of Roman’s disappearance comes to light. But the main story is Lizzie’s, a girl who starts out just trying to manage but ends up lifting herself higher. This is a deftly told tale, and we are in the hands of a talented new writer. Louis’s next book has already set the publishing world aflame – so once you’ve finished this one, get waiting impatiently for the next!

Somewhere Close to Happy is published on Thursday by Orion Books and you can find it at all good bookshops. Thanks to Netgalley for my advance copy.

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo

beekeeper of aleppoOh, this is a simple and lovely book. And a timely book, also. It is told by Nuri Ibrahim, the titular beekeeper of Aleppo who has had to flee Syria with his wife Afra.

Nuri and Afra are in a bed and breakfast in Brighton with several other refugees, all waiting to see if their claims to asylum will be accepted by the British authorities. Nuri starts to tell us of life in the B&B and his account of life merges into his memories of his journey to get to the UK, and of the life they left behind.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult and heartbreaking story, and the reader realises sooner than Nuri that there is something wrong with his recounting. Nuri is trying to reach his cousin, best friend and partner in beekeeping, Mustafa, who has made it to Yorkshire and is setting up a beekeeping project for refugees. Mustafa’s emails to Nuri are often the only thing that keeps him going through the terrible journey he and Afra make, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Greece and then to the UK. It is a journey of terror, sorrow, heartbreak and humiliation. It is no spoiler, I think, to tell you that Afra and Nuri are suffering the effects.

The book is incredibly well written, unflinching in its depiction of the hardships, but without unnecessary detail – leaving some of the worst events to the reader’s imagination. The writing is full of warmth when describing the characters and their lives together, you are rooting for them from very early on. I liked how the current chapters morphed into the reminiscences, the passages joined by a single word.

This is an excellent debut, full of compassion and hope, for characters lost when their world changes beyond all recognition. It should be widely read.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is published on 2 May 2019 by Zaffre Publishing. Thanks to Netgalley for my review copy.

 

Review: Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger

Not just a cookbook. Not only a cookbook. Whichever you prefer, if you like to read about people losing their way and finding it again thanks to family, friends, love and great recipes then this is for you. You could, if so inclined, regard it as a modern version of Heartburn by Nora Ephron, without the infidelity. The warmth, humour, insight and food are all there.

midnight chickenMidnight Chicken opens with Ella Risbridger, feeling overwhelmed, scared, confused,  trying to walk under a bus and being rescued, roasting a late chicken late into the night and realising food and ‘moments’ are what make life worth living. She doesn’t make it sound as melodramatic or trite as I have just done, though, thank goodness.

You may, if you were a reader of the late women’s online magazine The Pool, remember Ella’s columns about caring. As such, this book is tinged with sadness throughout because I knew of the twist at the end, of the constant presence in the pages of one who would soon not be there any more. Ella writes of mental illness, of love, of difficult family relationships and of having to leave, of wonderful family relationships and friends and impromptu recipes made out of whatever you have in the cupboard.

As such, she and I are often on the same page: extolling the virtues of shop bought puff pastry and how Danny the Champion of the World offered a new way to discover flavour and what dads could be like, if they wanted. There are a few moments where I feel she is mistaken – never red sauce on bacon sandwiches, always brown – and Marmite? Bleagh. But in general, this is an absorbing honest book with cooking instructions for the scared, the poor, the novice. All are written with patience, humour and a sense of the potential joy they can give.

The recipes are a mixture of simple things that everyone should have lying about, trashy food for quick pleasures, and fabulous looking food for breakfasts, picnics, last minute dinner parties and life in general. Nothing is too complicated, most of them don’t ask for too many ingredients or faffing. I confess, I haven’t actually cooked anything from it yet as I only bought it on Friday and have been busy reading it from cover to cover but it all looks simple, flavourful and delicious.

Midnight Chicken is published by Bloomsbury and out now from all good bookshops.

Review of 2018

Woah! I read a LOT in 2018. 91 books so far and a week still to go. I’m not quite sure how I fitted all of this in, except that I’ve stopped cycling to work and now have tram time.

To be fair, two were novellas in flash, one was a short story in a single slim volume, and three were children’s books I read to E at bedtime (we’ve moved onto chapter books and these were all new to me so I included them). There was also a cookbook and a volume of poetry.

Still, that’s a lot of books. I didn’t finish three of them, but one of those was 300 pages in so a substantial chunk.

At the start of the year, I started to keep track of how many books I read each month and how many I buy, as well as library books, review books and so on. It was pretty interesting, most months I got through as many as I brought into the house until May when I had a ‘stop buying for a while woman!’ moment (this lasted a month) but then I did calm down and didn’t buy quite as many as I read.

Stats time:

60 of the books were by women and 28 by men. The others were collections of short stories of both sexes.

I read 17 non-fiction, including two feminist cartoon (for want of a better word) books. The best of these were:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – a brutal memoir of the year after Didion’s husband died suddenly and her daughter was incredibly ill in a coma, and how Didion coped with all of this. It’s brutal because she was absolutely floored by her husband’s death and at times this feels like her focus when the reader wants her to focus on her daughter’s needs.

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City by Lauren Elkins – a look at how women have claimed public spaces. Elkins picks a few cities – New York, Paris, Tokyo – and walks them while also examining how we claim space, how cities don’t encourage a flaneuse, and a look at artists who have also walked cities.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a fascinating book, linked a little to the previous title, where Laing explores isolation in cities and how this has been represented in art. It’s part biography, part autobiography, part art history and a bit of sociology.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – a monster of a book but really well written. If the founding fathers had been written like this when I was studying them at university I would have found them much more interesting. It helps when you can sing an accompanying soundtrack from the musical too…

The rest were fiction and I have read some great stuff this year. Last year I narrowed the reading down to a top five but this year it’s a top eight fiction titles. So in no particular order:

  • The Road to California by Louise Walters – a lovely story I reviewed way back in February
  • Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce – I loved this debut, simple and funny and charming – review is here
  • Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty – an underrated author, MacLaverty, I think. I loved Grace Notes for its simple beauty and this too is a wonderfully written poignant book of an older couple whose marriage is disintegrating.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman – I LOVED this. Women develop an inner power, zapping men with electricity and the world’s men watch and plot in horror. The scene where the Saudi women zapped all the cars they hadn’t been allowed to drive had me cheering out loud while I read. Fabulous stuff.
  • The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson. Part of the series that retells Shakespeare’s stories, this is The Winter’s Tale and really enjoyable. It also works so much better than the recent series that retold Jane Austen’s tales – get Winterson on Persuasion.
  • Larchfield by Polly Clark – Auden, Scotland, post-natal depression and nasty neighbours. Really enjoyable debut novel.
  • Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale. I’ve reviewed this one here.
  • Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield. Not out in book form until next month but you can read my review here.

There you go!

#BookReviewGift The Goldblum Variations

Jeff Goldblum rocks. You know it. Helen McClory thinks so. So she wrote a bonkers pamphlet containing poems, flash fiction and bingo all about Jeff and alternate versions of him in other universes. You can buy it now with a yellow cover but mine is colour your own, adding more fun to the mix.

It’s absurdist and very silly but even more fun, you can now also watch a film of Jeff reading from it because he is the best of men.

Watch him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQoqLUaZTzA

You can buy Jeff from 404 Ink. 

jeff goldblum

Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

once upon a riverIn a yoga class once (stay with me) the instructor talked of yogis who sat on the banks of the Ganges and allowed their thoughts, worries, stories to drift away on the water. If there was ever a book that described this, Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is it. It’s a book about water, about storytelling, and about how you can make decisions to change the tide of your life or you can go with the flow.

You may know Diane Setterfield from her wonderful debut The Thirteenth Tale, made into a TV programme with Olivia Colman. Once Upon a River is similarly atmospheric, with talk of ghosts and other worldly connections, and again, it is highly readable.

It is set in and around an ancient inn, The Swan at Radcot, on the Thames, well known for its storytelling. One evening – the longest night – a man bursts through the doors. He is injured and confused and in his arms he holds a dead child. He is tended to by the local nurse, midwife and all round good woman Rita, and hours later, the child stirs and take a breath. She has come back to life… but how?

As different members of the Radcot community try to piece together who she is and how she came to be there, we are immersed into their lives, their secrets, their tragedies both hidden and public, and their love – for each other, for their way of life.

This is a slow book. You need to wallow in it, to take stock and just let it wash over you. There is a full cast of characters – Rita and the injured man, Mr Daunt; Margot, the pub landlady and her family; Mr and Mrs Vaughan and their heartbreak; Lily White and her tortured thoughts; and lovely Mr Armstrong. But the character with the most presence is the River Thames itself, washing through lives and taking or giving as it wants. I especially loved the story of Quietly, the riverman who is doomed to remain on the water and save or transport people to the next life as required.

Setterfield’s skill is in recreating an old world with old ways but with emotions that run through the ages. As the characters try to unpick the mystery of the girl, attributing her revival to folklore, to superstition or new scientific ideas, we watch as deeper human reactions – of love, hate, greed, and common decency come to the fore and shape all their lives. Storytelling runs central to the theme of the book – how do we control what stories are told of us, and the things we see? Each telling changes a detail until only the essence of the tale remains. (I feel Margaret Lea from the Thirteenth Tale would love exploring this too.)

This is an excellent book, just the thing to curl up in front of a fire with this winter. My thanks to Alison Barrow for supplying a gorgeous proof copy.

Once Upon a River is available on ebook from today, and is published in the UK in hardback on 17 January.

#BookReviewGift: Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton

Before this year I’d not heard of the concept of novella in flash so this was the first one I’d read. I know Stephanie via Twitter where she often links to her other excellent flash fiction pieces and shares her time and comments generously on other people’s writing.

For the uninitiated, a novella in flash is a short novel told in short chapters, each a stand alone flash fiction story but when put together build layers of a longer narrative. I’m attempting to write one at the moment and it’s pretty challenging. If you’re interested in how this works, I recommend reading Three Sisters of Stone.

Agnes, Bella and Chloe are the three sisters of the story, and the novella draws on folklore and fairytale, including the three little pigs. A father’s cruelty and how it echoes down the years is the broad theme, but it’s fascinating to watch how so much information and rich characterisation is conveyed in so few words.

Three Sisters is published by small press Ellipsis, and is a richly deserving piece of writing. You can read it in one go, or take tiny bites and allow the interest to build slowly. Like all good books, it warrants re-reading also.

You can buy Three Sisters here.