Tag Archives: book

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 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!

A childhood in books

As promised, I wanted to write about a childhood in books with a few featured. I have also decided to commit to blogging and reviewing every day in December and tagging authors to give them a boost about how much we appreciate them. (You can find out more about this here on Twitter – do think about joining in!) So here’s day 1.

I was reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm and thinking about the books I loved, the ones I return to, the ones I leave safely in the past but whose footprint is still with me, the ones I want to pass on. The passing on is especially important – I read a blog a while ago about a mother who had saved up a trip to Prince Edward Island with her daughter so they could share the wonder of Anne of Green Gables together and her daughter just didn’t like Anne. My heart! How awful – I dread this happening with E.

jonathan crombieSo as you can imagine, Anne of Green Gables is one of my absolute favourites. Yes, she talks too much, hugs trees too much and could be seen by some as utterly irritating but none of that ever bothered me. She was aching for love that girl, and had so much to give. My copies of the books are all TV tie in editions of the Kevin Sullivan production (the ONLY version worth watching) with Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and the lovely Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush and remains to this day, one of the only decent men in the whole of literature. He spurs Anne onto greater academic achievement, allows her to voice her opinions and in every way respects her. You can count men who do that in books or onscreen on ONE hand. Anne of Green Gables also has one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever written in it – the death of Matthew Cuthbert – something that can make me cry at any time. Half my copies were presents from my Grandma, who bought them for me on a rare trip into Croydon together and whose kindness completed my collection, so I also think of her when I read them.

Going back a bit, my earliest book favourites were Rapunzel and Beaky the Greedy Duck. My mother hates both of them because she had to read them so often, and I think both were Ladybird editions. I’m not a massive fan of Ladybird books despite these, simply because when I was ill in bed as a child, a neighbour gave me the Ladybird version of The Little Mermaid and I was so upset by the awful ending I never read any more – Ladybird or Hans Christian Andersen. Give me the Disney version any day.

Of course I had an Enid Blyton phase, not the Faraway Tree, but straight into the Secret Seven, Famous Five, and the school books of Malory Towers and St Clares. The famous Five were favourites because of George and Timmy, who were something to aspire to – George being possibly the first tomboy character I was drawn to. A few years ago staying at a friend’s house overnight I came across a Secret Seven book that belonged to his son and started reading it out of curiosity. God it was awful.

mildred and maudOne set of books I loved and now E loves too is The Worst Witch. It’s not clear which of us is more excited by the new books in the series that Jill Murphy has started to bring out again – we have the new one ready for Christmas. Mildred Hubble is a great heroine. I was drawn to her because her hair was messy and her bootlaces were undone and she made mistakes but she had a good heart. I still love her while E is more drawn to Mildred’s steadfast friend Maud. E is too messy and disorganised herself to be anyone other than Mildred but I like that she values Maud. (Other characters I value because their bootlaces were undone also include Katy Carr from the ethically dodgy What Katy Did, which I acknowledge has dreadful morals but still has a place in my heart because of the bootlaces.)

What else? My mum worked in an infants school for a while and when I came to meet her from junior school one evening one of the teachers gave me a book from

daddy long legs

their library that was too old for their children. I still own it. It’s called A Fox in Winter by John Branfield and tells the story of a teenage girl who befriends an old Cornish farmer and listens to him while he tells her of the old mining days. It’s quietly compelling and explores isolation and generational differences and connections or disconnections between people. I also love and still own my copy of Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, a sweet and little celebrated epistolary novel of an orphan and her guardian.

I also remember something I was gripped by and reread called Vipers and Co which was a kind of crime book I think. I can’t find any information about it now but I remember loving it. I also got a Robert Cormier book out which was called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway which I read more than once simply because it was disturbing – about a boy called Barney who lives in a medical facility for experimentation.

I will tell you of two more. Obviously Judy Blume must figure. My favourite was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but obviously I had the Forever rite of passage. As with so many, the library copy was so battered every time someone returned the librarians tried to mend it only to have to hand it over immediately to another teenage girl who wanted to read it. I also made the mistake of asking my mum what some of the phrases during the sex scene meant (well, if you’ve not come across it before, saying somebody ‘came’ is very confusing) and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” Oops.

alcott houseFinally, of course, my spiritual sister Jo March has reminded me that I must mention Little Women. We read this a few years ago at my reading group and one of the group said she couldn’t finish it because they were all so pious. I was heartbroken. Of course they are. But Little Women is part of me and, like practically every bookish woman, I am Jo March, although she is clearly a better person than me because if Amy burnt my book I would have left her to drown in the pond. Pious indeed. In the US I made a trip out to Concord to go round the Alcott house, visit their graves and generally worship – it’s fascinating, I do recommend it.

I would love to hear your childhood favourites! Drop a comment below – and don’t forget to keep reviewing books, visiting libraries and buying books from flesh and blood bookshops.

 

Review: How We Remember by JM Monaco

How We RememberToday I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.

Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.

Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.

Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.

Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.

It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.

How We Remember is available from Amazon,
Netgalley or Red Door Publishing website.
JM Monaco’s blog can be found here. 

Thanks to Red Door Publishing for the copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Twenty Four Stories

Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.

I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.

A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.

24 stories book coverTwenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.

I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.

I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.

A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.

All the profits from the book go to the Trauma Response Network to help their work supporting people with PTSD.

Twenty Four Stories is available to buy from all good retailers. It’s filled with fantastic writing and it looks brilliant. A top read and a good cause! Buy it. Play your small part.