The Guest List by Lucy Foley – review

I’m not really a crime thriller person and on the occasions I’ve dipped into the genre I’ve often come away disappointed. I was super happy, then, to discover The Guest List, a thriller I genuinely enjoyed – it’s always a little bit rejuvenating to read something different to your normal fare and to come away feeling positive about it. It’s a variation of the classic locked room mystery: a murder takes place during a wedding party on a remote island, with a select guest list and a location cut off from the outside world. Among the group, grudges are ubiquitous and as you would suspect, the various characters’ seedy backstories provide a vast selection of possible motives for a killing. The fun of this kind of set up is that every reader has a genuine chance of guessing the solution to the puzzle and Lucy Foley turns out to be an extremely fair writer when it comes to providing decent clues; she creates a very clever story yet refrains from any impulse to pull the rug out from under your feet for the sake of an outlandish twist, a device that appears all to often in crime fiction and can simply leave you feeling cheated.

The book is written from the point of view of a number of different wedding guests, the narrative hopping between characters every chapter. I’ve read a couple of other books in which this way of writing hasn’t really worked for me, because I found a particular character uninteresting or their voice didn’t ring true, but in The Guest List I loved it. It kept the story moving at a rapid pace, and because the chapters are pretty short it constantly tempts you into thinking “just one more”; before you know it you’re over half way through and then, well, there’s no point in stopping! That’s not to say all the people you meet in the course of the novel are enjoyable company – far from it. The wedding is a ridiculously lavish affair, bride Jules and groom Will being a high-flying editor and a TV star, and the couple are as strident and egotistical a pair as you’d expect. The groom’s friends, who make up a large proportion of the titular guest list, are an obnoxious, posturing posse from his private school days, their innate sense of entitlement all too often tipping over into cruelty and harassment. Among the bride’s friends and family there are a few more sympathetic figures, in particular her sister Olivia, whose mental fragility is immediately obvious to the reader even as it exasperates the bride who can’t bear for the attention to be on anyone else but her. You’d think, given the descriptions above, that the book might be unbearable, so awful are some of the main players, but as the story goes on, the author gradually reveals flaws and vulnerabilities that make us feel, if not entirely sorry for them, at least more understanding of their behaviour.

The dialogue is a little bit cringe-worthy in places, primarily the banter between Will’s school friends – although I couldn’t decide whether this was down to the writing or simply the fact that any drunken persiflage will end up reading a bit lamely when it’s down on paper. This aside though, the style is brilliantly easy to read and keeps the story moving along at just the right pace. Another clever little device is the fact that, although the book opens with the moment the wedding guests hear the screams indicating something terrible has just happened, we don’t know for sure who the victim is until a bit later on. Quite honestly, by the time the novel reached its conclusion there were a number of characters I would have been quite happy to see with a knife in their back!

All I’ll say about the conclusion itself is that it’s punch-the-air perfect and not what I had guessed at all. I had such a fun time with The Guest List in fact that I’m absolutely going to be buying her first novel, The Hunting Party, which I gather is a similar kind of set-up, and if it’s anywhere near as enjoyable should be a cracking read. As ever, if you’ve read either of Lucy Foley’s books I’d love to hear what you thought!

Pine by Francine Toon – review

It’s the perfect time of year for something creepy, when even the most easily spooked of souls (like myself) are tempted by the prospect of a book that makes you want to leave the light on. Pine is without doubt my pick of the spooky season, ticking all the spine-chilling boxes and then some. It’s not, however, a traditional ghost story by any means, and that’s part of the reason I loved it so much – nothing here is predictable, and nothing about it was like anything I’ve read before. It’s a full-on mash up of thriller and supernatural, and it’s really hard to say on which side of the line it falls. I’ve come across a number of thrillers (as I’m sure you have too) that throw in the odd thunderstorm or creepy old house to add a bit of atmosphere and amp up the tension, when in actual fact there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, and we’re never meant to really believe there is. This novel, however, flips wholesale between the very real, earthly mystery of a woman who went missing in unexplained circumstances several years before, and genuine occult chills: the figure at the window, stone circles that appear out of nowhere, not to mention some very literal bumps in the night.

But before I get too carried away, I should probably back-track a bit. The book’s two main characters, who share the majority of the narrative between them, are Niall and his daughter Lauren, who live in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren’s mother (and Niall’s wife), Christine, is the woman who disappeared some years before, when her daughter was only tiny. No body was ever found, but no-one ever heard from her again – and no-one knows why she would have left or where she went. This tragic event – and the effect it had on the family left behind – creates a genuine sadness that runs through the core of the story, giving it a lump-in-the-throat emotional depth that many thrillers lack. Niall responds to his grief by drinking, and alternates painfully between moments of overwhelming love and affection for his little girl and periods of neglect, when the lure of the local pub proves stronger than his paternal instincts. Lauren faces isolation on all fronts: the absence of a mother she doesn’t remember yet whose presence she knows she misses, an unreliable father with a propensity to vanish for hours on end leaving her to fend for herself, and loneliness at school, where the other children seize on her vulnerability and subject her to a constant barrage of verbal and physical bullying. She isn’t completely friendless, however, and while her father drinks she creates her own adventures with schoolmate Billy and a couple of older girls from the village, Diane and Ann-Marie. Her relationship with Ann-Marie in particular will turn out to have some very chilling and ultimately dangerous repercussions.

The Highland setting is an absolute gift for anyone wanting an unnerving backdrop for their tale! The pine forests behind the village are full of frightening potential; when Lauren and Billy head off to play in this disorientating, menacing wilderness, we as readers follow them with some reluctance. Where I thought the author surpassed herself, however, was in her imaginative creation of Lauren’s home; the very place where you’re meant to feel safe became one of the most sinister settings in the novel. From the moment we take our first tour of the wooden paneled walls, dark blue carpets and damp rooms we get an unshakeable sense that all is not well. Francine Toon stirs up fear through the simplest things – the sound of dripping without an obvious source, a curtain that divides the living and dining area – a barrier that seems somehow insecure and subject to be breached without warning; a lamp that may or may not have already been on when the characters first entered the room….

Seriously, I’m getting a cold sensation up my back even just sitting here typing this out as I remember how I felt reading those spooky passages! I read a book of M R James ghost stories earlier this year and creepy though many of them were, none gave me quite the physical sensation that Pine managed. It’s easy, I think, to misjudge horror, and there’s a very fine line between scary and silly, so I have to take may hat off to Toon for evoking maximum discomfort while staying on the right side of the line. My only tiny niggle is that perhaps the supernatural element of the book becomes slightly overdone right at the end, but certainly not enough to spoil the book as a whole.

I mustn’t forget of course that there’s a whole other side to the novel, carried away as I am with the thrill of the paranormal! It is just as successful in its other guise as a crime novel, and the human relationships are what makes the whole story so, well, believable. Whatever spooky goings on may or may not be happening up in the forest, at its heart Pine is the story of a father and daughter who are both grieving, one for a life he lost and the other for a life she could have had. If you took away all the other mystery, that relationship alone would have made for an immensely powerful novel. It would have been easy to make alcoholic father Niall, who forgets to come home to feed his daughter and takes out his misery in violently destructive rages, a despicable character, but he is so nuanced and complex that he garners our sympathy rather than our condemnation. Ten year old Lauren, too, is given a voice that feels utterly authentic for her age (which must be very hard to do I think) an despite being “only” a child is as fascinating and sophisticated a character as any of the adults. The whole book, in fact, is a beautifully realised mosaic of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find together, but the end result is a striking, unforgettable book that defies easy classification. It won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year, but if you overlook it because you don’t consider yourself a crime fan (and I certainly don’t) then you’d be missing out on something really special – and you’d be spending a little less time looking over your shoulder when you turn the last light out before bed….

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The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare – review

It may seem bizarre to say that a novel exploring forced marriage, violence and exploitation akin to modern-day slavery was one of the most uplifting books I’ve read this year, but that’s how I felt after I put it down for the last time. I had my eye on this months ago when it first came out but have only just got round to reading it, and I am SOOO glad I did. If you’re after a story of female empowerment and determination in the face of oppression then this is one for you.

This is one of those novels where I feel 100% justified in referring to the main character, Adunni, as the “heroine”; once you’ve read it you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her story takes place in Nigeria, a country I confess I know next to nothing about, but author Abi Daré was born and brought up there so there’s no doubting the authenticity of her voice and the portrayal of the society that treats poor Adunni so harshly. The novel begins when the girl, barely into her teens, is sold into a forced marriage by her father, who has fallen on hard times and wants the income her new husband will provide. Adunni is heartbroken; not only does she have absolutely no attraction to or affection for the middle-aged man she’s to marry, but her new life as a subservient wife will mean that her dream of going to school and eventually becoming a teacher herself is taken away from her.

It’s no great spoiler to say that when she arrives at the home of her new husband, her life is not a happy one. He already has two wives, one of whom is jealous, vicious and violent and makes Adunni’s existence one of misery and fear. The sexual realities of being a married woman are also incredibly painful to read, as revolting to us as they are to a girl who is far too young to be enduring this kind of relationship. However, the situation takes a turn for the worse when a tragedy strikes quite early in the book, and Adunni finds herself thrown from the frying pan into the fire, working for no money as a servant in the home of a sadistic, abusive textiles entrepreneur known to her cowed, bullied household as “Big Madam”.

It’s hard to believe that a story such as this belongs to the modern age, and it’s sobering to have Adunni’s tragedy laid out in front of us knowing this is not just a novel, but a reality that affects millions of girls and women in a society run very much for men. Yet there is more to the misery here than a fight for women’s equality with their male counterparts; the way in which women of different classes and generations relate to other is in many ways just as toxic. Adunni comes from an impoverished rural family, which immediately diminishes her chances in life and leaves her open to exploitation and abuse by both men seeking to assert their sexual dominance and women reinforcing their perceived class superiority. There are also clashes between tradition and modernity that play out in disturbing ways. Tia, who we meet later on in the novel, is what most readers would think of as a thoroughly modern woman, who campaigns on social and environmental issues and is very Westernised in her appearance and attitude. It turns out, however, that even among the adult population of Nigeria there is a divide between those women who are wedded to older, established cultural norms around motherhood and a woman’s duty to her husband, and those who are exploring other ways to live their lives. The damaging clashes between Tia, her family and other women in her social circle serve to highlight just how many battles Nigerian women are fighting and on how many fronts.

If this all sounds rather heavy, somehow it isn’t; I thought long and hard about how, despite all the agony, the book retains its optimism, and decided that (appropriately, given the title) it’s down to the endearing, hopeful and beautiful voice of narrator Adunni. Her aim is to make not just her own voice heard, but to speak out for all the other girls and women who are in her situation: oppressed, abused and denied the freedom to pursue their dreams on the grounds of their sex. The novel is written in her slightly broken and imperfect English (one of her goals is to improve in the language, and she learns as the story goes on), lending her an extra vulnerability but also an extra grit, her efforts to get to grips with the words she needs to use to tell her story a constant reminder of the uphill battle she faces and a sign of her determination to improve her chances in life.

There were a few times during the book when I wondered whether this hopeful tone was in fact an unrealistic representation of what the reality is for so many women like Adunni, and whether it was in some way diluting their individual tragedies to suggest there was a way out. By the time I’d finished, though, and given it some more thought, I decided it wasn’t as simple as that. Yes, Adunni is presented with a couple of lucky encounters and chances for escape that many girls wouldn’t be fortunate enough to have, but the author balances this out by showing us plenty of women whose endings are tragic in their different ways, some subtle, some less so. To liken it to a fairytale might sound flippant given the subject matter, yet that’s the feeling it left me with. We all know that real life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but the point of fairy stories is to make us believe just for a moment that happiness is possible, and the most awful of adversities can be overcome. Hope, the author is saying, not only keeps us alive but drives us on to better things; and in the most dreadful of circumstances nothing is more precious. Adunni, far from being an example of unrealistic expectation, is a figure of empowerment, of believing that women deserve better, that women can achieve and that women – sadly – sometimes need to fight in order to overcome the odds stacked against them.

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – review

I came across Vivian when I was browsing the Fitzcarraldo website looking for a new read, and the subject caught my imagination immediately. I confess I’d never heard of Vivian Maier, whose life story the book explores, but right from the off she sounded like a compelling character. Her family emigrated to America from Europe when she was a child and she spent the majority of her subsequent years there, living out a life that on the surface would seem pretty ordinary. She worked for many years as a nanny in Chicago and New York, but remarkably also found the time to take thousands upon thousands of photographs capturing the people and sights she encountered while walking the city streets. Vivian is an unusual take on the familiar trope of real lives made fiction, and one that raises questions as much as it provides answers.

I called it unusual because it’s not a straightforward third or first person narrative. Instead, the story is set out almost like a playscript, with a character’s name followed by their thoughts or description of events. These can be pages long, or a single line – sometimes two characters even converse with each other about abstract ideas surrounding the story, as if they’re considering things retrospectively. The narrator is a “character” too, appearing as simply “narrator” when it’s their turn to pass comment on events. She (I call it “she” because I automatically imagined it as the voice of Christina Hesselholdt herself, although of course this is only my interpretation) is the voice that grounds the reader in reality; she talks about her research and the gaps that inevitably appear when trying to compile a complete and fair account of someone else’s life, and as such we’re never able to forget that this is merely an attempt to put together a reasonable representation of Vivian Maier, and can only ever be flawed, both as a “biography” or indeed a fully satisfying novel.

What comes across without any doubt, however, is that Vivian is in many ways quite a sad figure. She comes from a dysfunctional and largely unhappy family (there are hints of some sexual abuse during her younger years) and doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships of any kind with other people during adulthood. She is, we learn, obsessive to an extreme extent, hoarding newspapers in her bedroom to the point when the only way through the room is via pathways between the teetering stacks of print. Strangely though, she seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to her own photographs. Although she takes her camera with her wherever she goes, and has been captivated (we learn) by the hobby since she was young, many of her pictures are never developed, and never catalogued or displayed in any way. Perhaps it’s the act of observing and choosing the precise moment for the perfect shot that’s most important to her, rather than having an end result in which she can take pleasure – but we never know for sure. One thing is clear: Vivian Maier never made any attempt to make a career out of her indubitable talent.

Such an enigmatic main character will always lead to a reader wanting to know more after the final page, but even so, I did feel the novel petered out somewhat towards the end, when the story became incredibly sketchy. Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to draw on as regards Vivian’s later years, but her old age is skimmed over pretty quickly, with new characters introduced but never really developed, even though we’re given to understand they played a part in looking after her towards the end of her life.

As I said earlier, however, the author (speaking through her “narrator”) is open about the challenges of writing such a book, and by the end it becomes almost as much about the act of creation than is is about Vivian herself. The narrator even resorts to conversing with her protagonist towards the end of the book, as if she realises her readers will have questions she hasn’t been able to answer. Why, she asks Vivian, did you not do x, y and z? Fictional Vivian gives an elusive, inexact reply – an acknowledgement that of course we can never claim to know what went through someone’s head at any given time when perhaps they weren’t even sure themselves. In some ways, the novel is a rebuttal to those fictionalised accounts of real lives that give the illusion of being a reliable insight into a person’s psyche. I know that as a reader I’ve been so swept up by certain novels featuring real figures from history that they almost become the historical reality in my own head – I have to remind myself that Philippa Gregory shouldn’t be my first point of reference when citing fascinating facts about the Tudors! I did appreciate the way the author shone a light on the act of writing a novel of this kind, rather than it just being a straightforward retelling; it ensured that as a reader you were never able to drop your guard and stop thinking, or start assuming, and I enjoyed that approach very much.

Vivian was certainly a very interesting read, and for the vast majority of the book a very compulsive one – I put everything else I was reading aside and finished it in a day, unusual for me. I resisted the urge to look up Vivian Maier’s photographs online until I’d finished, as I didn’t want the images I already had in my head messed with in any way. When I’d finished, though, I did look into her work – and I’d really recommend you do the same, as suddenly the sadness and isolation that seeped out from the pages of the novel was there in front of you, literally in black and white.

Have you read Vivian and if so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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This is Happiness by Niall Williams – review

I won’t lie: I bought this book primarily because there was a hare on the cover. It was my first Niall Williams novel and I had no idea what sort of author he was, but having now spent many happy hours basking in the luminous quality of his writing I know it won’t be my last. This is happiness indeed.

Set in 1950s Ireland, the story begins as Noel, a boy in his late teens who has dropped out of the seminary following a crisis of faith, returns to the rural community of Faha to live with his grandparents. He has arrived at a highly significant time in the town’s history: it is about to receive electricity for the first time. While Noel struggles with contemplating his future, the family are joined by a newcomer and lodger, brought to Faha by the forthcoming electrical works but with something far more profound on his mind. Christy is on a moral mission to right a great wrong he did to one of the town’s inhabitants many decades ago when he was a young man. For Noel, he provides a window onto parts of humanity he hasn’t yet experienced, the friendship he needs and the impetus to see himself and his future in a new light.

The novel’s structure places the events very firmly within a defined time frame, one that serves to highlight the momentous, quasi-mystical nature of the happenings contained within it. Much as Mary Poppins can only stay until the wind changes, so we know this magical moment won’t last, but also that the town and its characters will be shaped by it for the decades to come. The first notable herald of unusual times is the weather: in Faha, we are told, it rains almost constantly, so the appearance of sunshine is in itself a small miracle, one which is met with pleasure but also incredulity and a sense of the normal order of things being thrown somewhat out of kilter. The coming of the electricity provides another framing device, the novel starting with the news that electrification is on its way and ending with the flicking of the switch that will finally bring modernity to the community. Then there is Christy, whose residence in the town in ostensibly connected to the electrical installation, but who is almost a spiritual presence (guru? sage? I hesitate to say a Christ-like figure, but a clue in the name perhaps?) and one whose appearance in Faha we know to be transient – when the electricity comes, he will go.

This sense of spirituality is the cornerstone of the novel. Human, worldly passions are treated with a reverence that elevates them to something ethereal; even the slightly comedic infatuations of an inexperienced teenage boy are spoken of in deferential terms, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek at times. Music is vitally important, and Noel and Christy’s nocturnal sojourns to the local pubs in search of the best live performers are themselves akin to a spiritual quest. The fact that they are usually blind drunk by the time they head home, and that their inebriated cycling exploits make for some hilarious passages in the novel, strangely (cleverly) doesn’t in any way detract from the sense of joy, elevation and release that comes from following their passion. The whole novel could be said to be one of metaphor; the coming of electric power is poised to illuminate Faha just as the coming of Christy and the events that unfold as a result bring enlightenment to the life of narrator Noel. Even the name Noel has etymological links to the Latin for “birthday” or “relating to birth”; no coincidence perhaps for a character who spends the novel on a journey of self-discovery, personal growth and deeper understanding of those around him as he truly lives perhaps for the first time.

Appropriately, the writing itself is sublime; at times, reading the novel felt like being rocked to sleep in a hammock, the prose lilting, ebbing and flowing but never less than pinpoint precise. On almost every page there was a turn of phrase that made you pause for a second to take in the perfection. Niall Williams takes great care to afford even the most mundane moments a sense of beauty, as if to remind us that everything about this life is wondrous. He also clearly has enormous affection for the rural way of life that has now disappeared; technologically speaking the people of Faha may be backward but they have something special in their sense of community and determined self-sufficiency that we too come to love and admire as the novel goes on. Electricity, that great innovation that we couldn’t in the 21st century do without, seems incongruous and unnecessary here, a blight on tradition that signals an ending as much as it does a beginning.

I fell completely and utterly in love with this novel; I defy you to read it and not do the same! If you’ve read it already – or any of his other books – do tell me what you thought.

Happy reading x

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – review

You know, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know exactly what Shuggie Bain was about before I started reading. I can think of occasions in the past when simply discovering the theme of a book – A Little Life, My Absolute Darling – has been enough to put me off even trying it, despite the fact that the writing has been praised by critics and readers alike. So if I’d known I was about to embark on a novel depicting alcoholism, rape, domestic violence and child sexual abuse, there’s no WAY on earth I would have gone anywhere near it. And I would have missed out on one of the most affecting, haunting and all-round superb books of 2020.

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s and 1990s, Shuggie Bain tells the almost unbearable story of Agnes Bain and the three children who, as the years go by, bear the brunt of the addiction that slowly dismantles their mother piece by piece. Shuggie is the youngest, and it’s he who frames the novel; we first meet him as a teenager living an independent yet pretty dismal and unfulfilled life at the very start of the book, before going back in time to his early years and following him as he grows up amid the wreckage of a family that’s breaking apart. The neglect, poverty and unpredictability of living with an alcohol-dependent parent are not the only things he has to deal with: as the book progresses and Shuggie grows older, he can’t shake the sense that he is different from the other children and doesn’t fit in. He is bullied and mocked – by adults as well as other children – and finds himself more and more alone, escaping to imaginary worlds that he creates for himself during the lonely days when he can’t face school and can’t face home.

If outside world is hostile, home holds just as many terrors. One of the most striking elements of the story is the way addiction instills fear in the sufferer’s loved ones. Is Shuggie’s mother going to be drunk or sober when he gets home from school? If she’s been drinking, is she going to be celebratory, vindictive or despairing? If she’s drunk but still cheerful, can Shuggie stop her drinking herself to the next stage of intoxication, the stage of anger and recrimination? I can’t remember the last time my heart broke so completely when reading a book as it did when I watched this little boy taking care of his inebriated mother in a way far beyond his years, desperately trying to keep further alcohol out of her reach, trying to distract her from her destructive whims and reacting with devastating practicality when she finally loses consciousness.

So far you might imagine that Agnes Bain would be an extremely unlikeable character – after all, what kind of parent would put their child through this? If I had to put my finger on the area in which the novel most excels (hard to do when it’s amazing in so many ways) I’d say it’s in the way Douglas Stuart manages to keep us on side with characters who could at first glance be incredibly unappealing. Yes, Agnes is an alcoholic whose children go hungry so she can feed her habit and whose youngest son is left vulnerable to abuse because she isn’t there to look out for him; but the things we see her go through in her own life are equally shocking. Her second husband is brutish, violent and unfaithful. Her relationship with her parents is not straightforward; she is no stranger to physical violence from that quarter. The other men she encounters while she is at her most vulnerable range from outright abusive to unreliable and enabling. I doubt there’s a single reader who’d be unable to feel sympathy for Agnes at least at some point during the story.

Calling the novel a social commentary makes it sound a bit dull and dry, and that’s absolutely not the case, but I did feel there was a hugely important wider point behind the minutely observed individual stories. Poverty and a lack of opportunity traps not just Agnes but entire communities; small wonder, then, that addiction and other substance abuse become one of the few escapes available. To say the book’s message is that Agnes’s alcohol dependency is a direct result of social policy would be a massive oversimplification, but the seeds of the argument are certainly there if you feel inclined to read the book in that way. Personally, this more “political” aspect is something that struck me very strongly and haunted me for some time afterwards: it’s all too easy, from a position of privilege, to pass judgement on others who haven’t had access to the opportunities we’ve had, and to make assumptions about what might be called their “life choices” – when in fact they have almost no choice at all.

So how does this book remain in any way readable with all its bleakness and tragedy? The answer for me is quite simply, Shuggie. No matter what happens, you read on, and you read on for Shuggie. You get through it with him and for him, and you feel as if by reading his story you’re somehow there holding his hand through the worst of times. And strangely, when it ends, although there’s no denying you’ve been put through the wringer emotionally, you’re not left with a sense of despair – because Shuggie loves his mother no matter what, and it’s that love that cuts through the novel’s darkness and provides a tiny, but absolutely crucial, light.

I prefer to recommend rather than beg, but this time I’m begging shamelessly! You won’t just read this book, you’ll live it; so please, try it – let it get under your skin and into your head, and appreciate the awesome power of what a book can do.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – review

I don’t normally go for YA books, and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed any on This Girl’s Book Room, but if they’re not usually your cup of tea either please do stay with me; the book I’m talking about today is one that defies categorisation and quite simply should be read by everybody, whether you consider yourself a fan of YA or not. The book’s narrator is William, a 15 year old boy whose world is turned upside down one horrendous day when his older brother Shawn is shot dead. He is no stranger to gun violence; no one in this community is. When the first shots ring out he instinctively follows the rules that have been drummed into him and his friends: run, hide, lie down flat. But these are only the first set of rules to follow; the second set of rules are for what comes afterwards, when you’ve seen your loved ones lying dead on the ground, rules that are so ingrained among the inhabitants of the community that everyone knows them without knowing how or why. Rule 1: No crying. Rule 2: No snitching. Rule 3: Revenge. Following these rules isn’t a choice – it’s an obligation, which William sets out to fulfil, armed with Shawn’s gun. He steps into the lift that will take him down and out of his block – and then the extraordinary happens. The lift stops at the next floor, and as the doors open he is joined by a wholly unexpected companion, one who he used to know very well; one who is now dead. At each floor the lift stops and at each floor William encounters another ghost, all of them people who played a significant part in his life, and who all died untimely and violent deaths as the cycle of killing and revenge spun on and on. As they tell their stories, the biggest tragedy of all comes into focus, namely that no death in these circumstances can ever be isolated, but rather becomes the catalyst for more killing, a link in a heartbreaking chain that has no end in sight.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Long Way Down is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read; I started reading and didn’t stop until I was done, and when I was done I was a broken wreck. The subject matter alone pretty much guarantees a novel of emotional heft, but here’s the real stroke of genius: it’s entirely written in verse. I once heard poetry described as “language under pressure”, and that’s precisely the effect it has here – pressure, intensity and immediacy. The writing is sparse, sometimes only a handful of words on a page, but with this method of storytelling every single word has to count, and it does. Even the briefest phrases are chosen with almost excruciating care, and I was left completely stunned by the raw emotional power that could be contained in such spare poetry, with every single word a blow. I don’t know whether the author intended the effect to be similar to the gunshots that are pivotal to his story, but that’s how reading it felt – short, sharp hits of pain. I’ve never experienced poetry used in this way before, and it blew me away.

Then there are the searching questions that the author leaves bouncing round your head after the final page. As William rides down in the lift, he is confronted with the possibility that perhaps there is a choice. By exacting revenge, he might hope to assuage at least some of the feelings of grief and injustice triggered by the murder of his beloved brother; yet in doing so he is making himself the next link in the chain of brutality and ensuring the killing will continue – he might even be the next to die. Or he could turn round, go home and break that chain, and take a stand against the rules that call for more death, over and over again… How much of our existence is a choice, and how much is forced upon us by our upbringing, our community, the social circumstances in which we find ourselves? Judgement from a place of privilege is absurdly easy, but Jason Reynold’s mission is to make it difficult, and to sweep away any preconceptions we may have had.

Reading – and enjoying – this novel so much also opened my eyes as to how narrow my reading often is, and how all too often I dismiss books, almost without thinking about it, because they don’t fit into my preconceived ideas about what is interesting, relatable or relevant to me. I should say a huge thank you to Alfie @Elfcouncillor for the glowing recommendation, without which this amazing novel would have completely passed me by! If you’ve read it I’d love to hear your thoughts as always.

See you back on the blog very soon x

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – review

I feel duty-bound to start this review with a warning: you should only pick up this book if you’re prepared for it to take over your life completely until you’ve finished it. Seriously, to call it addictive is an understatement – Daisy Jones and her dysfunctional cohorts will worm their way into your heart and stay lodged there with a longevity few fictional characters achieve.

The story feels familiar, and indeed you don’t have to be a music aficionado to know it’s one that’s been played out many times in the real world: a band experience a meteoric rise to fame, only for tensions within the group to cause it to implode in spectacular fashion, putting an end to both friendships and careers in the process. The novel begins when the band in question are known simply as The Six, but it’s the arrival of the striking, uber-confident Daisy Jones as frontwoman that kicks off the events that will ultimately be everyone’s undoing. I’m aware as I write this that the bare bones of the story arc sound a bit ho-hum and very predictable, but what sounds like a tale we’ve all heard before, in the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid morphs into something magic.

Let’s start with the setting: 70s America, a nostalgically rendered pre-iTunes world where the expert craftsmanship of the album and the electricity of live performance are the keys to musical success. I’m far too young sadly to remember the era, yet somehow the way it was written sparked off a yearning in me for this vastly different time – aided in part perhaps by the fact the story is told through the characters’ own reminiscences. There’s no rose-tinting – the hedonistic combination of the proverbial sex, drugs and rock’n’roll represents freedom, fun and wild indulgence but it comes hand in hand with its flipside of addition, infidelity and emotional hangovers that out-punch the physical ones. Yet the pleasure and the pain are both equally intoxicating and compelling; you can’t help but acknowledge one couldn’t exist without the other.

The absolute stroke of genius, however, in Daisy Jones and The Six is the format in which it’s written. The entire book takes the form of an interview transcript, with the character’s name followed by their dialogue. When it comes to creating a sense of authenticity you can’t get much better than this; the result is a cast of characters who seem so real you can’t believe this is a fiction; it will have you running to Google just to double check the band didn’t actually exist! At first it feels almost like reading a lengthy magazine article; the format lends the writing an immediacy and a pace that drives the story along at a rattling speed. What took me by surprise though was the emotional gut-punch Daisy Jones and The Six managed to pull off as the story drew nearer its end. The genuine pain I felt for some of the characters was unexpected given there remains no descriptive language and no intervention by a narrator to guide our sentiments in the desired direction. When a writer is relying purely on dialogue to do the heavy lifting for them it has to be spot on, and this never hit a false note. The root of all the sadness can perhaps be boiled down to the fact that no-one can ever really understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, even those people closest to them. The irony here is that we get to see it all as each character speaks in turn: we hear polar opposite interpretations of events spelt out in the words of the participants themselves, each assuming their version of events is true – they never get to hear as we do the contradicting viewpoint that would have altered their perspective and just maybe allowed them to prevent the heartbreaks and the rifts that tragically go on to last a lifetime.

Of the many books I’ve read over the last few months, this one stands out a mile. Everyone who’s read Daisy Jones and The Six (or enjoyed the audiobook, which I gather is extremely well done) has showered it with effusive praise, and I’m happy to join the fan club. If you’ve read it too I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – review

I read lots of books that I’d be happy to call great. I read loads of books that I’d go on to recommend to friends and family. But every now and then one comes along that blows everything else out of the water and takes its place on the pedestal reserved for the absolute zenith of quality writing. You can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this; The Vanishing Half is one such book and I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that comes close to achieving what this novel managed to do. In fact, I’ve been sitting indecisively at the laptop for some time now, wondering where an earth to start – and how to convey the sheer perfection of its emotional heft, sublime writing and arresting story.

Well, let’s start with a plot summary. The novel follows the lives of a pair of twins – Desiree and Stella – who are born in the small American town of Mallard in the 1940s. It’s an unusual place; its founder, Alphonse Decuir, was a freed slave (and the twins’ ancestor) whose dream was to build a town populated by a black community, one which “refused to be treated like Negroes”. Yet his ideal vision was one of “lightness”; we are told how:

"...he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.  A more perfect Negro.  Each generation lighter than the one before." 

And it’s skin colour that ultimately drives the twins in very different directions. Desiree lives out her life as the black woman she is, but once the adolescent Stella realises she can pass for white, her life is set on a trajectory that sees her leave her family, and hometown and her identity behind to forge a new persona – a persona that is white. The women’s choices have consequences that last a lifetime, ones that are borne not only by themselves but by their children, who become the ultimate victims of a life defined by lies, evasion and subterfuge.

What drew me into the novel straight away was the evocative depiction of small-town America as it was in the mid twentieth century. The descriptions of the mundane – the familiar and unchanging clientele at the local diner, the twins watching Audrey Hepburn movies at the local picture house, their mother in her rocking chair shelling beans – are made to seem at once inconsequential and loaded with meaning, nostalgic and yet utterly authentic. The writing carries with it a real sense of affection on the part of the author towards not only her characters but the world they inhabit, flawed and brutal though it may be.

This brutality, when it appears, is a real shock, a flash of horror incongruous against the seemingly gentle, benign setting; it marks the beginning of what will be a tragically common thread through the twins’ lives – racism and the violence that all too often comes with it. At times it takes the form of social discrimination, ironically by members of the community who consider themselves

"fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging clubs at colored college students.  They thought [Martin Luther] King was an impressive speaker - they might even have cried at his funeral, that poor young family - but they still wouldn't have allowed the man to move into their neighbourhood."

At other times, when the white community’s sense of their inherent privilege is threatened, social exclusion turns to violent action – sometimes under the cover of darkness, at other times in metaphorical and literal daylight, invading the very places where people believe they can feel safe and secure. These parts of the book are hard to read, but crucial to the painful truth that Brit Bennett is exposing through her novel: racism is everywhere, from the thugs that do their fatal damage with a crowbar to the white-collar workers of affluent suburbia who inflict theirs through petitions, gossip, bullying and harassment.

Ultimately, I’d say this was a novel about belonging, and it asks the question of its characters again and again. Stella, by passing as white, gains access to a section of society who would never allow her to belong if they knew the truth of her ethnicity. Desiree, returning to Mallard as an adult, has to face up to the reality of belonging in a place she always promised herself she’d leave behind her. And when the twins’ children take over the baton of the story, the novel’s tack changes again, charting the struggle of finding your place in the world when there are so many unanswered questions about your family’s past hanging over your head. It was at this point, when Desiree’s daughter Jude leaves Mallard for the other side of the country, hoping to fulfil her potential at college, that the story went off in a direction I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to say much more at this point without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll leave you (hopefully) to read the book and discover for yourself where the story goes. What works so well, though, is that even as the novel branches out, the author keeps bringing all her threads back together at just the right point to keep the tapestry holding together and to remind us as readers how and why things got to where they are.

I could go on writing about The Vanishing Half for days and still not have covered everything I want to say; I can’t remember the last time there was so much to love crammed into one book. The evocation of time and place is spot on; the characters live, breathe and exist without ever striking an inauthentic note; every description, every line of dialogue, every tiny incident is treated with exquisite care and attention. It’s a story about race, yes, but it succeeds as such because it’s also a story about real people – their frustrated ambitions, failed relationships, lies, loves, hopes and regrets. It is without doubt THE best book I’ve read in 2020 and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Is it a sad book? In many ways yes, and yet for all the heartbreak there are glimmers of hope that keep pushing resolutely through the grief and the pain, meaning that when we come to the end, despite everything we’ve gone through in the company of these characters, we don’t feel any sense of despair.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this book for yourself! Thanks for reading.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg – review

Any novel featuring a precocious clique of university students acting out a lethal drama of arrogance, manipulation and murder is inevitably going to draw comparisons with The Secret History. Most of these comparisons are, let’s be honest, going to be unfavourable, because Donna Tartt’s first (and in my opinion best: discuss) novel is a masterclass in campus nastiness and post-adolescent hubris that has yet to be bettered. I’m not surprised that Tartt gets a mention on the book’s back cover, but to assume this is going to be a mediocre attempt at a carbon copy would be to do The Truants a disservice.

However, I openly admit that when I started reading it, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to unfold. I’ve read a couple of novels with similar set-ups (The Bellwether Revivals, If We Were Villains) so was pretty sure what to expect: an insular group of characters whose vices, obsessions and jealousies eventually tear the obnoxious clique apart from the inside. Kate Weinberg begins her book by introducing a collection of characters who appear to fit into this mould. Jess Walker, from whose point of view the story is written, is a frustrated girl who has lived out her life thus far as the bored, almost-invisible “middle child” in a pretty unremarkable middle class family. On her arrival at university she is immediately drawn to the absurdly wealthy, socially fearless and uninhibited Georgie and the two of them form a slightly unexpected but inseparable pair. It’s not long before this fledgling friendship expands to include two young men: Nick, another student and Alec, a South African journalist who although not enrolled in the university, delights in turning up on campus to argue with and humiliate the lecturers. Every dysfunctional group needs a force to drive it to its ultimate destruction, and it’s Alec who is the catalyst for the events that follow. His position as the influencer of the group is easy to understand; he has a seductively tragic backstory, a life experience his younger admirers lack, and a level of eccentricity and individualism that falls just on the right side of appealing. Crucially, he is also incredibly charming – an asset that will have serious repercussions for those who fall under his spell.

So far, so unsurprising: but the author throws another character into the mix, one who I found the most intriguing of the entire novel. Lorna is a university professor whose reputation for academic excellence and cutting edge ideas earns her something of a celebrity status among her students, in the eyes of Jess most of all. At first I had her painted as a somewhat insubstantial personality, a stylish yet hollow woman who knew how to put on a performance and who took undue delight in the hero-worship she received from her naïve pupils; as the novel progresses, however, she becomes more of an enigmatic figure and we’re never sure how much of the mystique surrounding her is a fabrication, a figment of Jess’s obsession, and how much is founded in reality.

I was expecting The Truants to remain quite insular in its focus and claustrophobic in its setting, as is often the case with stories of this kind, but I was actually very happy to find it take off in an unexpected direction. In the first chapters there are all the hallmarks of pending self-destruction: drinks, drugs and romantic attachments, some concealed and some very much less so. However, the author cleverly decides to split her close-knit group apart midway through the novel, and this gives the book room to become a different sort of story. The second half becomes almost more akin to a thriller, with a mystery to be unravelled, yet the writing manages to balance the excitement of an unsolved puzzle with an increasingly astute focus on the characters and their confusion, passion, guilt and pain. Jess carries the story in ever-increasing solitude as others fall by the wayside, and eventually it comes down to the relationship between the troubled student and Lorna, the professor, mentor and caregiver to whom she is drawn like a moth to a flame. The connection between the two remains shrouded in questions to the end. Was there an element of sexuality there? Was the affection even genuine, or was it ultimately a relationship that served a purpose at a particular moment in time?

There are few neat answers for anyone involved in this story – and I liked that. The truth of life is that friendships drift apart, past betrayals cast a shadow over relationships that can taint them forever and people can disappear from your life overnight without warning and before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with the part they played in your journey. The partying students who we meet at the beginning of The Truants learn many of these hard lessons over the course of the book, and I think it’s that progression that prevents us from tiring of a collection of characters who are, to be brutally honest, mostly self-absorbed and not always that likeable. For all their faults, they will stick in your head – and I always feel that’s the mark of a well-written novel.

Thanks for reading; if you have any thoughts on The Truants I’d love to hear them, so do leave your comments below!