The Dinner Guest B P Walter

Book Review | The Dinner Guest by B. P. Walter

Rachel, working a dead-end job at a garden centre, is mindlessly scrolling Instagram. And then she sees something which makes her sit up. She quits her job, ends her lease, and moves to London – intent on finding the family she saw in the photo.

And as luck would have it, she does. The Allerton-Joneses are browsing a bookshop in their native Kensington, and Rachel engineers the perfect accidental meeting. From then on, she steadily ingratiates herself into their inner circle. But such a manoeuvre is not without its challenges. Whilst Matthew and Charlie Allerton-Jones are from the upper-echelons of British society, the very definition of being born with a silver spoon, Rachel’s meagre savings stretch to renting on a scary housing estate in Pimlico. Their fine dining and housekeeper-cooked meals contrast sharply with her discount Sainsbury’s pizzas. But Rachel knows she has to persevere with her plan, whatever the cost.

‘It’s a mirage. A charade. Stacks of money in concrete form, that’s all. Rows of houses filled with people who haven’t a clue about the horrors of this world.’

This domestic noir opens with a brutal murder, I should mention. When we first meet our protagonists, one of them is dead – and another holding a knife. But it will take the unspooling over the course of the novel to find out the how, and the why, behind this attack.

The pacing is steady, and I was engrossed in the plot and the cast of complex characters. The way that B P Walter deftly managed the twists and turns in the plot was one of the novel’s greatest strengths, divulging and withholding information at exactly the right pace to keep the reader engaged. I found the exploration of the lives of the mega-wealthy and what goes on behind the façade of respectability to be one of the most interesting things about this novel. It gives you a window into how such people live (Charlie name drops dinner with a past Prime Minister, garden parties with a verifiable Lord and Lady), and to just what extent that contrasts with the life Rachel leads. And – importantly – how money and connections enable the rich to act with impunity.

‘Back then, I’m not sure I ever felt guilty, knowing where a portion of our income came from. I’m not sure. You see, when you’re brought up being told certain things are the way of the world, it becomes very hard to question them when you’ve just accepted them for so long. And I’m not sure it bothers me much now.’

A very solid addition to the domestic noir genre, and highly recommended for anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with a bit more substance. My only gripe would be the way this is marketed – it’s not really appropriate to name drop Donna Tartt or to try to market this towards fans of a literary thriller. The title and tagline would also suggest that the dinner is a central point of this thriller – when that’s very much not the case, and the key plot points of the novel span the course of several decades. I hope that readers can go in with the right expectations and enjoy this gripping read for what it is.  

Read if you enjoyed: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, Our House by Louise Candlish

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. The Dinner Guest will be published on 27th May 2021.

Book Review | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella is trying to make it as a Black millennial in an extremely white industry – publishing. Having landed her dream job at prestigious New York publishing house Wagner, she’s worked hard to gain recognition as an editorial assistant. Sure, she has to put up with microaggressions on a regular basis – but for working under some of the country’s most eminent editors, it’s a price she’s willing to pay.

‘She could see the thread that ran between the cultural faux pas of major corporations and the major faux pas of police offers all over the country.’

When Harlem-bred Hazel starts working for Wagner, Nella is initially delighted to have another colleague of colour. But things start to grow uncomfortable as Hazel’s star rises and she begins to infringe upon projects and relationships promised to Nella. To her face a solid ally, Hazel soon becomes her worst nightmare.

This novel is so sharp and clever, with biting social commentary about race in contemporary America and, more specifically, how this plays out in workplaces across the country. It’s probably because Publishing is my jam that I found the Wagner setting so compelling and spot on. Harris addresses the very visible lack of diversity in the industry in an accessible and clear-eyed way that makes it patently obvious just how a) out of touch and b) legitimately bad for business it is to have the same old people uplifting the same old perspectives time and time again.

‘Her coworkers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn’t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house.’

Anyway, off my soapbox.

Things start to turn very sinister when mysterious notes show up on Nella’s desk, telling her to leave Wagner. Rather than report the threats, Nella determines to get to the bottom of it. But the encroaching sense of dread is dialled up as Hazel continues on her upwards trajectory, going so far as to get the head of Wagner, Richard, to donate a hefty sum to her non-for-profit start-up supporting Black poets. Nella’s self-assurance and sanity takes a hit, and she begins to question her relationships with those around her and her ability to do her job.

‘Her spiralling sense of self-worth had started to encroach upon her sanity; her sanity, upon her sleep; and her sleep; upon her ability to be a functioning human being at work. A functioning human being who was able to forgive and forget the fact that a colleague had mistaken her for a dreadlocked girl who was four inches taller than her.’

But then things go…a little south, narrative-wise. Honestly, this might just be because this is an early copy that needs more aggressive an edit – but there were some key plot points in here that had me scratching my head in confusion. I won’t give anything away, but there’s a sub-plot with an underground resistance movement, and some truly bonkers hair products, and although I’ve not got anything against a kooky turn, I really didn’t know what was going on in the latter 25% of this book. I am very much hoping these issues will be ironed out prior to publication, because this really is a compelling, bold and timely novel – and I don’t want readers to be put off by the opaqueness of some key plot points.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Other Black Girl will be published on June 1st, 2021.

Top Ten Tuesday - Mardi Gras

Top Ten Tuesday | Yellow/Green/Purple covers in honour of Mardi Gras

Finally, a tangible pay-off for colour-coding my bookshelves! This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a showcase of yellow/green/purple book covers in celebration of Mardi Gras, a festival I knew nothing about before moving to the US (we call it Shrove Tuesday in the UK, and it just involves eating as many pancakes as possible in one sitting). In normal times, thousands of people flock to New Orleans each year to celebrate the festival, with much merriment, elaborate costumes, and alcohol consumption.

Yellow

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

A 2020 Christmas gift and one I’m very much looking forward to.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

One of the most powerful books I read in 2020, spanning generations of African-American and Ghanaian history. Click here for my full review.

Olive by Emma Gannon

A refreshing exploration of the decision not to to have children, written with levity, humour and self-awareness. More thoughts in my review here.

Green

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Ava is an Irish millennial adrift in Hong Kong, and beyond that exposition, this is a hard one to describe in a sentence. Click here to see my full review.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is full of her trademark charm and wit, chronicling Nina’s experience dating in her 30s and maintaining friendships admist huge life changes. Full review here.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Gripping and immersive, I enjoyed this thriller-like exploration of Gilead and the fall of the monstrous regime made famous in The Handmaid’s Tale. Read my full review.

Purple

Saltwater to Jessica Andrews

A coming-of-age story told in a lyrical and fragmentary style, I’ve not yet picked up Saltwater but I’ve had my eye on it for a while now. Plus, that cover is my kind of thing.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I’ve still not read this classic piece of American literature, heralded as one of Toni Morrison’s most affecting and powerful novels, but it’s on my list.

The Divines by Ellie Eaton

Published a few weeks ago, this novel is described as having the ’emotional power of Normal People and the reflective haze of The Girls’ – and that’s enough to pique my interest.

Book Review | Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

The world of Fake Accounts is our world four years ago – a world on the brink of Trump’s election that is ‘ending, or would begin to end soon.’ It’s a world that feels both frantic and desperate but – or perhaps this is why – a world completely turned in on itself, to lives lived online in an attempt to forget that the world is soon ending ‘if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media.’

Our protagonist is a blogger in New York, whose job is to essentially ‘reword pieces other people had written and [add] mean jokes’ in a ‘rote, pseudo-intellectual’ dismissive tone. She finds out that her boyfriend, who ostensibly eschews social media, has been secretly running a popular conspiracy theorist Instagram account. On unlocking her unsuspecting boyfriend’s phone, she comments –

‘At first there was too much information to take anything in; I felt frantic, like I had just entered a Walmart with the whimsical idea that I might get some socks, maybe a magazine, maybe a new kind of frozen burrito, and instead was confronted by the overwhelming vagueness of my desires.’

I won’t include the precise events that follow (spoilers) but soon afterwards she finds herself adrift in Berlin, lacking the drive to make a life there but also lacking the impetus to return home.

‘I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality but representative of it.’

My feelings about Fake Accounts ricocheted all over the place. Initially I was hooked; the wry and irreverent voice, the solipsism and cynicism, the humour. Then the stretch from about half way to just before the end became tedious, as the narrative rambled with no discernible direction – and I struggled to care what happened.

The problem with the directionless of the narrative was that the narrative is essentially just a reflection of our protagonist’s inner world – one long inner monologue – and it becomes incredibly difficult to decipher anything real about her (I know I know, this is the point. But still). She so rarely tells the truth to anyone she encounters – creating a fantastical string of lies from burlesque dancer to tax accountant – making every interaction, particularly with the men she dates, a constructed performance of selfhood. And even when she’s breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader, there’s such a constructed wall and a vehement objection to vulnerability or sincerity of any kind.

I loved the protagonist’s voice, in a kind of love-to-hate way. Think Lena Dunham’s character Hannah in Girls. If you couldn’t stand her, this isn’t the book for you (unnamed protagonist is just as self-absorbed and pretentious, but lacks Hannah’s endearing earnestness).

‘I replied to accept, thinking that a strange or upsetting experience would be at least different, and more importantly that it would give me something to do, keeping me from descending entirely into self-pity and ruminations on time death love solitude identity etc.’

I’m not sure, honestly, what to make of it. I know that it’s saying something bigger about the lives we construct for ourselves online, the nature of selfhood and performance and power. And it is smart, and incisive, and ironic. But it didn’t feel altogether articulated, and it got bogged down in the minutiae of things we really don’t care about in a rambling narrative. I’ve no doubt it’ll spark interesting debate, love it or loathe it.

With thanks to the publisher via Edelweiss for the advanced copy. Fake Accounts was published on 2nd February 2021.

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

Book Review | Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

CW: sexual assault, incel culture, self-harm

Owen Pick is an odd duck, whose unhappy childhood has transitioned into a miserable adulthood. After the death of his mother, he finds himself “in Tessie’s spare room with the saggy mattress, which, like everything about his tragic existence, he’d grown used to and come to accept unquestioningly.” Now in his thirties, he’s just lost his teaching job over allegations of sexual misconduct, and finds himself in a dangerous internet rabbit hole as he’s sucked into online ‘incel’ forums.

“Owen loves the comments, the grey places where the dusty trolls live; he loves to see how low some people will stoop to get the endorphin rush of a reaction.”

Cate and her husband Roan Fours live across the street from Owen with their two children. They typecast Owen as a creep, and suspect him of being responsible for a spate of attacks on young women in their leafy Hampstead neighbourhood.

Saffyre, the eponymous ‘invisible girl’, is seventeen years old and struggling with the weight of childhood trauma. She was sent to see psychiatrist Roan as a child, after her uncle found her self-harming. But she felt abandoned and at a loss when he told her their therapy was done and that she no longer needed his support.

When Saffyre vanishes, Owen becomes prime suspect. From the moment he is taken in for questioning, he is vilified in the media, who have a field day from his oddball looks and shifty demeanour. When apprehended by the police at his house, he has just recently attempted to cut his fringe, and has dried blood down his forehead from a slip – and the journalists are waiting at the gate, baying for blood. The sensationalism and trial in the court of public opinion is reminiscent of much British tabloid coverage, often ruining lives in the pursuit of selling papers.

The split first-person narration takes us into the heads of Owen, Cate and Saffyre. We see each of them dissect their lives and what’s brought them to this point, with insight into their unspoken pasts, difficult relationships and complex feelings of self-worth. The anchor point is the single event that occurs on a dark, cold Valentine’s Day night.

Jewell writes in three very different perspectives, and I found Owen’s character to be the most interesting. She explores, in a nuanced and careful way, the slippery slope of radicalisation for isolated young men, rejected by society at large. In incel culture, these extremist views take the form of hatred against women, and we watch Owen grapple with these horrifying beliefs and try to reconcile it with who he sees himself to be as a person. But all of our characters are grappling with unresolved trauma.

“She has been trying so hard to stop thinking of herself as a bad person, but as she lies in bed that night, the sudden awful knowledge of it gnaws at her consciousness until she feels raw and unpeeled.”

I’d been in a two-week reading slump, and I needed a fast-paced psychological drama to get me out of it. Thankfully, Lisa Jewell delivered with this atmospheric and evocative novel. I’m knocking off half a star for the ending, which was all a little too pat and easily resolved, and I would have loved to see greater character development in a more built-out narrative. But despite those qualms, I devoured this one in a couple of sittings.

Anne Tyler and Zadie Smith

Six Degrees of Separation | Anne Tyler to Zadie Smith

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us.

The starting book this month is Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. I haven’t read this one (or any Anne Tyler, actually) – but judging by the Goodreads description, it’s about a reclusive man whose careful routines are disrupted by a teenager showing up at his door claiming to be his son.

Another book that made it onto the 2020 Booker Prize Longlist, like Redhead, is Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I really enjoyed this compelling debut – through nuanced characters and a simple plot, Reid exposes the difficulties of talking about race with well-meaning white people.

There seems to have been a flurry of books with ‘fun’ in the title in recent years, and another one I read and enjoyed was The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, charting the dynamics of a middle-class, suburban midwestern family over five decades. There was a lot of criticism for this novel being over-long and self-indulgent, but I enjoyed sinking into this one with all its complex and nuanced familial relationships.

I adore novels that take us through the expanse of a lifetime, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is one such deeply affecting and achingly funny and sad read, starting in 1940’s Ireland and taking us through New York City in the 1980s AIDS epidemic and beyond.

I’ve never written about theatre on here, but is another one of my great loves, and since this exists in a play text, I think it counts for the purposes of this post – one of the most moving and devastating plays I’ve ever seen is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which takes place in New York in the 80s and also charts the effects of AIDS on the story’s protagonists. When such a time comes that we can enjoy live theatre again, I hope more audiences get the chance to see it.

So while we’re on the topic of adaptations, I’ll end with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, her 2000 debut novel charting the friendship of WWII veterans living in London, and is an epic exploration of modern British life and the racial and cultural dynamics at play. The novel was adapted both in a 2002 BBC serialised drama, and taken to the stage in London a few years ago.

Thanks for reading my February Six Degrees!

Book tag

Covers That Could Do Better | Book Tag

I first saw this tag over on Ally Writes Things (originally created by CJ Reads) and it just felt like such frivolous fun that I’m giving it a go. I love browsing the library shelves and bookshops (pre-covid) and judging books by their covers, and so this is a lighthearted poking fun at the covers that are just not quite it. This is to say nothing of the so often wonderful content between the pages!

Say It Don’t Spray It: Cover with the most offensive use of type

The Heart's Invisible Furies
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

It’s no secret that this is one of my favourite books from the past couple of years – thank goodness this terrible cover is NOT the version I own! This font’s serifs makes it feel like a Western, and the arrows through the type are just aggressive, and the cover overall does nothing to reflect the dazzling story behind it.

She’s serving Reese’s Bookclub: Cover with the most commercial book club energy

Followers
Followers by Megan Angelo

I read this last year and it was such a surprising hit for me – the cover really undersells it as some sort of pastel-y chick lit but it is a lot more – the commodification of the self, the limits of privacy, a dystopian collapse… it brings a really darkly funny energy, none of which is reflected in this sanitised cover.

Yes girl, give us nothing! Cover with seemingly no energy put into it

Beloved
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Well, this cover feels like massive disservice to Toni Morrison’s masterpiece. Maybe I’m missing something secretly clever?

A face only a mother could love: Cover that is so hideous, but the book is so good, you can’t help but keep it around

The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is the copy of the book that I read as a teen, and it really brings a lot of mid 2000’s energy (this edition was published in 2005). Whilst it’s by no means the most terrible cover I’ve ever seen, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Three fonts? That cringeworthy tagline? The sultry half-face?

Take one thing off before leaving the house: Cover that could use one less element

Utopia for Realists
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

I picked this book up in one of our local Little Free Libraries and I’m really excited to read it as I’ve heard lots of good things about Rutger Bregman, but this cover is doing too much – the different shaped blocks with the jazzy price sticker announcements, the slightly clashing colour palette, the tagline squashed in the middle there – the designers clearly don’t believe in the power of white space.

Hypebeast: Cover that is clearly going for all the trends at the same time

The Divines
The Divines by Ellie Eaton

I’m actually very excited to read this one, and this cover is just my kind of thing, but it’s definitely capturing a du jour instagrammy style – the pastel pink, the incremental letter spacing, the abstract woman’s face/body, the disembodied flower – tick tick tick.

Thanks for reading & feel free to participate in the tag if it takes your fancy!

Three Women Lisa Taddeo Book Review

Book Review | Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women is a book that I waited for nine months on the library wait list. No kidding, I requested it back in May (when I was still hopeful that by the time my name was up the pandemic would be distant memory.) But here we are.

This is a journalistic tour de force – because that’s right – it’s the real, raw, messy relationships of three real women laid bare by Lisa Taddeo. She spent years immersed in the lives of these three subjects (and others who ended up ultimately withdrawing from the project).

Taddeo’s women are drawn with finesse and insight and empathy. There’s Maggie, groomed by her teacher in what she sees as a real love affair. Lina, trapped in a loveless marriage who reconnects with her high school sweetheart. And Sloane, beautiful and successful, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men in front of him.

All of the stories are compelling, though Maggie’s hit me the hardest. For those who’ve read My Dark Vanessa, it’s not hard to draw parallels – a young girl lured in by an older, trustworthy male figure – only to have their whole world collapse when they’re no longer the subject of desire. ‘Maggie feels she has done something wrong,’ Taddeo tells us, ‘His superpower is that he can make her feel stupid very fast. It’s not just that he’s older, and her teacher. It’s something else, but it’s also those things.’ For Maggie, a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, the ramifications of this gross abuse of power reverberate into her future in a devastating way.

‘There’s a train that chugs in the distance. Maggie is animated, thinking of future train rides, one-way tickets out of Fargo, into careers and sleek apartments in glassy cities. Her whole life stretches out before her, a path of imprecise but multiple directions. She could be an astronaut, a rap star, an accountant. She could be happy.’

It’s voyeuristic, of course – and it does leave you wondering how much is embellished for the sake of the story – but it’s refreshing to hear these frank deep-dives into the romantic lives of other women, an unapologetic voice given to female desire. There’s a sadness tinged throughout – but Taddeo passes no judgement on these experiences, steadfast in the role of a faithful narrator who will resist a defined beginning, middle, and satisfying denoument.

‘Lina knows the literal translation of I don’t want to hurt you is I want to have sex with you but I don’t love you.’

It isn’t a sweeping treatise on what it means to be a woman – this is a minuscule subsection of white America – but the feelings that Taddeo memorializes within these stories – of longing or self-loathing or restlessness or the desire for control – are universal. Taddeo gives weight to these three stories, in all their intimate, multi-faceted and complex realness. Worth the wait? I think so.

John Boyne A Ladder to the Sky

Book Review | A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Maurice Swift is single-minded in pursuit of his goal: to be one of the most eminent writers of his generation. The only problem is that he is essentially talentless, Machiavellian, and a master manipulator of everyone he meets.

He seizes the opportunity to befriend lonely, successful writer Erich Ackermann in a West Berlin hotel. The year is 1988, and Erich is in the city for a reading of his latest novel. Ingratiating himself into Erich’s orbit, helped in no small measure by his startling good looks and boyish charisma, Erich hires him as his assistant to accompany him on his book tour. Throughout the months they spend together, Maurice coaxes out of the old man a terrible admission from his childhood in Nazi Germany. Spotting perfect fodder for his debut novel, Maurice publishes the story to wide critical acclaim, propelling himself to stratospheric heights – as Erich is denounced, despised and laid waste.

“Did you ever wish you had a wife?” asked Dash. “Did you ever wish that you could just have lived a normal life instead of suffering the endless pain that men like us undergo, falling for beautiful boys who will never stay with us, no matter what we do for them?”

So Erich marks the first of Maurice’s victims, in a propulsive and wickedly enjoyable psychological drama that takes us across Europe and across the next three decades, leaving a quiet trail of devastation in its wake. The novel is narrated through every perspective other than that of Maurice – until the very end. And Maurice is in equal parts repulsive and enthralling to the reader, with so few scruples and yet the depths to which he will sink continue to surprise us, leaving a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach each time his latest deviance is revealed.

John Boyne is a masterful storyteller, and he writes characters with such insight and wit. It takes talent to juggle the crafting of three-dimensional and compelling perspectives alongside a wild ride of a plot, satirizing the world of publishing and the depths to which writers are driven for commercial and literary success, and all the while the tension mounts.

“How often do we see people as we want them to be, rather than as who they actually are?”

Witty, chilling and captivating – John Boyne is cementing himself as an author on my must-read list.