The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr - book review

Book Review | The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr

It’s hard to know where to start with a book like this; a book so unflinching and devastating that it’s definitely not one I would recommend to everybody. So I better start with a warning: this isn’t for the fainthearted, and content warnings abound in this book and, subsequently, in what I’ll discuss in this review.

Samuel and Isaiah are two enslaved young men on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi, a place that the enslaved characters refer to as ‘empty.’ In the most unimaginable set of circumstances, the two find solace within each other – friendship, companionship, and eventually, love.

‘Sometimes, in Mississippi, maybe in the whole world, except one other place lost to memory, the sky was heavy. It was thick with something unseen but surely felt.’

Jones doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of plantation life; the ritual rape, torture, back-breaking labour and degradation. But in his lyricism, and careful attention to the interior worlds of his characters, he makes it more than just that. He also shows us the small moments of communion, of peace, friendship, gossip, and love. In doing so, it feels like a reclamation of history – a voice given back to the voiceless.

‘Tiny resistances were a kind of healing in a weeping place.’

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a fateful trip to a Tennessee plantation I made in 2017. Newly arrived in the US, I was naïve – I thought that the point of going to a plantation was to open your eyes to the brutal history of enslavement and the lives of those who had been forced to toil to enrich the enslavers. How wrong I was. The guided tour spent the first hour walking the plantation house and learning about the ‘master’s’ love of horses. The last 5 minutes we were led into the grounds and shown some reconstructed shacks, with a footnote that they were trying to learn more about the history of the enslaved on the plantation, but there weren’t many records so not much they could do *shrug*.

This novel is so powerful because we haven’t heard these voices, and Jones brings them so vividly to life. A powerful and effecting theme running through the novel is that of a severed connection to history. The enslaved characters in the novel cannot ever know their history – most don’t know their parents or the names that were given to them at birth.

‘The sound… made Amos long for the old place – Virginia. The longing was misplaced. That wasn’t home and neither was this: not these shores, certainly, but which ones, exactly, he knew he would never know, and that was where the pain was.’

Jones effortlessly slips in and out of different consciousnesses, both of the enslaved people on Empty and of the enslavers themselves. He develops complex male and female characters and gives us both a sweeping and intimate picture of life on the plantation.

There are times he does too much. There are interludes from a matriarchal African society who have fluid definitions of gender identity and sexuality, and we follow them as they are cruelly ripped from their homeland and forced on slave ships to the Americas. As important as this origin story is, it felt a little clunky slotted into the narrative. The writing throughout is also beautifully lyrical, but sometimes to the point of being inaccessible – when a slightly pared down style would be less alienating to a wider group of readers.

But these are small flaws in a hugely moving and accomplished novel. This is vitally important reading for anyone who wants to better understand the long-lasting legacy of slavery and institutional racism in the U.S., and I also encourage readers to seek out voices of colour on this book and these topics.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

6 Books I Read In One Sitting

You may notice that this topic looks awfully like yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I half drafted this weeks ago, and since then work has been very busy (I start my new job on Monday), then Tuesday came and went, so this is where we find ourselves…

The days of curling up with a book and reading non-stop now seem to be few and far between – but over the years I’ve had delightful read-in-one-sitting experiences. These are some of the most memorable.

One Day by David Nicholls

I took this with me on a 2-month trip to India in 2012, and the host family I stayed with definitely thought I was strange for being so absorbed in this book. Tony Parsons on the cover says it’s totally brilliant, and I can’t put it better myself. A contemporary classic (and I love the film, Ann Hathaway’s accent excepting).

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Holidays. The perfect time to indulge in lying-on-the-sofa-reading behaviours for days on end. I read Such A Fun Age during Thanksgiving 2019, and was so engrossed it even distracted me from shopping in the Black Friday sales.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling

This was published on the 21st June 2003 – how is that a whopping 18 years ago? But I remember the day like it was yesterday – chasing the postman in his red Royal Mail van around the village so that I could get my hands on it as soon as humanly possible. I think my first read was over 2 days, and then I promptly started it all over again and finished it in 24 hours.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I Know About Love accompanied me for a full cosy winter’s day in 2018 where I read it in one sitting, apart from breaks for tea and snacks. It feels like a chat with your best friend and is highly recommended millennial woman reading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

One of my favourite books of all time from the greatest Modernist writer VW – I’ve read this in one sitting on multiple occasions. It’s a short one, too – so if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This may be cheating a little, as took me about a month to get through the first chapter, but after that I was hooked. I read the rest of the novel almost in one sitting lying on the bottom bunk in a hostel on the Chinese island of Hainan, in summer 2015, and I would not stop talking about it.

Thanks for reading! Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Book of the Month referral code - $5


Book of the Month for $5!

I’ve recently joined Book of the Month, where you get one new hardback release (of your choice) to your door each month. This was my ‘new job treat’, and a way to read new releases without paying the sticker price or having to wait 6 months to get it from the library! If you’re interested in checking it out, this referral link means that you get your first book for a bargain $5. After that, it’s $14.99 +tax each month and you can skip whenever.

Book Review | Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

Book Review | Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

It’s 2009, and Jonah is a broke and lost aspiring playwright who has recently moved to New York. He’s working for a predatory boss at an upscale restaurant and barely scraping by. Estranged from his deeply evangelical parents who believe being gay is an unforgivable sin, he is isolated, desperate, and friendless.

 So when he sees an opportunity to catapult himself into a life of wealth – and possibly success – he begins to scheme. Richard represents the kind of life Jonah can only dream of: a wildly successful playwright who has a penchant for (much) younger men. An engineered encounter at one of Richard’s events one evening, and Jonah is one step closer to escaping his miserable life. Soon they are inseparable.

‘I became giddy with the possibility that after months of hell, filled with the pain of inventing an identity in an unforgiving metropolis, I might have finally found hope.’

There’s a building sense of dread as Jonah is pulled into Richard’s orbit – the sheen of money and success a gloss over a much more frightening reality. And Jonah feel this too, deep down – ‘underneath the giddy euphoria of our early romance,’ he says, ‘I felt a nascent unease.’

It’s at an extended trip to Richard’s gated compound in the Hamptons that things take a turn for the worst: there’s a deeply unsettling but magnetic feel about these chapters; you can’t look away, even as things grow ever darker. Richard’s home is staffed by much younger men, there to cater to his every whim. And during the debaucherous parties with Richard’s circle of powerful friends, things get even more horrifying. Jonah reasons that it’s different for him – he and Richard are in love; it’s not the same.

‘Life was a horror movie on repeat, less shocking because we knew the twists by heart.’

This intense and propulsive coming-of-age novel doesn’t just explore this summer, but also what came before and what comes after. The idea of the ‘father’ features heavily – not only a queasy nod to Jonah’s relationship with Richard, but also his own fractured relationship with his father, and his struggles at a relationship with an evangelical God who he has been told despises him for what he is.

There’s a lot packed into this novel: class and power dynamics, the #MeToo moment for the gay community, religious fanaticism, the untouchable lives of the elite. It ended up being a lot more than what I thought it would be. Towards the end we realise that the novel is epistolary, and that the writing of it is in an attempt to heal.  

What didn’t work so well: the novel felt overwrought and bordering on sensationalist at times, and it also suffers from a failure to flesh out plot points or character development that would make for a more interesting and believable exploration of the key themes. I felt particularly than the central conceit – the recipient of the letters and his relationship with Jonah – was used as a plot device. At more than one point, it felt like a first draft.

Nevertheless, Yes, Daddy is compulsively readable, described as a ‘modern gothic’. Parks-Ramage writes in expressive prose and creates a nuanced, complex protagonist who is flawed but deeply sympathetic. I’ve heard it’s being adapted for TV, so it’ll be interesting to see if the producers can sensitively balance all the weighty topics at play.

TW: rape, suicide, assault, conversion therapy, drug use

Book blog - 2021 new releases

4 upcoming releases I’m excited for

It’s a funny old time. Not much is known for certain – I’m finding it hard to think much beyond the next 2 months! But in this great age of uncertainty, I find it comforting to know that there are new book releases on the horizon that I have to look forward to.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Expected publication: September 2021

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.

Why I’m excited: I loved All The Light We Cannot See, and while the plot of this one looks quite quirky, I will read anything Anthony Doerr writes. His writing is just phenomenal.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Expected publication: August 2021

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Why I’m excited: I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriler, and The Girl On The Train was one of the psych thrillers that really kickstarted a wave of new psych thrillers. So you can bet I’ll be reading this one come August.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Expected publication: September 2021

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Why I’m excited: Sally Rooney really has been captapaulted into stratospheric heights, and although Normal People and Conversations with Friends were enjoyable but didn’t knock my socks off, I can’t resist getting on board a hype train once in a while.

Pub date is so far off there’s not even a final cover!

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Expected publication: January 2022

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.

Why I’m excited: Oddly, this structure sounds like Anthony Doerr’s – three timelines; long-ago past, near-present, and distant-future. That aside, it’s no secret that A Little Life is one of my favourite books of all time, and yes I have pre-ordered a signed copy even though I’ll have to wait all the way until January 2022!!


What are you looking forward to?

All images and descriptions taken from Goodreads.

Book Review Acts of Desperation

Book Review | Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

It’s 2012, and a directionless young girl falls head over heels in love with a troubled boy. If this feels like a familiar set up to me, surely it’s my own fault for gravitating to the same millennial relationship stories of woe. But here we are; directionless young girl – unnamed – is our narrator, and she meets Ciaran, Irish-Danish heartthrob at an art gallery in Dublin.

‘Love was the great consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind.’

She’s been living a life that seems hedonistic – relentless partying, excessive drinking, irresponsible sex – but we never quite believe that it is very much fun. Ciaran disapproves of her drinking, dislikes her friends, and in her desperation to make him the only planet around which she orbits, she tries to change for him. She hinges all of her self worth on his validation, obsessed with his attention despite his aloof, emotionally manipulative behaviour. This is a dark and highly toxic domestic set-up from the start – it’s hard to imagine that these two could ever be happy.

‘Some part of me had already decided to live for him and let him take over the great weight of myself.’

Nolan examines the way in which sexuality can be used as a currency, particularly for young women who are otherwise disenfranchised – our narrator is a university drop-out working dead-end admin jobs. ‘Being young and beautiful felt like a lot sometimes,’ she muses, ‘felt like it translated to real-world power,’. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘money shat all over it every time.’

She’s a character who is simultaneously indulging in all of her ‘excesses’ – the drink, the partying, the sex – and yet desperately fighting to contain them, the ‘reservoirs of need that existed in me and would never stop spilling out, ruining all they touched’. In a world where she has so little power, she self-harms and restricts her eating to punish herself and others. Ciaran is devastatingly oblivious – or perhaps he just doesn’t care.

It’s a relentlessly claustrophobic existence, where almost nothing happens outside of the confines of the relationship – hardly any friends, limited contact with family, even details as mundane as the weather are almost never disclosed. It’s excruciating at times, the intensity with which she pours herself into Ciaran and grapples with her identity, worth, and inner contradictions.

When their relationship begins to crumble, she remarks that ‘Every moment of my day was saturated by his absence, each second made damp and collapsing and airless beneath it.’ And that’s not an inaccurate description of what it’s like to read this book. It’s not easy to read, but equally hard to look away.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

CW: sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders

Books on my summer TBR

Top Ten Tuesday | Books on my Summer 2021 TBR

Summer TBR? It feels like I just wrote my Spring TBR (and let’s not talk about the fact that I only finished 4 of the 10 and DNF’d 2…) but I can’t resist a list, so here goes…

Crying in H Mart
‘An unflinching, powerful memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity.
The Prophets
A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.
Sparks Like Stars
An Afghan American woman returns to Kabul to learn the truth about her family and the tragedy that destroyed their lives in this brilliant and compelling novel.’

Mr Loverman
Mr Loverman is a groundbreaking exploration of Britain’s older Caribbean community, which … shows how deep and far-reaching the consequences of prejudice and fear can be. It is also a warm-hearted, funny and life-affirming story about a character as mischievous, cheeky and downright lovable as any you’ll ever meet.

Leaving Atlanta
‘An award-winning author makes her fiction debut with this coming-of-age story of three young black children set against the backdrop of the Atlanta child murders of 1979.’

Acts of Desperation
‘A bitingly honest, darkly funny debut novel about a toxic relationship and secret female desire, from an emerging star of Irish literature.

The Road Trip
Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel.’
Detransition, Baby
A whipsmart debut about three women—transgender and cisgender—whose lives collide after an unexpected pregnancy forces them to confront their deepest desires around gender, motherhood, and sex.

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

I can’t even pick what I’m most looking forward to! But I adored Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, so those should be solid choices. I don’t usually read contemporary romance but there’s something so irresitible about Beth O’Leary (reviews for The Flat Share and The Switch). I’m not sure how some of these got on my radar, like the Alexandra Chang and Megan Nolan, both of whom are new-to-me authors & I’m very excited to read.

What’s coming up on your summer TBR? Have you read any of these?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018.

Some recent posts

chimimanda ngozi adichie - purple hibiscus book review

Book Review | Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili and her brother, Jaja, live in the beautiful but stifling confines of their family home in Enugu, Nigeria. On the surface a life of privilege – they have a driver, a housekeeper and attend a prestigious school – their life at home is anything but easy. Their father Eugene, a respected man in the community, is tyrannical behind closed doors.

Eugene is a religious zealot, devoted to his Catholic faith and unaccepting of anyone who he deems a ‘heathen’ who follows ancestral religions – including his own father. There’s an unspoken web of wrongs and rights, and Kambili, Jaja, and their mother carefully try to walk the tightrope, never knowing what will incite fury. Content warnings abound at this point for serious, unforgivable acts of domestic violence, some of which amount to torture.

Yet Adichie draws Eugene as a complex character. We loathe him, but our protagonist loves him. It’s one of the remarkable feats of this novel that paints him as three-dimensional. And now seems like a good time to talk about the expertly-controlled narration, the psychological insight into the emotional turmoil of our fifteen-year-old narrator. Kambili is a quiet presence, but she holds her own – a powerfully vulnerable girl trying to make sense of the world.

There comes an opportunity for Kambili and Jaja to see another side of life. They’ve never spent a night away from their parents, but when their exuberant Aunt Ifeoma turns up, she manages to convince Eugene to let the siblings stay with her and her children for a few days. Kambili and Jaja arrive to a house much poorer than their own, but rich in ways theirs could never be; full of games, music, television and laughter.

‘It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.’

Outside the confines of this family drama, Nigeria is also brought to life; Adichie weaves the Igbo language throughout, the smells and tastes of traditional stews and soups, the seasonal harmattan winds which blow over from the Sahara. And humming in the background is the political and social postcolonial landscape of deep unrest, corruption and instability. There are things which no amount of money can shield you from.

‘There was something hanging over all of us. Sometimes I wanted it all to be a dream – the missal flung at the étagère, the shattered figurines, the brittle air. It was too new, too foreign, and I did not know what to be or how to be.’

This is a startling, expressive, and compulsive coming-of-age story, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to read it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

P.S. I also feel compelled to say that endorsement of this novel is in no way endorsement of Adichie’s transphobic views. Trans lives matter, we must affirm and protect them – end of story.

Book Review - Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Book Review | Magpie by Elizabeth Day

28-year-old Marisa may not yet have reached thirty, but she’s keen to settle down and start a family. When Jake, a decade her senior, walks into her life, she feels that everything is falling into place as it should. They’ve only known each other a few months before they’ve moved in together, and she quickly falls pregnant. They’re both delighted.

We don’t learn much about Jake – or Marisa, for that matter. Of course, our suspicions (this is a domestic noir, after all) immediately fall on Jake, a man who ‘belongs to that cadre of Englishmen who have never had to worry about learning the rules because they are the ones who make them.’ He’s cagey about his family, his corporate job seems to be going south, and he doesn’t go in for PDA. But Marisa puts this to one side – she loves him, after all, and she’s having his baby.

‘Marisa felt, with unexpected acuteness, the fragility of everything, the ease with which it could all be taken away from her.’

So when Jake suggests that they get a lodger to help pay the rent, Marisa agrees. Kate is a lithe, attractive and friendly 30-something who works in the film industry. But her behaviour starts to concern Marisa – it feels like she’s making herself a little too comfortable; cooking Jake his favourite mac ‘n cheese, using the master bathroom, leaving her belongings in their communal spaces.

And then – at a perfectly timed half-way through mark –  we start to realise that things are not, of course, as they seem. Not at all. And in fact, we might have fallen prey to a rather unreliable narrator.

This was a slightly uneven reading experience for me; it began a little flat, as I struggled to connect to Marisa and Jake and felt frustrated at the direction I felt the narrative was heading in – an unwitting young woman falling victim. But once the perspective shifts in the second half – that’s when things changed; the story becoming richer, the character insights stronger and the overall narrative energy really picking up.

Part of the plot centres around infertility, and Elizabeth Day (who has been very open about her own fertility journey) addresses this in a candid, empathetic way that shines a light on an experience that is a lot more common than most people realise. The novel does important work with telling this story in the context of a domestic noir, and it helps to flesh out the characters into three-dimensional humans.

‘She had always thought that if did the right thing, worked hard, got good results and a stable job, and tried generally to be a decent person, that life would progress in the way she anticipated.’

The ending, though… I don’t know. Perhaps a little too pat. I won’t say more than that; it’s nevertheless an absorbing read – I devoured it in two sittings – and having been a fan of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast for a while now, I’m glad to have read some of her fiction.

CW: psychosis, miscarriage, sexual assault

Magpie will be published in September 2021. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced copy. All quoted material subject to change.

Read if you enjoyed: The Push by Ashley Audrain, The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Other Black Girl book review

Happy Publication Day | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Happy publication day to The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, a compelling, biting, funny and sharp novel about working in the publishing industry as a Black woman, as well as a broader social commentary on race in contemporary America. I read and reviewed this back in February, and my full review is here. I mention in my review that things go a little bonkers towards the end, but there may have been editorial changes since then – so don’t let that put you off giving it a go.

Here’s the blurb:

Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.’

P.S.

Please buy from a bookshop who pays their taxes! Blackwells have free delivery in the UK and US, and Bookshop means you can shop online from your local bookshops – currently available in the US and UK! Another good place to look in other countries is eBay. (Not to get on a soapbox, but please don’t buy books from Amazon. If you need any convincing, have a read of this).