Book review - Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Book review: ‘Burntcoat’ by Sarah Hall – art and love in the shadow of a deadly virus ★★★★

There’s something unsettling about reading a moment in history as that moment is still happening. There’s not the perspective that comes from distance from the event having passed, it feels all a bit too close to home.

Thankfully (I suppose?) the virus ravaging Sarah Hall’s fictional world is not Covid-19 but something even worse, even deadlier, even more contagious. If it doesn’t kill you the first time, it will live in your cells until it does.

Why would anyone want to read about a pandemic while we’re still very much not through the woods of a pandemic? For me personally, it helps me to make sense of our current time. And this is a short book that is ambitious in its aims – it interrogates the meaning of art, particularly in the face of death, what it is to be intimate, and how precarious and precious life really is.

The precariousness of life is something Edith, our protagonist, knows only too well. When she’s a child, living in rural Northern England, her writer mother has a massive brain haemorrhage. The spectre of her catastrophic injury hovers over them both – while she regains some function, the doctors warn that a similar event could happen again at any time. As such, Edith is raised ‘capably and neglectfully, by a borrowed woman and her shadow.’ Eschewing a chronological timeline, the novel jumps around from Edith’s childhood, her rise through the ranks to become a celebrated modern sculptor, her period of lockdown at the pandemic’s onset and the years that have passed since.

One of the axes around which the plot spins is Edith’s relationship with Halit, a chef who has fled war in the Middle East. They meet shortly before the pandemic descends, and not wanting to spend lockdown apart, Halit moves in to Burntcoat, the converted warehouse where Edith lives and creates her art. Their relationship moves swiftly, an accelerated timeline in the face of the oncoming apocalypse. Their intimacy is a place within which to shield from the horrors unfolding in the outside world – the overspilling hospitals, widespread food shortages, society brought to the brink of collapse.

‘Do you remember? Is that even possible? The dark, burning river. The turning tide; everything loosening beneath tight forces. None of it was happening and it was all unstoppable. Closing the door when we got back, and promising each other we would be all right. All we had was love, its useless currency, its powerful denial.’

There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s the well-written kind – not too anatomical or too metaphorical. The atmosphere around Edith and Halit is also built up in a thick and feverish and sensual way – Sarah Hall’s vivid descriptions of place reminded me of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater.

‘I would walk back to the grandfather house in the arboreal dusk, the leaves above luminescing and murmuring like the low voice of a woman. The morning sun behind the forest was golden and open, the mouth of a fish.’

Sarah Hall began this at the start of England’s first lockdown. And two years on, the book starts to make sense of what might come next. Maybe we’ll learn to treasure the unimaginably precious and infinitely fragile life we’ve been given, maybe we won’t.

‘The world doesn’t come back as it was before. The seas and mountains remain, the cities slowly fill up again, jets take off over ochre and turquoise aprons. Finance begins to move. Children are allowed to play together. Humanity is re-established. There is grief, its long cortège; the whole world joins and walks. Such shock is both disabling and enlivening; everything before was a mistake. We will do it differently; we’ll repent. Consume less, conserve more, make sense of our punishment. It’s been said the virus reached levels of superiority other pathogens never have. Like the vastation of ice ages, and condensed gene pools, language, blood and milk, it will evolve us. Of course, the old ways return. Our substance is the same; even with improving agents. We are our worst tendencies. We remain in our cast.’

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The No-Show by Beth O'Leary - published today

Happy Publication Day | The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Happy publication day to The No-Show by Beth O’Leary!

I’m a big Beth O’Leary fan, and her latest book is no exception. Three women are all stood up by the same enigmtic Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day – and over the course of the novel, we begin to understand why. The characters are a fully fleshed-out and authentic cast, and although there are some darker turns that the story takes, it’s told with O’Leary’s trademark warmth and compassion.

Book review: ‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews – a hilarious and moving adventure through the eyes of a nine year old ★★★★½

Well, this was a riot.

Nine-year-old Swiv has been kicked out of school, so she’s spending more time than usual with her heavily-pregnant mum, Mooshie and decrepit but vivacious grandmother, Elvira. 

The matrilineal bonds in this family are messy, but they’re inseparable and they love each other fiercely. Mooshie is an aspiring and angst-ridden actress who spends her days fighting with directors. Elvira is the larger-than-life octogenarian who sprays hose pipes at policemen, lives in sweatpants and says ‘bombs away!’ when her pills scatter on the floor. What we come to learn is that both adult women are also battling trauma – that of growing up in a repressive religious community and of losing two close family members to suicide. Swiv’s father is nowhere to be seen.

‘Lou looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.’

Swiv, our narrator, is simultaneously innocent and wise. She knows her grandmother’s cocktail of drugs off by heart, is exasperated at her mother’s desires to smoke and drink whilst pregnant, and yet recoils in horror at the discovery of a pair of her aunt’s thongs and can’t quite understand why the adults around her behave as they do. But she is laugh-out-loud funny without being contrived, an authentic and refreshing voice that parrots the expressions of adults in her own niave way.

‘Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy which doesn’t mean she’s going to push an old geezer out of her vag, it means she’s too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted.’

There’s an irrepressible energy within these pages, and it’s told in a stream-of-consciousness style with no speech punctuation. Don’t let that put you off – it sweeps us up in its tide and takes us along on the journey, as Swiv and Elvira embark on a chaotic trip together to the US.

Fighting in this book is a triumphant rallying cry to persevere against tragedy, repression, patriarchy – all the forces that work to dim the light of these vivid and unforgettable women. ‘She has to fight to feel alive and to balance things out,’ Swiv says of her grandmother. ‘So she keeps fighting. She said we’re all fighters, our whole family. Even the dead ones. They fought the hardest.’

It’s hilarious and moving, and truly original. Right down to its bittersweet ending, it’s a triumph. 

‘Maybe you should tie me to the mast! Grandma shouted. Like my friend Odysseus! She winked at me. She was still drinking! If we tied Grandma to the mast and we tipped, she’d drown. I could hear Mom’s voice in my head saying, Why the hell did you tie Grandma to the fucking mast!’

I went on an ARC requesting spree… 4 new releases

Well, I clearly have no self-control. Despite the growing pile of books on my TBR shelf, I couldn’t resist a virtual visit to Netgalley last night… these new releases just looked too good to pass up.

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

“A dazzling, unforgettable novel about a young black woman who walks the streets of Oakland and stumbles headlong into the failure of its justice system—a debut that announces a blazingly original voice.”

Pub Date 07 Jun 2022

The early reviews in for this are excellent, so I’m hoping my reading experience is just as positive.

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

“Fathomlessly inventive and original, Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea is a portrait of marriage as we’ve never seen it before.”

Pub Date (US) 12 Jul 2022

I love this cover, what can I say.

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

“Bestselling author of Breasts and Eggs Mieko Kawakami invites readers back into her immediately recognizable fictional world with this new, extraordinary novel and demonstrates yet again why she is one of today’s most uncategorizable, insightful, and talented novelists.”

Pub Date 03 May 2022

I’ve not read Breast and Eggs (what a title) but I’ve heard good things so hoping I enjoy this one.

The Fell by Sarah Moss

“From the award-winning author of Ghost Wall and Summerwater, Sarah Moss’s The Fell is a riveting novel of mutual responsibility, personal freedom, and the ever-nearness of disaster.”

Pub Date 01 Mar 2022

I loved Summerwater so I’m looking forward to diving back into Sarah Moss’s evocative and descriptive prose.

Descriptions and pub dates taken from NetGalley.

Do you have better self control than I do when it comes to accumulating new books?! Have you read any of the above or do you plan to?

The Hop by Diana Clarke - book review

Book review: ‘The Hop’ by Diana Clarke – a refreshing, propulsive and empathetic story of the modern sex industry ★★★★½

Kate grows up poor, in rural New Zealand, with her unconventional mother, who she adores. To supplement the household income, Kate and her best (and only) friend Lacey start giving kissing lessons at school, and then go to work in the local strip club once they’re old enough.

In her early twenties, running from tragedy, Kate crosses the ocean and lands in Las Vegas to work at a legal brothel, The Hop, under the moniker of Lady Lane – the stripper name she picked with Lacey as a kid, the name of her first pet plus the street she grew up on. She’s tall and thin and white and blonde, and ruffles some feathers when she arrives. The other women working there – trans women, women of colour, older women – know that their pimp, Daddy, has hit the jackpot.

The portrayal of sex work in this book is like nothing I’ve ever read in fiction. It’s not all roses – like any other job, there are good days and bad days – but it’s empowering, and energizing, and it makes Kate feel good. The bunnies at The Hop come from all walks of life, but they are all there by choice. It’s something that society struggles to accept.

‘They want there to be another reason, something deeper, they want to hear that you were unloved as a child or that you were abused as a teen…As if money isn’t enough of a reason to do anything. As if staying alive isn’t enough of an answer.’

The prevailing narrative where sex work is concerned is grittiness, trauma, poverty, tragedy – but this book is nuanced and fiercely feminist. It brims with energy, even as it confronts challenging and harrowing truths. For the women at The Hop, working in a legal brothel presents the only safe option to pursue their profession, with sex workers on the street being murdered, assaulted and attacked on a daily basis.

I loved the structure of this novel. I was daunted at first by the prospect of it flitting between so many voices – it’s a risky move. While Kate’s first-person narrative dominates the story, we hear too from best friend Lacey, pimp Daddy, Bunnies Betty, Mia, Dakota, Rain, the Vogue features editor who’s writing a piece on Kate, a celebrity lookalike of Kate, Willa Jordan… but you know what? It works. The characters are so vivid that it unfolds almost like a play or a documentary, building up a richer picture of the story and context without distracting from the narrative trajectory.

‘”Does it look like I’ve sold my body?” I said, “I’ve had guests who have served in the military and lost their legs. I’ve had guests who sleeved their arms in factories. I’ve had guests whose bodies are failing them, who’ve had to opt out of surgery because of America’s health care system. Does it look like I’ve sold my body?”

It’s propulsive and refreshing and funny, too.

‘It happened soon enough after the #metoo movement … for Lady’s video to become big news. The debate over what constituted assault was at its climax, darling, and not the good kind. Walmart changed their name to #WalmartToo for the month, which was a lot to unpack. Facebook changed their logo to teal, the color of, I guess, sexual assault? Thank god for the conglomerates, darling. Saving the world once hashtag at a time.’

This book sucked me in the same way as Diana Clarke’s first novel, Thin Girls. I wasn’t sure at first, but once the narrative picked up steam I was completely hooked, and sad to part with the characters when it ended. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what Diana Clarke does next.

With thanks to HarperCollins via Edelweiss for the advanced copy. The Hop will be published on 7th June 2022.

how high we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Book review: ‘How High We Go In The Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu – dazzling, devastating stories from a plague-ridden world ★★★★

I had to take a break from plague books in early 2020. But here I am again.

Scientists studying the melting arctic tundra unwittingly release a deadly plague, buried in the ancient remains of a young girl. Soon, the world is ensconced in a new, deadly virus – a world that we learn about through fragmented (but interconnected) narratives that take us up from that fateful year of 2030 to hundreds of years into the future.

‘It’s hard to ignore the Earth when it slowly destabilizes beneath you as you sleep, when it unlocks secrets you never asked for or wanted.’

It sounds relentlessly bleak, and even more so when I tell you that the primary victims of the ‘first wave’ of this virus are children. In response to the mounting, unimaginable death toll, cities build ‘euthanasia parks’, designed as ways of enabling dying children to have one last day of fun before slowly being put to sleep mid-air on a rollercoaster. It’s a harrowing image, but a compassionate one: in the face of global tragedy, we find new ways to grieve and process death. It’s told with bucket loads of empathy, forging human connections between the reader and the characters even as we only know them in short vignettes.

The novel explores how we are changed by loss and also the grimly inevitable industry of death that springs up around it, a late capitalist enterprise for the plague age. In this universe, you can store memories of loved ones inside the plastic carcass of a robot dog; book a room in an ‘elegy hotel’ where you can spend time with the corpse of your friend or family member; pay to have your remains liquefied into a sculpture and set out on the ocean to dissolve. Melancholy is everywhere you turn in this book.

‘… something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye. Cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a “natural” getaway with your recently departed. I remember Mr. Fang reminding us upon hire to always exude customer service, to never upset the guests, to remember that we were a hotel first and foremost, a funeral home second.’

It’s literary/science/speculative fiction, but transcends parameters of genre in many ways. I found it to be deeply imaginative, illuminating and original, and particularly liked the fresh perspective that came from almost all the characters being Japanese or Japanese-American.

Although it is a novel, the short story structure means it inevitably falls into short story pitfalls – some are much better than others. I preferred the human, grounded stories to the high-concept science-fiction takes, but that might just be personal preference. Even when things do get high-concept, Nagamatsu retains the human element – parents and children, siblings, lovers, friends – these intimate relationships are at the heart of the stories. There’s an attempt at the end to circle back in a cosmic origin story, that I didn’t find altogether successful – but can see that it was included in an attempt to bring some world order and connection to the narrative.

Finally, I think it’s important to talk about hope. There is hope in this novel – it may be bittersweet, or fleeting, but it is there – there are ways to rebuild in the wake of tragedy. Human connection remains the glue that holds together a fractured world.

‘We need a party to break the silence, to begin to heal. Had she lived, I know there would have been one every week—parties to forget, parties to remember, parties to dance the night away. She would have declared that the postapocalypse doesn’t mean we stop dancing.’

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The Heights by Louise Candlish book review

Happy Publication Day | The Heights by Louise Candlish

Happy publication day to The Heights by Louise Candlish!

If you’re in the mood for a slow-burn thriller, get this on your TBR. Ellen Saint isn’t thrilled about her golden boy Lucas’s new friend, Kieran. Convinced he’s leading him astray, her worst suspicions are confirmed, and her hatred of Kieran turns into a full-blown, and dangerous, obsession. It’s gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

reputation by sarah vaughan - book review

Book review: In ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan, a female politician risks losing everything ★★★★

Emma Webster is an MP – a politician who has risen through the ranks and worked bloody hard to get there. She’s no stranger to violent misogynistic attacks, particularly given her work in campaigning for so-called “women’s issues”, most recently the sentencing for revenge porn. But because she’s a woman in the public eye, she’s considered ‘fair game.’ Hateful tirades can be sent via Twitter, text, or post – but as long as there is no explicit threat, there’s nothing the police can do.

In her life, the constant threat of (male) violence is normalized. She keeps bottles of water on the desk at meetings with constituents – not in case of a bout of thirst, but to save her life in case of an acid attack. It’s a high price to pay to be a politician with a rising star, and Vaughan conveys the very real terror as part of the necessary fabric of her life.

‘A conviction politician, that’s what she was, and all the more refreshing for it. There were too few of them around these days.’

So there’s the threat of the insidious trolls hiding behind Twitter handles like @englandrules and @suckmyc*ck, never quite knowing whether one of them might step out from behind their keyboard and put a bomb through her letterbox. And then there’s the tabloid media, always looking for the next story that’s going to sell them papers (side note: anyone interested in the savagery of the British tabloids should listen to The Murdoch Phone Hacking miniseries on the British Scandal podcast).

Over the years, Emma has befriended journalist Mike Stokes, political editor of tabloid The Chronicle (his colleagues call her an ‘MPILF’). She knows how it works: the little dance that politicians do with the media, trying to keep them on side. Of course, he has a job to do: to sell papers and rise through the ranks himself.

‘I’d underestimated him, not wanting to consider the extent of his ruthlessness. And later? Well, then his ability to turn on me became painfully, fatally clear.’

It’s a smart, tightly plotted read – somewhere between a courtroom drama, political thriller and domestic noir. The second half of the novel is set in a courtroom where Emma is on trial, and it’s truly mesmerizing to watch the whip-smart wordplay between the prosecution and the defence, to see how the truth can be bent and shaped to different ends.

I enjoyed Anatomy of a Scandal (soon to be a Netflix show), and equally enjoyed Reputation for its multi-layered plot that never lets up. Qualms: I wished the secondary characters were better fleshed out, as when the narration slipped into their POV it felt more like a device to move the plot along, and one of the secondary plots about mental health support for returning servicemen also failed to be wrapped up in a satisfying way. However, I enjoyed this thought-provoking and pacy read a lot, and it’s very much in-keeping with the cultural conversation about misogyny, online abuse, and being a woman in the public eye.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. Reputation will be published in the UK on 2nd March, in the US on 5th July.

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5 books that exceeded my expectations (& 5 that didn’t…)

5 books that exceeded my expectations (& 5 that didn’t…)

My reading fortune comes in waves. Sometimes I feel that everything I pick up that I’d been really looking forward to turns out to be a flop. But then – there are those gems that totally take you by surprise, and end up becoming firm favourites. This post is for the books that I went into without preconceptions or expectations of brilliance and ended up loving, and those that I was so looking forward to but ended up being a disappointment.

5 books that exceeded my expectations

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I’m wary of judging books by their titles. This is such a good title I wasn’t sure if the book would live up to it – but boy is this a stunning, intense debut about heritage, addiction and love that took me by surprise in the best way possible.

Thin Girls by Diana Clarke

Finding this was a stroke of luck – I’d never heard of the book or Diana Clarke, but one day I was browsing on Edelweiss and it caught my eye. And I’m so glad it did – this ended up being in my top 10 of 2020.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

It’s no secret that I love a good psychological thriller, and this is Ruth Ware at her best. I wasn’t sure what to expect after enjoying, but being underwhelmed by, her previous two novels – but The Lying Game really hit the spot for me.

Followers by Megan Angelo

Contrary to what this chick-lit-ified cover would suggest, this is a darkly funny and clever book about the commodificiation of our online selves. A random Netgalley pick that ended up being utterly engrossing.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

I had the excellent fortune of finding this in a Little Free Library in our neighbourhood. The reviews were mixed so I wasn’t sure what to expect – but I owned a shiny, like-new hardback copy so had nothing to lose. I loved the incisive, precise writing style and the insights into the nature of interpretation.

…and 5 books that left me disappointed

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

I loved Three Women and was psyched when I got an advanced copy of Animal – but after several failed attempts to get into the detached, caustic and pretty depraved narration, I relegated it to the DNF pile.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Sad times that this book wasn’t all it could have been, after the utter brilliance of All The Light We Cannot See. I finished it because I didn’t want to do it a disservice by not giving it a proper chance, but whilst it definitely had its merits, it fell short for me.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

There’s a mythology around some classics that makes you feel that they’re untouchable. And this is by no means a bad book. It just wasn’t the masterpiece I was expecting.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to join the pile-on for this book (I actually rated it 3*s, ever-so-slightly higher than the Goodreads average). I loved it at the start, the irreverent voice and sharp social commentary – until it became rambling and incoherent. But I’d still give Lauren Oyler another chance.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Having been in a non-fiction slump for a while, I decided to try one of the most revered modern thinkers. The problem I had with this book was that I was unconvinced by his central premise, and many of the anecdotes he includes to support his theory feel shoe-horned in. It was pretty forgettable for me.

Opinions my own, and I appreciate and respect that many readers may feel differently!

Have you read any of these? What’s been your biggest reading surprise?