Book Review | Just Like You by Nick Hornby

There is a nervousness that hums through the pages of Nick Hornby’s latest novel. Set in North London, against the backdrop of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the tension and divisions have never been more apparent. (You know it’s bad when you start to feel a certain nostalgia for the ‘simpler times’ of 2016.)

But amidst this tumult and uncertainty, Hornby presents us with two endearing and genuinely likeable characters; middle class Mum and English teacher Lucy, who is white, and Joseph, a twenty-two-year-old Black man who is working several jobs and not really sure what he wants to do with his life. They meet when Joseph is working at the local butchers, a place frequented by Lucy’s neighbours who drop more on a few steaks than Joseph makes in a day.

They’re not a likely pairing; setting aside obvious differences in age, class, and background, they don’t seem to really have anything in common. Joseph recoils when Lucy talks about books, Lucy taps her foot cluelessly when Joseph plays her some of his music. And yet, despite all their disconnects, they fall for each other. And there is common ground found; their easy domesticity, the way Joseph connects with Lucy’s sons, the quiet and comfortable intimacy they fall into.

‘The weird thing about being his age was that you spent half the time dreaming about what might happen to you, and the other half trying not to think about it.’

But both are acutely aware that their relationship exists only in the interior world, as ‘something between brackets.’ There is a reluctance to let anyone from the outside in, an unease about how their obvious disparities will land with their contemporaries. It’s painfully self-aware – painful in a way that is also funny. Hornby has such a skill for crafting wry, observant dialogue that feels fresh and real, and this is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

This isn’t a novel about Brexit, although it’s folded into the narrative with the same arguments that are now exhausting to hear regurgitated. The complacency of Lucy and her friends as to the immutable state of the Union is, of course, agonising in hindsight. The identity politics and deep divisions are never too far away.

Hornby, himself a white man, may raise eyebrows writing from two perspectives very different from his own lived experience. And yet I felt that it was territory he navigated well, acknowledging and giving space to institutional racism and clueless white people microaggressions alike; being aware that he is not an authority while still bringing important issues to light.

There’s a real emotional intelligence to the characters and to their dynamic, although Hornby spends so much page time with conversations about how their relationship can’t possibly work, I sometimes wondered how it actually did. But it’s still an astute and warm and witty novel, making for compelling – and sometimes hopeful – reading.  

Happy Publication Day | Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Happy publication day to Ghosts by Dolly Alderton, a charming, funny and heartfelt piece of contemporary fiction. I read and reviewed this back in July, and my full review is here!

Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he’s going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.

A new relationship couldn’t have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling. Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone’s moving to the suburbs. There’s no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who’s caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion into dementia.

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is funny and tender, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.

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 coming soon to the UK! (Not to get on a soapbox, but please don’t buy books from Amazon. If you need any convincing, have a read of this).

Pretending by Holly Bourne book review

Book Review | Pretending by Holly Bourne

TW: Sexual violence, PTSD

April is thirty-something and jaded. Her work for a relationship advisory charity leaves her exhausted reading and responding to trauma on a daily basis; all her friends who are seemingly happily-married aren’t really that satisfied; and she’s broke from the aforementioned charity work.

She’s also had a string of relationships, ranging from the predictably disappointing (being ghosted after date three) to the horrifyingly abusive. She’s convinced that she must be the problem, that all men want a cookie-cutter girlfriend with no real opinions of her own, who oozes confidence and an appropriate amount of sex appeal. In April’s head, this phantom woman takes the form of someone called Gretel (somewhat an odd choice of name, in my opinion, but unusual enough to see why Holly Bourne would have picked it).

It’s simple then, April decides – she’ll just become Gretel. She’ll become the woman every man dreams of dating, and then break their hearts – just has been done to her countless times. She’ll self-construct a performative identity and watch the heartbreak play out from a distance. It’s a little heavy-handed in the passages where April writes her satirical Gretel handbook, and I found myself glossing over those passages where less could have said more.

April’s ‘Gretel project’ is also set against a backdrop of a sweltering English summer, that rarefied thing that only happens once or twice a decade and causes everyone to go into complete meltdown.

‘I don’t cry actually, just stare at the sky quite a lot, trying to remember what overcast feels like, what needing a cardigan feels like, what sanity feels life.’

April is also dealing with her own trauma from her rape, and this is where the novel shines as an empathetic, nuanced and careful exploration of sexual trauma and its ramifications.

‘You tuck your sexual trauma away to make yourself sexier to the species who took your sexuality away from you.’

The strongest parts of the novel for me were the open and honest way in which this is portrayed, the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen in contemporary fiction. It gives a voice to survivors and shows their strength in finding a way through. At the recommendation of her counsellor, April starts attending a boxing class for survivors and cultivates real friendships with other women who can identify with and help to heal her pain.

But there’s also some levity amidst the heavy subject matter; the solid friendship April has with her flatmate and their obsession with Dawson’s Creek, commentary on thirtysomething life, the trials and tribulations of living in London. Overall, it’s an accessible and compelling read that doesn’t shy away from addressing painful subject matter.

‘Young people surround and clap me. I get a smidgen on sadness when I realize I’ve become that crazy older person in the club you call a “legend” but secretly hope you never end up like.’

3.5*

With thanks to the publisher, Mira, for the advanced copy. Pretending will be published in the US on 17th November 2020.

Bunny by Mona Awad

Book Review | Bunny by Mona Awad

Warren, an elite New England University, is home to one of the most exclusive MFA programs in the country. It’s on this program that our protagonist Samantha is studying, along with a clique in her cohort who name themselves the ‘bunnies.’ (Bunnies, finding themselves a home at ‘Warren’ – I see what she did there). Samantha is simultaneously repulsed and secretly intrigued by the behaviour of this girl gang – ‘there is no way grown women act like that,’ she remarks, as the group coo and paw and kiss and heap lavish praise on each other’s highly-wrought purple prose.

And yet, Samantha finds herself with an invite to the bunnies’ ‘Smut Salon’, and out of insatiable curiosity, she attends (much to the disdain of her self-assured and steadfast best friend, Ava). And that’s when things start to get seriously demented. In a cleverly-executed satirical twist on the nature of art and the mantra to ‘kill your darlings,’ Samantha gets swept into the bunnies disturbing, Frankensteinian exercise to do just that – to create and to kill, all in the name of the Art.

In razor-sharp and witty exchanges, Awad satirises the artistic process when the bunnies sit down in ‘Workshop’ with their professor, where the bunnies, so steadfast in their belief in and commitment to their pursuits, describe their work as variably ‘innovative’, ‘experimental’, ‘performance based’, ‘intertextual’ and ‘a hybrid.’ ‘A hybrid,’ Samantha reflects.  ‘That most obscure of academic beasts. What you call something when you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore.’

Soon, the line between reality and imagination has completely collapsed, and we are fully immersed in the nightmare-scape of Samantha’s world, the atmosphere increasingly dark and subversive, as her mental state steadily deteriorates. Awad’s writing is audacious and visceral, delivering a hyperreal, meta-textual landscape where the horrors of what has come to pass are mirrored in the world around her.

‘The air is different here. Humider. Grosser. The sky a dark pink that reminds us of innards, of what happens in the bathroom with the ax with the Darlings who don’t make it. We’re passing the scary places now.’

The hyper-femininity, cloying and twee nature of the bunnies with their obsession with Pinkberry, foods in miniature and mawkish style, is sharply contrasted with the horror that unfolds at their hands. And yet, and yet, there was something missing for me in the build-up of the horror, partially because I was unsure what was even real. Are these the imaginings of a desperate MFA student losing her grip on reality, or is this group of girls and their artistic pursuits posing a genuine threat? If we had had slightly more lucidity from Samantha, I think the horror would have been more effectively delivered and sustained.

Awad’s unflinching writing style and the satirical commentary on the nature of an MFA and the artistic process were the strongest parts of this twisted story, which fell apart for me a bit with the bizarre genre-bending plot. Nevertheless, a wild ride.

3.5*

The Switch by Beth O'Leary book review

Book Review | The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Leena is in her late twenties and working a high-powered job in London. Eileen, her grandmother, is in her late seventies and stuck in a rut after her loveless marriage fell apart. When Leena takes a ‘forced sabbatical,’ they come up with the hairbrained idea to swap lives. Eileen will go and live in Leena’s Shoreditch flat, Leena will move to Eileen’s sleepy Yorkshire village.

But there’s also grief at the heart of the story – the loss of Leena’s younger sister Carla to cancer, a few years before we meet the characters. This devastating loss has driven a wedge between Leena and her mum, and subsequently Leena has thrown herself full throttle into her work. So this ‘switch’ is a chance for both characters to experience time away from their own lives, to gain fresh perspective and clarity.

There’s something about Beth O’Leary’s writing that is so charming without being saccharine, comforting without being sentimental. Eileen is an absolute riot, seventy-nine years ‘young’ who doesn’t bat an eyelid at dipping her toe in online dating and forming a ‘no strings attached’ relationship during her time in the big city. It was refreshing to see an older character portrayed in this way without it being a caricature or over-the-top.

‘Lying tangled in each other’s arms becomes slightly less practical when you’ve both got bad backs.’

Leena finds it a little harder to be welcomed into the Hamleigh village community, promptly losing her neighbour’s dog, causing upset at the committee meeting when she suggests a change to the May Day celebration theme, and being an all-round terrible baker. But she too comes to forge a deeper connection with the community, and an understanding of their values and experiences.

‘These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness. When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.’

Whereas The Flatshare felt like an entirely new and fresh concept, The Switch felt a little more derivative (shout out to one of my favourite Christmas films, The Holiday!) Because there were quite a few plates spinning in the air, it also felt contrived at times, with easy resolution of major conflicts (e.g. Leena’s relationship with her mother) and convenient solutions to thorny problems. Whilst the central premise is not romance, the romantic angles in the plot did feel a little hurried and underdeveloped, but nevertheless added a heartwarming note.

It’s perfect escapism for darker days and a wholesome, if uneven, novel to sink into.

***.5

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Switch was published in the US on August 18th.

Book Review | Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Nina is in her early thirties, a successful food writer living in London. She’s got just one single friend left, Lola, and everyone else is married and starting families. She caves to pressure and downloads a dating app called Linx. The line-up of potential mates is uninspiring to say the least – as Nina remarks dryly, ‘Every man looked exactly the same: ‘Tom, 24, atheist, London, likes: reading, sleeping, eating travel’ – it reminded me of the Biology GCSE syllabus and being taught what living organisms need: ‘movement, respiration, reproduction, nutrition, excretion.’

But it’s not too long before she meets the charming and beguiling Max, an accountant (a job he hates) with a love of the outdoors and a yearning to see the world (yawn?). They hit it off, and things are going swimmingly. Until – not a spoiler – he vanishes.

‘Max wanted to be tortured, he wanted to yearn and chase and dream. He wanted to exist in a liminal state, like everything was just about to begin.’

So this is a story about being ghosted in the modern, dating sense, the term that appeared to give a name to that depressing phenomenon of potential or current dates disappearing off the face of the earth with no explanation. But it’s not just about that: the ghosts here are also the slowly vanishing friendships, once held dear but splintered by a move to the suburbs, screaming toddlers and a picture-perfect Instagram life. Nina struggles to connect with her best friend who’s determined to act like someone who has it all, while similarly seeing Nina’s life choices as a direct attack on her own.

The ghosts are also those of the past, made even more astute by the fact that Nina’s father is suffering from Dementia. As she watches him slowly grow more distanced from the person he was, she grapples with the feelings of responsibility, loss and sadness, amidst a fracturing relationship with her mum. There are tender and insightful layers of nostalgia as Nina returns to the place she grew up, the air thick with memory.

‘When I was in Pinner, I could be seventeen again, just for a day. I could pretend that my world was myopic and my choices meaningless and the possibilities that were ahead of me were wide open and boundless.’

‘They arrive in their new navy car. It’s already been fitted with a seat for the baby. One day that baby will sit on a bench, wondering if that navy car is scrap metal somewhere, wishing it could come collect them.’

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is heartfelt, relatable and true. It’s also funny in that witty and astute way that anyone who has read Dolly’s autobiography, Everything I Know About Love, or listened to The High Low podcast will know well.

‘You just have to trust me when I say: you shall not pass.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You shall not pass,’ she repeated sagely, giving me a gentle smile.
‘Pass where?’
‘It’s a phrase my mum always used to say to me when I was sad. It means: this will end at some point, then you’ll be happy again.’
‘This too shall pass.’
‘Yes, exactly, it will.’
‘No, that’s what you’re meant to say.’
‘Is it? Why do I know the proverb “you shall not pass”?’
‘It’s not a proverb, it’s what Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings.’

It’s a totally absorbing read, one that will particularly resonate with anyone in their twenties or thirties going through similar transitions. But it’s also lovely in its universality and the themes of steadfast friendship, courage, change and hope.

line

****

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Ghosts will be published in October 2020. 

Book Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Vanessa is fifteen years old, attending a seemingly idyllic and prestigious boarding school set in the rolling mountains of Norumbega, Maine in the early 2000s. Jacob Strane is her English teacher, in his forties. And the two, Vanessa insists, embark on a romantic relationship.

This enthralling, dark, devastating and nuanced novel is difficult to write about. Let’s remember one thing: Vanessa is fifteen. And although Strane calls her ‘mature’ for her age, we are constantly reminded of just how untrue this is – she is, first and foremost, a child. She’s petty, and insecure, and naive, and trusting, and lost, and lonely. All of which make the way that Strane grooms her even more abhorrent. In all the headiness and confusion and complexity of teenagerhood, Vanessa tells herself it’s love. That being with Strane makes her powerful, and womanly. That she has the power to destroy everything for him – but it’s a power she will wield and never exercise.

‘But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.’

Vanessa is a troubled and troubling narrator. She insists on having control over the narrative, constantly resists the language of rape and abuse, and yet in a way is already allowing her story to be governed by another narrative – that of Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel Strane gives her when she’s fifteen and which she quickly becomes obsessed with, to the extent of muddling up, in adulthood, what happened in the story with what happened between her and Strane.

‘If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unravelling.’

Vanessa’s refusal to see herself as a victim, her insistence on her own complicity and willingness is undermined by her own retelling of the story – graphic scenes of abuse that she reimagines as romance. It is painfully obvious to the reader than Strane is a monstrous predator, and yet, as hers is the only narrative perspective we have, I felt at times wondering if we were wrong to deny Vanessa her fiction.

‘I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.’

But the damage that this event has inflicted upon her life as she moves into adulthood is undeniable. We see how the harm reverberates with the dual narratives of Vanessa in 2006 and again in 2017, at the start of the #MeToo movement and an increased pressure and galvanised momentum to speak out against abusers.

There’s a difficulty in a lack of a clear resolution, and the book feels somewhat over long. We spend a considerable amount of time with a very complex and difficult narrator, which is an emotionally draining experience. But it’s also a masterpiece. Complex, deeply uncomfortable, but utterly captivating.

****.5

line

Have you read My Dark Vanessa or is it on your TBR? Do you think it was worth the hype? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Book Review | Olive by Emma Gannon

Childfree Olive is adrift in a sea of her best friends – and a society – obsessed with motherhood. As she turned into a thirty-something, the questions only became more insistent – talk of shrivelling up eggs and the perils of geriatric motherhood. Olive has never wanted children, and she’s not going to ‘change her mind.’ But she finds it increasingly difficult to navigate this decision and reconcile it with society’s expectations of womanhood and the life choices of her own best friends.

‘When I am an adult, I would think, everything will be good. I will finally be free. Adulthood = freedom.’

It is the tight-knit bonds of friendship, rather than romance, that are at the heart of the book. Emma Gannon explores the exuberance of female friendship, with flashbacks to their heady university days and teenagerhood, contrasted with their early thirties and how their life paths have diverged. Their sacred rituals – dinner at the same London restaurant every month, a holiday abroad each year – are slowly slipping away from them.

‘Everyone has just seemed slightly less available, a creeping sense of business and life admin and to-do lists, of time being squeezed.’

Despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, Olive is an easy and accessible read, with levity, humour, and self-awareness.

‘I’ve decided to go and see a Reiki healer because I am a Millennial cliché with a free afternoon.’

Although plot elements are at times predictable and a little hackneyed, the strength of the novel lies in portraying nuanced protagonists who each have their own struggles when it comes to motherhood – be that infertility, post-natal depression, juggling three children or having no desire to have kids – and explores these choices in an open and honest way. Gannon draws sympathetic characters and lets us into their heads. It’s a perspective I’ve not read about before in such a clear-eyed way, and I think this will resonate with many women at a similar crossroads in their life.

With thanks to the publisher for an advanced copy. Olive will be published by HarperCollins UK in July 2020.

***.5

line

Read if you enjoyed: Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary , Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

 

Book Review | Normal People by Sally Rooney

Marianne is bookish, friendless, and impervious to the opinions of others. Connell is popular, athletic, and preoccupied with his public perception in their small West Ireland town and amongst their other sixth-form classmates. On paper, they’re an unlikely pairing, but there’s an undeniable magnetism that pulls them together.

After school ends, when they find themselves together at Trinity College, Dublin, their dynamic has shifted. It is no longer Connell in the driving seat: he is now the adrift loner and Marianne is the centre of gravity, encircled with friends and admirers. The novel tenderly charts the course of their fluctuating relationship over the next four years.

‘It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’

There was that particular kind of millennial angst conveyed through their story, explored in an open way that didn’t feel clichéd. Perhaps this resonated so well because Sally Rooney and I are the same age and her characters were at university the exact same years as I was. There are the insufferable fellow students at Trinity, those who, like Marianne’s boyfriend Jamie, manage to be ‘both boring and hostile at the same time’, prone to bouts of pseudo-intellectualism over too many glasses of pinot. But everyone is desperate to find their place and their people over the course of the three years, whilst also worrying about the vast stretch of time that comes ‘after.’ And at the heart of it all are the oscillating dynamics of Marianne and Connell’s relationship, where class, privilege and power come into play as they navigate the new territory of their intimacy.

‘It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.’

With deftness of touch, Rooney explores the inner workings of our two protagonists, giving the reader a window to everything that goes unsaid, to the missed connections and miscommunications that befall their relationship. Her style is sparse and well-controlled, building a scene through layers of what is both spoken and unspoken, with tiny shifts in the atmosphere subtly and brilliantly evoked.

‘Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.’

It’s an utterly absorbing read, exploring a well-worn trajectory of first love through a fresh new voice. It’s also a novel that takes us to darker places, and doesn’t shy away from talking frankly about mental health, abuse, and recovery. It isn’t all plain sailing by any means, but, as the novel reflects, ‘life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.’

****

line

Read if you enjoyed: One Day by David Nicholls, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett