Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best books of 2015

So many books, so little time. Luckily, I did have time to read these 12 brilliant books, my favourites of the year...

Monday, 7 December 2015

Book review: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

I have struggled and struggled with this review - I started writing it weeks and weeks ago (months actually) and I've written and rewritten paragraphs, deleted sentences and whole sections, and given up many a time only to come back a few days or weeks later.

Because how do you review such a brilliant and brutal book like Courtney Summers' All the Rage?

Romy Grey wouldn't stand out from any other teenagers in her town if it wasn't for the fact that she accused the sheriff's son Kellan Turner of raping her. No one believed her, so now Romy takes refuge at her after school job in a diner where no one knows about her past. When a girl from her school goes missing, Romy suspects she knows what has happened, and she has to decide whether to take action to help, at the risk of becoming even more of an outcast.

Consent, justice and memory are all dealt with by Summers in All the Rage. We meet the tough, prickly, fierce Romy, and root for her from beginning to end. Her every word and action shows someone who has survived and who is still fighting in small ways, even though she may think she's hiding away. Just getting up, going to school, going to work, interacting with people is a huge battle for Romy, but she does it.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

A promise to read more ethnically diverse writers

Here's why I love books - they can take you to different lands, introduce you to different types of people, teach you about things you never knew. Books are diverse, and I love them for it.

So I was more than a little embarrassed to discover how undiverse the books I've read this year are when it comes to the ethnicity of their authors (there are lots of other kinds of diversity which are also missing in publishing, but I want to focus on ethnic diversity because it's of particular personal interest to me). I put together a list of my top summer reads for 2015, and all the authors on it were white. I didn't do this on purpose, and I only realised afterwards, once I'd read a critical piece about a best of summer reading list compiled by a newspaper. No one called me out on the lack of diversity of my list, but they should have.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The inner monologue you have when you're getting a massage

"My back is killing me, and my shoulder. I should get a massage. This is going to great, I deserve a treat.

"Massage day tomorrow! Wait, are my legs properly waxed? I should make sure. What if I've missed a bit?

"What should I wear? I don't want to look like a slob, but I want to be comfortable.

"Should I moisturise before I go? I mean, the masseuse will use massage oil, but I don't want her thinking I'm an adult who has never met a tub of body butter in her life.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Book review: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Refugee, migrant - two terms that are very politically charged, but how often do we think about the people behind these words?

Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is fiction, but its subject is something that hits the headlines in the real world with alarming regularity, although with little of the nuance displayed in Sahota's novel.

Tochi, Avtar and Randeep live in a cramped house in Sheffield. All are illegal immigrants from India, all spend their days working hard to make enough money to live, and all have very, very different stories, and reasons for seeking a better life in England. Born and brought up in London and seeking an escape of a different kind, Narinder finds her life tangled up with the three men in unexpected ways.

The Year of the Runaways very quickly identifies itself as one of those books that is going to grab you by your heart and not let go until the last page. It's emotional, heartbreaking, and about the best and worst of humanity. 

The book moves between present day Sheffield and the backgrounds of its three male protagonists, so we see what brought them to the city. In the present day the men work their fingers to the bone, live in horrendous conditions, and always have the fear of being caught by the authorities hanging over them. That they choose the existence they do shows how desperate they are, and makes you sympathise with them, and that's even before you learn about their lives in India.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Book review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

In Jamaica in 1976 a group of gunmen stormed Bob Marley's house, and although the singer survived, the men were never caught.

This incident forms the centre point of Marlon James' stunning A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the novel, James fictionalises the build up to the shooting, and its long reaching aftermath, as seen through the eyes of gangsters, journalists, politicians, the CIA and more.

A Brief History of Seven Killings isn't at all brief - my paperback edition is 686 pages - but it never feels like a long novel, and it was never a chore to read. It did take me a while, around 80 pages, to get used to the voices and the rhythms of the characters, especially the gang members who use words and phrases I was unfamiliar with but whose meaning I quickly guessed. Once I made a bit of headway with the book, it was easy going, and I flew through it, especially the last 300-400 pages.

James is brilliant at building to the shooting of Marley, who is referred to as The Singer throughout the book, giving him an almost mythical quality. The shooting is almost mythical as well. I knew it was coming, and I just wanted to get there, but I also really enjoyed the build up and spending time with all the different characters whose world I had never been exposed to before. A Brief History of Seven Killings is told in first person with chapters alternating through a roster of characters, all with extraordinary stories and opinions and motives for doing what they do.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Book review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Have you ever had to keep quiet about a book by an author you love? And when I say keep quiet, I mean you can't talk about its plot with anyone, or analyse the characters, or just gush about how amazing the author is.

It's difficult, let me tell you. In the weeks since I read Rainbow Rowell's Carry On, I've sent one email saying how fabulous it is (to the publicist, I didn't break an embargo) and that's it. But now, the time is finally here, and I can write to my heart's content about Rowell's first official foray into fantasy writing (she has written Harry Potter fanfiction before).

Simon Snow is a Mage. In fact, he's not just any Mage, he's the Mage who will save all other Mages, even if he can't control his magic all the time, and is a bit clumsy, and hates, hates, hates his roommate Baz. And Baz? Baz is a bit mysterious, and from an old magical family, and he hates, hates, hates his roommate Simon. When Baz doesn't return to school after the summer holidays for his final year, Simon becomes suspicious that he's planning something evil, and with the Insidious Humdrum to fight, and a headmaster who isn't really talking to and helping him, Simon is in a whole heap of trouble.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Book review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

I adore Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass series, which features a complex, kick-arse heroine, lots of action and smart writing.

Her new series, which kicks off with A Court of Thorns and Roses, contains many of the same good points, but wrapped up in a new, original fantasy story.

When Feyre kills a wolf in the woods one day, she thinks nothing of it, glad instead to have killed what she thinks is a threat to her family. But the wolf she killed was no ordinary wolf, he was a faerie, and one of his friends, Tamlin, is determined to punish Feyre for her transgression. Tamlin takes her to his enchanted court, where she is free to roam but where threats lie around every corner. And as Feyre gets to know Tamlin better, she discovers he is no threat to her, but that his life and hers are in grave danger.

Feyre is the kind of heroine I like - noble, flawed, brave, headstrong, with plenty of faults. Maas writes her as capable and self-sufficient, but she's not able to do everything and not willing to accept help without protest, which makes her realistic. That realism is important in a book that otherwise is almost pure fantasy - that the characters have believable characteristics and are relatable and likeable means I'm far more connected to the book.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Book review: Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz

Everyone knows who James Bond is, or at least they think they do. The James Bond I know is the James Bond of the films, particularly those featuring Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig as the man with a license to kill.

But that James Bond - suave, smooth, likeable if a little angsty and high maintenance - is not necessarily the James Bond of Ian Fleming's novels. Granted, I've never read a Fleming novel, but by all accounts Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis is a pretty faithful rendition of Fleming's character, and Horowitz seems the perfect person to write a Bond novel, having created a young spy, Alex Rider, who is kind of Bond junior.

In Trigger Mortis Bond is sent to Nurburgring to prevent SMERSH from killing a British racing driver. While there he becomes suspicious of a meeting between SMERSH and a Korean millionaire, Jai Seong Sin. Bond has to team up with the clever Jeopardy Lane to stop a plot that could destroy the western world.

Horowitz's Bond isn't a pleasant person. He treats women badly (including Pussy Galore, who is living with Bond at the beginning of the novel), and while Jeopardy Lane is a feisty, independent heroine, she's still treated largely like an object by Bond. We do see Bond show some humanity once, when he hesitates before killing someone, but if anything that moment doesn't do him any favours, instead it just feels out of character, even if that character is unpleasant.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Book review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

If you go by social media, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is either the most amazing, emotional, poignant book ever written, or it's an ill constructed, ridiculous, far too long brick, and there is no in between.

Well, I'm here to say that I'm the in between. There are moments of A Little Life I think are sheer genius, where the beauty of Yanagihara's prose can't be denied, and then there are moments where I think the book is just full of holes.

A Little Life follows four friends - Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm - in New York after they graduate. The novel quickly focuses its beams on Jude, who is a powerful, brilliant lawyer, but who is deeply affected by an awful childhood which has left him scarred in numerous ways. As Jude grows older, he becomes more and more unable to let the demons of his past go.

Yanagihara's novel is billed as the tale of four men, but really it's not. We soon lose sight of JB and Malcolm (especially Malcolm), who then only pop up occasionally, and often to serve a particular plot point before disappearing. Willem, who is far closer to Jude, continues to play a significant part in the book and in Jude's life, but I expected to be reading a book exploring male friendship, and what I actually read was a book about one man and how he connects, or not, with the people in his life.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Book review: I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

I call myself a feminist.

I call myself a feminist because gender equality is something we're still striving for even in 2015, because women are still judged and treated in different ways to men and those ways are often demeaning, because being compared to a woman or female characteristics is usually a way to insult someone.

I Call Myself a Feminist, edited by Victoria Pepe, Rachel Holmes, Amy Annette, Martha Mosse and Alice Stride, features essays by 25 women under the age of 30 on feminism. From writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge on what men can do to support feminism, to student Maysa Haque talking about her Islam and her feminism, to author Louise O'Neill writing about her journey to feminism, the book is full of different perspectives on women, their power and their struggles.

It's the different perspectives that are key. I almost cried with joy when I saw the first essay was written by Hajar Wright. Could it be that this book was willing to include a non-white perspective? And as I read further, it became clear that there was more than one non-white perspective in the book, and that there was plenty of other diversity in the book too. The battle for feminism is one that affects all women, but women from non-white backgrounds, women who are not straight, women who are not middle-class, are often battling discrimination on two fronts, or more. Student Jinan Younis captures the subject perfectly in her essay Manifesto for Female Intersectionality, but intersectionality is addressed again and again throughout the book, and it made my heart sing.

I Call Myself a Feminist is an important, powerful book that succinctly lays out why there is still a need for feminism. Its writers are brave, and its editors have curated a collection of essays that I want to press in to the hands of everyone I meet and say: "This. This is inspiring and needed and you should read it because it will help you understand the world and make it want to be a better place." We all still need to call ourselves feminists, and I Call Myself a Feminist tells you why.

I Call Myself a Feminist is released in the UK on November 5, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Theatre review: Kinky Boots at the Adelphi

The most beautiful thing in the world... is a shoe.

Or at least, that's what the opening number of Kinky Boots tells us, and I find it difficult to disagree after seeing some of the beautiful boots in the London production, currently on at the Adelphi Theatre.

Telling the story of a young man who takes on his late father's shoe factory, the drag queen he encounters, and the plan they come up with to save the factory by manufacturing a line of shoes for drag queens, Kinky Boots is fun, fabulous and feel-good, and I say that having seen it from the nosebleed seats at the Adelphi, so it must be glorious close up.

The show features Matt Henry as Lola and Killian Donnelly as Charlie. Henry's role is louder and more in your face, but he brings a depth to Lola that makes you connect with her on a number of levels and he's able to make her quieter moments just as addictive to watch as her louder numbers. Not My Father's Son and Hold Me In Your Heart are both beautiful ballads, full of heart, and Henry sings the heck out of them.

Monday, 31 August 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode eight - Valediction

Previously on Agent Carter, the SSR finally clued in to the fact that Peggy was not a traitor, when she revealed she had a vial of Steve Rogers' blood. The evil Dr Ivchenko hypnotised Chief into stealing a deadly weapon for him, and left Chief wearing a bomb. Chief sacrificed himself, while Dr Ivchenko and Dottie tested their weapon on a cinema full of movie goers.

Monday, 24 August 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode seven - Snafu

Previously on Agent Carter, Dr Ivchenko revealed himself, just to us, to be working for Leviathan. Meanwhile Peggy worked out that Dottie is a Russian assassin, but before she could do anything about it, she was caught by the SSR, who worked out that she's been working to her own agenda all along.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Book review: Good Hope Road by Sarita Mandanna

It would be entirely too simple to say that Sarita Mandanna's Good Hope Road is a book about the First World War and its aftermath.

Rather, it's a story about fatherhood and family, about how there are some things we never, ever get over, about how love is enduring, and about how society can let down those who sacrifice most for it.

In 1914, privileged New Englander James Stonebridge and Louisiana native Obadaiah Nelson meet when they both volunteer with the French Legion. Years later, James lives on his apple farm with his grown son Jim, who is falling in love. James is a stranger to his son, who was just a young boy when his father left for war. It is only when James decides to join the Bonus Marches in Washington that Jim slowly begins to realise there is more to his father than the dour, often drunk, uncommunicative man that he appears to be.

Good Hope Road flicks back and forth between the First World War and the present as it stands for Jim, and the narration switches between James' First World War diaries, Obadaiah's story told in the first person, and the third person present. The three different threads create a layered story, and although they may seem like they may not come together at first, Mandanna deftly weaves a spell that brings all three to a moving conclusion.

Monday, 17 August 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode six - A Sin to Err

Previously on Agent Carter, Peggy and Thompson headed to Belarus, where Peggy proved her chops and the two discovered a training facility for female assassins. At home, Sousa discovered Peggy is the woman from the club that he's been searching for, and Dottie continued to be shady.

Monday, 10 August 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode five - The Iron Ceiling

Previously on Agent Carter, Howard Stark returned to New York under the guise of tracking down one of his most deadly inventions. After getting Peggy on side the two fell out when Peggy discovered what Howard was actually hiding was a vial of Steve Rogers' blood. Meanwhile, Dottie revealed herself to be more than just a sweet Southern girl in the big city - she's an assassin.

Monday, 3 August 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode four - The Blitzkrieg Button

Previously on Agent Carter, Peggy and Jarvis found Howard's stolen inventions on board a boat and called it in to the SSR. The guys of the SSR celebrated, but a little too early - on his way back to the office Agent Krzesminski was shot dead at point blank range.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Book review: Thrive by Arianna Huffington

I don't get enough sleep, I check my work emails at weird times, I don't exercise as much as I should, and it's difficult for me to shut my brain off.

So I'm exactly the target market for Arianna Huffington's Thrive. In the book, the founder of the Huffington Post lays out what she calls the third metric - wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving - to redefining success and creating a happier life.

Thrive is full of statistics and extracts from scholarly works, as well as quotes from various thinkers and leaders on the subjects of mindfulness, connection and more. It's obviously a well researched book, but it does feel a little cold at times, and a little like you're being marketed to, as Huffington frequently mentions her Third Metric business. There are practical suggestions for things you can do to help yourself, one of which - a tip from one of Huffington's uber successful friends to help her sleep better - I tried to put into practice. I failed, but I probably need to try harder, and others may succeed, with Thrive containing a good selection of further reading and resources that could help.

There are also personal anecdotes throughout the book, but a lot of times I didn't really feel they connected me to Huffington. There are mentions of her divorce, but no mention of the emotional effects of it. Rather, the concentration is on how she and her ex-husband have an excellent relationship. Without knowing how Huffington personally dealt with a tough time, it's hard to see its relevance or understand how Huffington used the things she talked about in her book to help her. Similarly, she briefly mentions how one of her daughters had a serious problem with drugs - it's just dropped in suddenly and then barely mentioned again. Given that Huffington set up a news website, she's big on committing one of the worst crimes you can, of burying the lead. The whole point of Third Metric is that it's something Huffington really concentrated on after she collapsed of exhaustion, but again, I don't feel like this is really explored enough.

Monday, 27 July 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode three - Time and Tide

Previously on Agent Carter, Peggy tracked down Leet Brannis, who stole Howard Stark's bombs. Just before he died, he drew a symbol in the sand for her to interpret. And the SSR, investigating the Roxxon Oil refinery explosion, have now got a second huge explosion, also caused by Howard's bombs, to link it to.

Monday, 20 July 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode two - Bridge and Tunnel

Previously on Agent Carter, Peggy Carter has turned "double agent" to help clear Howard Stark's name. Battling sexism in the office and foes outside the office, she now has to work out who the mysterious Leviathan is, and what he or she wants with a truckload of bombs.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Agent Carter recap masterpost

Season one, episode one - Now is Not the End
"Did you miss me?"

Season one, episode two - Bridge and Tunnel
"Who writes this rubbish?"

Season one, episode three - Time and Tide
"Do you have any idea how stupid that was?"

Season one, episode four - The Blitzkrieg Button
"I know how much Steve meant to you because I know how much he meant to me."

Season one, episode five - The Iron Ceiling
"Does anyone else feel a chill going up their knickers?"

Season one, episode six - A Sin to Err
"I can explain everything, all of it."

Season one, episode seven - Snafu
Dottie is pram shopping. Er, why?
Dottie is pram shopping. Er, why?
"I've never been more than what each of you has created."

Monday, 13 July 2015

TV recap: Agent Carter season one, episode one - Now is Not the End

Agent Peggy Carter - charismatic, tough, loyal, brave, clever, and beautiful. Although we only saw her briefly in Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy made an impression (and not just on Steve Rogers). It's enough of an impression that she managed to get her own television show - Marvel's Agent Carter, which has finally made its way to the UK. Here's what went down in episode one.

'This thing's moving too fast and it's heading for New York.'

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Book review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Classic is a word bandied about a lot when it comes to books. There are many, many lists of classics out there, and some writers are lucky enough to have just about all their books called classics (and not just because they were written many years ago).

Harper Lee is a writer whose entire output is classed as classic, but that's because she's only released one book. Well, that will remain true for just a couple more days and then, more than 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, we'll get to read a second book by the famously reclusive author.

In preparation for the release of Go Set a Watchman, I decided to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I remember enjoying, but one I haven't read in more than a decade. Would To Kill a Mockingbird stand up to memory and be as good as I thought it was? And would it still be relevant?

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

My power list - female influencers

BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour has revealed its list of 10 female influencers, featuring names such as Nicola Sturgeon, Angelina Jolie and Anna Wintour. It's a great list, but it got me thinking about the women that influence me. Obviously, my mum tops the list, but as she's not on social media here are 11 other women, in no particular order, that influence me and that I think you should be paying attention to.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Book review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Identity, memory, self-worth and desire - all are at the core of Maggie Mitchell's beguiling novel Pretty Is.

When Carly May and Lois were 12 years old they were kidnapped. Missing for two months, everyone presumed they were dead, until they were rescues. Now grown up, Carly May has changed her name and is pursuing an acting career, while Lois has written a book fictionalising what happened to the two girls during the time they were kidnapped. When Carly May is cast in the lead role of the film adaptation of Lois' book, the two women are brought back together again. What really happened to them when they were 12, how has it affected them, and is there still a threat to their lives?

In Carly May, known as Chloe in the present time, and Lois, Mitchell has created two complicated female characters who I spent the entire book trying to unpick, and who spent the two months they were kidnapped trying to unpick each other, and the years since then trying to both forget each other and make sense of each other. It's easy to think that it was just the kidnapping which affected Carly May and Lois so badly, impacting on the rest of their lives, but Mitchell shows through glimpses of their home life that the kidnapping only exacerbated the girls' feelings of otherness and exclusion, that feeling that maybe there was something special about them, and that's why they never fit in, and that's why they were chosen by their kidnapper.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

My favourite Maya Angelou rhymes

When Maya Angelou died in May 2014, the world mourned the loss of one of its greatest poets. One small measure of comfort is the fact that she left behind a vast number of brilliant poems (plus her autobiographies), addressing racism, prejudice, love, slavery, self-worth and more. I've recently been reading and rereading her work, and thought I'd share some of my favourite lines from some of my favourite poems by Angelou, starting with a few words from my absolute favourite poem, Still I Rise.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.
-from Still I Rise

I'm the best that ever done it
(pow pow)
      That's my title and I won it
      (pow pow)
I ain't lying, I'm the best
(pow pow)
      Come and put me to the test
      (pow pow)
-from Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition

From Monday, the morning of the week,
through mid-times
noon and Sunday's dying
light. It sits silent.
Its needle sound
does not transfix my ear
or draw my longing to
a close.

Ring. Damn you!
-from The Telephone

She splayed her foot
up to the shin
within the ocean brine.
-from Communication I

Her proud declarations
     are leaves on the wind
-from America

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
- from Phenomenal Woman

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
Till I can rest again.
-from Woman Work

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
-from Caged Bird

There are some nights when
sleep plays coy,
aloof and disdainful.
-from Insomniac

Lift up your eyes
Upon this day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
-from On the Pulse of Morning

Friday, 26 June 2015

Desmond Elliott Prize 2015

The Desmond Elliott Prize is awarded for new fiction, with the judges searching for a "novel which has a compelling narrative, arresting characters and which is both vividly written and confidently realised.".

This year's shortlist has definitely found novels with those qualities. On July 1 the £10,000 prize will be awarded to either Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley, Claire Fuller for Our Endless Numbered Days or Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing.

All three books are absolutely brilliant, and I don't envy the judges picking a winner. If you haven't read them, here are my thoughts on each book (with a link to my full review in the title).

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Synopsis: A Mormon family has to deal with their grief after the loss of a child.
Bray has created a story about faith in family, about the bonds of love that bind people together, even after someone has died, about the ways in which humans are tested and the ways in which they survive. It's a story about grief that moved me to tears for a family that I loved and mourned with.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
Synopsis: A young girl is taken to live in the forest by her survivalist father, and told that the rest of the world has ended.
Our Endless Numbered Days is so, so dark, but it was only as I approached the end that I realised just how dark the book is...the writing style almost reminds me of original fairytales, where princesses didn't live happily ever after.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Synopsis: As Maud, 82, gets increasingly worried about her friend, Elizabeth, who is missing, past and present collide.
It's stunningly written, and will give you palpitations, and it's worth every penny (and I believe there were a lot of them) that Viking stumped up for it.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Book review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

There is no word in the English language to describe a parent who has lost their child, no way to signify to someone in just one word that this is a person who is grieving, who is trying to come to terms with an unspeakable loss.

How we grieve, how a parent grieves, is at the centre of Carys Bray's wonderful debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley. When Issy Bradley dies, her strict Mormon family all deal in different ways. Issy's mum Claire is consumed by grief, taking to Issy's bed for weeks, unable to cope with her husband Ian's blind faith in his faith, which he has turned to more than ever to deal with Issy's death. Their oldest daughter Zippy finds her faith being challenged for the first time in her life, as she battles between her grief at losing Issy and her desire to be a typical teenage girl. Her brother Alma addresses the loss by continuing to push against the Mormon faith, but discovers that it may not be that easy. And youngest child Jacob is optimistic that Issy will come back, that a miracle will occur and his sister will return to him.

Faith, or the lack of it, is a preoccupation of A Song for Issy Bradley. Bray, who was brought up Mormon, left the church in her thirties, almost the opposite of Claire, who in the book we find out became a Mormon because of her relationship with Ian. Claire takes on the Mormon faith willingly, but still rails against it sometimes, finding it difficult to reconcile her needs for herself and her family with the demands placed on her by her faith. Claire is cynical, she gets offended, she wants to be selfish - all perfectly human traits but ones that don't always sit well with her faith. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Book review: Asking for It by Louise O'Neill

I've never actually been the recipient of a real punch to the gut, but how I felt when I finished reading Louise O'Neill's Asking For It is how I imagine being whacked really hard in the stomach feels - you're left momentarily breathless, shocked, unable to process for a minute, and then the hurt piles in.

Beautiful, confident, 18 years old, Emma O'Donovan's life changes one night when she goes to a party. Waking up the next morning in front of her house, she doesn't remember what happened or how she got there. Her first clue is when she turns up at school to find herself mocked and shunned, and the reasons why become clear when Emma discovers a Facebook page which show photos of her with some of her small town's most popular boys. Emma's memory, her friends, her family - all want to believe their own story, and what happened that night is only the start of Emma's nightmare.

In Emma O'Neill has created a character who isn't particularly likeable, but who I always felt for, and whose side I was always on, unhesitatingly. Emma is kind of selfish, she uses her beauty to her gain, she takes advantage of friends, she steals, and she gives extremely bad advice, so bad that it actually means someone gets away with a crime and one of her friends is hurt physically and emotionally. Yet Emma is unflinchingly real, a typical 18-year-old who thinks the world is hers for the taking, and who believes she's destined for bigger and better things, and who acts as she does to fit a stereotype placed on her not just by her friends and the boys she knows, but also by her parents and her brother. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Book review: Leave Your Mark by Aliza Licht

Aliza Licht's Leave Your Mark promises to help give you tips to land your dream job, kill it in your career, and rock social media. 

Those are some big claims, and while I don't think reading this book is going to suddenly set you on the path to awesomeness, I think it'll fire you up so that you want to try.

Licht started in fashion journalism before joining DKNY in a publicity role. There, when Twitter appeared, she set up DKNY PR Girl, pretty much the first Twitter account to give the inside track on PR in the world of fashion. Taking her experience in journalism and PR, Licht has written a how-to guide to making the most of every career opportunity that comes your way, and creating some of your own.

I don't read business books or self-help guides or anything similar - the closest I've come before this is Sheryl Sandberg's wonderful Lean In. So I wasn't really sure what to expect when I picked up Leave Your Mark.

The first thing is that it's very upbeat, very matter of fact, and Licht's voice is very confident. Confidence is a big point in the book, but it took me a while to get past my British reserve and start really enjoying what Licht was saying and the way she was saying it. I never really got used to the 'take a selfie' sections, where Licht almost gives the reader a task in which you have to assess yourself. The use of the word selfie felt a little trying too hard to be trendy to me, and I didn't love it.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Book review: The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I very rarely cry at books. I'll get sad, my heart will hurt, my eyes might tear up, but it takes a lot for those tears to actually spill over. So when I tell you that when I finished the last page of Cathy Rentzenbrink's The Last Act of Love to realise I had tears running down my face, it should clue you in to how powerful a memoir this is.

I should say at this juncture that I work with Cathy - I know her professionally, and consider her both a mentor and a friend. Beyond knowing the subject matter of the book, I didn't really know what to expect from The Last Act of Love. What I found was an intensely personal tale dealing with the universal subjects of love, family, and loss.

In the summer of 1990, Cathy's younger brother Matty was knocked down by a car, leaving him in a coma in hospital. Cathy and her parents willed him to survive, and he did. But at the time, Cathy and her family had no idea that survival might not have been the best option - Matty was left severely injured, unable to walk or speak or communicate fully. Every time he made progress, he suffered an epileptic fit, or something else that set him back. Eight years after his accident, Cathy and her parents were forced to make the hardest decision they would ever make.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015 - shortlist reviews

The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction will crown its 2015 winner tomorrow night, and I've read all of this year's six shortlisted books as part of the We Love This Book Club at work. You can see my mini reviews below, see what other people reading the list thought here, and watch a video of me and my colleagues talking about our favourites and trying to guess the winner in the video at the end of this post.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Book review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I don't usually read horror, because I'm a scaredy-cat, but Andrew Michael Hurley's The Loney is more than just a horror novel.

When the remains of a young child are found on a section of bleak Lancashire coastline, Smith is forced to think back to a pilgrimage he took with his parents, disabled brother Hanny, and figures from their church to The Loney in 1976.

The Loney starts very briefly in the present, as Smith makes an introduction to the reader that makes it clear something is not quite right. And then we're hurtled back in time to the 1970s, where we meet a younger Smith, his brother Hanny and their extremely religious mother. It is Mummer, as Smith calls her, who seems to instigate the events of the novel, by organising a pilgrimage to The Loney, accompanied by Father Bernard, the new priest at the local church. Also accompanying them are a couple who were related to the previous priest, who died in mysterious circumstances after something happened on a previous pilgrimage to The Loney, and the church's young assistant and her boyfriend.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Book review: Remix by Non Pratt

It's always difficult to follow up a critically acclaimed, pretty much universally loved first novel, but Non Pratt has risen to the challenge with her second book, Remix.

Kaz and Ruby are heading off to Remix, a three-day music festival that is sure to be populated by cool bands (including the hot, hot, hot Adam Wexler of Goldentone), friends galore, and plenty of sunshine (hopefully). Kaz is still not over her ex-boyfriend Tom, and is hoping Remix will give them the chance to rekindle their romance, while Ruby is definitely over her ex-boyfriend Stuart, and is looking to have the time of her life. But with the sun shining down and everyone camping in close quarters, the drama is sure to be top of the bill.

Pratt's first novel Trouble tackled teenage pregnancy and what it means to be a family, and in some ways Remix also looks at the latter. And just like in trouble, things get complicated when it comes to family. Kaz and Ruby have been friends for so long that they're practically sisters, which becomes a problem when Kaz makes a new friend while at Remix. Ruby's jealousy is a bit like that of a sister who is being suddenly ignored after years of being worshipped. And Kaz feels Ruby is holding her back, and not wanting her to have fun and become her own person. The stuff between Kaz and Ruby is excellent. Of course the situation, taking place over three days, is slightly accelerated but the emotions and reactions are realistic.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book review: The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

There is such a lot of young adult fiction out there that sometimes it all becomes much of a muchness, and you lose heart.

So I was relieved to discover Melinda Salibury's The Sin Eater's Daughter, which has a unique concept and which I could not put down once I started reading.

Twylla lives a life of luxury in the Queen's palace, but she can't touch anyone - for her touch carries death. The Queen uses Twylla as a demonstration of her power and her right to the throne, and Twylla reluctantly does the Queen's bidding - killing those guilty of treason - in order that her family remains fed and protected. When Twylla's betrothed - the Queen's son Prince Merek - returns to the castle, and Twylla gets a new guard, the young woman discovers that she may be at the centre of a power play and her life in more danger than she ever realised.

The Sin Eater's Daughter is a complex story, with Salibsury creating a world that takes its influences (and punishments and beliefs) from medieval times, but with a twist of fantasy added in. I enjoyed the way Salisbury put us right in the middle of Twylla's life, with explanations about what she is appearing slowly, and sometimes even leaving the reader to work out what is going on, which I liked.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)Read

In case you've been living under a rock somewhere, you'll have heard the news that a new novel by Harper Lee, author of the bestselling classic To Killa Mockingbird, will be released this summer.

Go Set a Watchman catches up with Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird 20 years later, as she returns home to the town of Maycomb.

Starting today I'm taking part in the To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)read, being run by Lee's publisher. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird before, in my early teens, but here's the sum total of what I remember:

-it features a child called Scout and her dad, a lawyer called Atticus
-it's set in Alabama
-it deals with race relations
-someone called Boo Radley is in it
-I loved this book.

And I'm betting I'm not the only one who remembers next to nothing about To Kill a Mockingbird, yet professes it to be a great book. So, the schedule for the (re)read is below, and I'm hoping by the end I'll be able totals eloquently and honestly about why this is a great novel. Join in if you like, using the hashtag #TKAM on all platforms.

Happy (re)reading!

Book review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman

I've learnt a lot of lessons from 1980s films.

From The Breakfast Club I learnt that detention could be cool. From The Princess Bride I learnt that fairytale princesses can be tough AND feminine. From The Goonies I learnt that with a good group of friends you can do anything. From Dirty Dancing I learnt that you never put Baby in a corner (of course).

In her new book, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don't Learn Them From Movies Any More), journalist Hadley Freeman sets out the lessons she learnt from eighties' films (obviously), in much greater detail and with a lot more thought than I ever could. Split into 10 chapters, Freeman focuses on a different film in each, from Dirty Dancing and what it said about abortion, sex and women, to Pretty in Pink's lessons on makeovers to how Back to the Future is really about the importance of parents.

This is, hands down, one of my favourite non-fiction books ever. It reads like a collection of scholarly essays injected with a massive dose of fun. Freeman's analysis is smart, insightful and considered, as well as being witty, funny and gossipy. There are plenty of footnotes in each chapter, like on an essay you wrote for university. But don't ignore the footnotes, they're full of absolute gems, like the fact that the guy who played Robbie in Dirty Dancing went on to be a journalist and got addicted to drugs while trying to do a story on a cannibalistic cult, and then died. Seriously.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Book review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I don't think legend is too big a word to use when it comes to Judy Blume. The author is responsible for many of the books teenage girls (and probably some boys) grew up with, from my personal favourites Deenie and Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, through to Forever, much whispered about in school hallways.

Blume taught generations of teenage girls about growing up, but she has also turned her brand of insight to adult novels, of which In the Unlikely Event is her newest. It's not untrue to say that news of In the Unlikely Event's release was greeted with excitement by Blume's fans.

When Miri Ammerman was a 15-year-old living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three planes fell from the sky within three months, leaving the town reeling. (It's worth saying here that three planes really did crash in Blume's hometown when she was growing up.) The crashes bring friends, families and strangers closer together, all trying to find a way to come to terms with the death that has come to their doorsteps.

In the Unlikely Event is classic Judy Blume - an intuitive look at the inner workings of teenage girls. Miri is in that period of her life where she's no longer a child and not yet an adult. But being confronted by so much death and danger means she has to grow up fast, and her family situation often sees her acting as the parent - Miri calls her mum Rusty and not mum, and Rusty is very much the antithesis of all the other mothers Miri knows.

The trauma of the multiple plane crashes looms large over the town of Elizabeth and they affect some residents more than others - Miri's best friend Natalie thinks a dead dancer from the first plane crash is speaking to her, Natalie's brother Steve finds himself unexpectedly grieving, while Miri's uncle Henry makes his name as a journalist on his coverage of the crashes, and Miri's boyfriend Mason becomes a hero to the town. Blume explores post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and more, which seem to be linked to the crashes in some ways, but in others are not. 

Because while this is a story about three plane crashes, it is just as much a novel about the day to day lives of the town's habitants. In between the crashes life goes on as normal, with affairs and secret relationships, squabbling families and schoolchildren who want to feel like they matter. There are teenagers trying to grow up, adults navigating life, and everyday problems rearing their ugly heads.

With so much death at the centre of the novel, In the Unlikely Event could easily leave you feeling despondent. But while it is a serious novel, it's also a novel about life, and the very thing that keeps us feeling alive - love. There is familial love, with Miri's unusual (for 1970s small-town New Jersey) family working together as a unit, and working as a contrast to Natalie's rather more conventional yet also more fractured family. And there is romantic love, with characters like Christina trying to find a way to balance her love life and her family life. And of course there is sex - Blume's characters use sex (with and without love involved) in a number of ways, but mainly to feel alive (even before the plane crash).

In the Unlikely Event is filled with tension and drama, and is a wonderful look at love, at how we respond to trauma, at becoming a grown up, and at living life to the fullest.

*In the Unlikely Event is out in the UK on June 4, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Book review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Sometimes you pick up a book that is so well written and so beautiful, reading it warms your heart. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is definitely one of those books.

Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny grew up together in small-town Wisconsin. They now lead very different lives, but their shared childhood keeps them bonded. The group all come together for a wedding, and rivalries surface, truths are told and friendships are put at risk.

Butler creates four layered characters, all of whom I absolutely loved for very different reasons. Together and apart, Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny are sympathetic, likeable, full of depth and complicated in a way that male characters in books and television and film often aren't (at least in my experience).

Of course, while I loved all four characters, I definitely had a favourite - Lee. I think it was his vulnerability that really spoke to me, because even though he's a famous singer, travelling the world and revered by everyone, Lee, out of all of his friends, is the one who needs the most. He needs that connection to his hometown, he needs his friends, he needs love.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a wonderful love story between four friends. It's a great look at male friendship, and at the bonds that bind people together across years and many miles. It's tinged with nostalgia, of moments from a lifetime together. Reading Shotgun Lovesongs is a bit like sitting in a field on a warm summer evening - there's a slightly hazy edge to everything, and while there's a threat of a storm on the horizon, you feel welcomed and loved and safe. It might be a book just about friendship, but it's as addictive and all-consuming as any thriller or action film, and the stakes are much higher.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.

Friday, 15 May 2015

If you love watching this, you'll love reading these: The 100 edition

Who would have thought when it started that The 100, a series originating on The CW about an attractive group of young people who have no parental supervision, was going to be about politics, love, survival, war crimes and more? Certainly not me, but The 100 has proved it's a TV show that is constantly underestimated.

It regularly explores difficult ideas - whether there is ever a right time for torture, if it's okay to sacrifice a few for the survival of the many, what rules matter in a new society and what rules can fall by the wayside, and plenty more.

And of course, The 100 is one of the most feminist programmes on television, something I spoke at length about at the end of season one (here and here). It is chock full of female characters with agency, and its male characters exist on a level playing field with its female characters. In having to recreate society, The 100 as a show has decided to go for all out equality.

The 100 is based on a series of books by Kass Morgan, but if you've read those (and warning, they're very different from the TV show) here are a few books that I think are perfect for fans of the programme.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Book review: The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood

There are some books you read that you could just talk about endlessly, or write essays about. Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic is one of those books.

Celebrated painter Elspeth 'Knell' Conroy is on Portmantle, an artists' colony off the coast of Istanbul, where she spend her time trying to create the art that once came so naturally to her. The retreat is rocked by the arrival of Fullerton, a teenage boy who is damaged and in danger, and whose presence on Portmantle affects all its residents, who pour over the mystery of why he is there, and what the link is between him and the lives the residents of Portmantle left behind in England.

This book is just utterly, utterly brilliant. I could, as I said right at the beginning, write essays about The Ecliptic, but I won't, since the best way to experience the full effects of this book is to just read it without knowing too much. 

What I will say is that The Ecliptic is one of my favourite books of the year. It is wonderfully put together, deftly weaving between Portmantle and England, and a few other settings. It's a story about creativity, sacrifice, truth, love and obsession, and it is addictive reading. Full of depth, the story builds like layers of paint on canvas, with the end result a stunning image you suspected was coming, but were never sure of until you stood back and saw all the colours and brushstrokes together.

In short, it's pretty much a masterpiece.

•The Ecliptic is released in the UK on July 2, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Simon & Schuster. This did not affect my review.


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