book reviews

‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

This is such an unusual book. On the surface, it is a simple story, of two young people who fall in  love. But it is so much more than that. Through the two protagonists, the author explores so much of life, and love, and society – it’s expectations, it’s cruelty, the freedoms it seems to offer that can be utterly superficial. It’s a story about being young, and hopeful, and about trying to make a life, a good life, in a world where those hopes are dashed.

I can’t fully understand the complex issues that this book raises – I have never had the experiences that are written about here, but this novel, as well as being utterly compelling and a joy to read for the beauty of the writing, goes a long way to show these experiences. It is written in second person – which does really take some getting used to – but it is so worth persevering, because the writing is so good. Not many authors could have done this so successfully, and it is a testament to the author’s talent that this is such a beautiful novel.

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‘It Never Rains but It Paws: A Road Trip Through Politics and a Pandemic’ by Jacqueline Lambert #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog

I read ‘It Never Rains but It Paws’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Five years after giving up work to travel full time, Dog-ma Jacqueline (Jackie) and Dogfather Mark race against time to leave the UK before Britain exits the EU. If Brexit happens, their four Cavapoos (Cavalier/Poodle cross) Kai, Rosie, Ruby, and Lani will lose their puppy passports, and the Lambert Family will be unable to travel together. But Brexit isn’t their only obstacle. A few months into their adventure, the pandemic suddenly shatters their plans, and leaves them trapped in the epicentre of Europe’s No. 1 coronavirus hotspot.

The fourth road trip Europe adventure in author Jacqueline Lambert’s “inspirational and hilarious” series of true travel memoirs invites you to join the couple as they discover even more amazing and little-known places, this time in France and Italy. However, this isn’t just a priceless escape travel story filled with humorous mishaps and mountain adventure. The coronavirus pandemic separates the family from their loved ones at home, and leaves Jackie stranded alone during a blizzard in a remote Italian village, with Mark thousands of miles away, back in the UK.

Between terrible weather, political mayhem, and a global pandemic, Jackie and Mark try to take lessons from each hardship. Yet, even with a positive attitude, a sense of adventure, and a caravan full of loved ones, you can’t stop all the obstacles life rolls your way. These “amusing and informative” travel stories are certainly proof that It Never Rains… But It Paws!

I chose to read this book because we are planning to buy a campervan in the next few years when we retire and travel with our four dogs – so this sounded like a very good way to find out what the reality of that dream might be.

And it didn’t disappoint. The book is full of the ups and downs of a life on the road, and doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is – there are problems and mishaps galore, and life isn’t always a comfortable idyll.

But despite the often terrible weather, the financial worries, the sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems caused by ridiculous politics, the genuine love that Jackie and Mark have for their life and their dogs shines through.

There are wonderful descriptions of glorious countryside, and some interesting history too, along with some very entertaining anecdotes. This is a very light-hearted and enjoyable read.

And it certainly hasn’t put me off my dream!

‘Last One at the Party’ by Bethany Clift #BookReview #FridayReads

December 2023. The human race has fought a deadly virus and lost. The only things left from the world before are burning cities and rotting corpses.

But in London, one woman is still alive.

Although she may be completely unprepared for her new existence, as someone who has spent her life trying to fit in, being alone is surprisingly liberating.

Determined to discover if she really is the last survivor on earth, she sets off on an extraordinary adventure, with only an abandoned golden retriever named Lucky for company.


Maybe she’ll find a better life or maybe she’ll die along the way. But whatever happens, the end of everything will be her new beginning.

This is such an interesting novel. It’s such a good idea to have the protagonist in a situation like this be someone relatively normal who has absolutely no survival skills at all – it makes the everything so relatable. Most people’s reaction, mine at least, to being the last person on Earth would be to get very drunk!

There’s a great deal of very dark humour here, as well as a good dose of what the reality would probably be like – I mean, what would happen to all those bodies if everyone died? The author doesn’t shy away from describing what that would be like. And the narrator’s unflinching honesty as she looks back on her life before the virus is done beautifully. I loved her and related to her and so wanted her to succeed. The addition of a faithful dog just made the novel even better.

That this is a debut is really impressive.

Compelling, funny, sad, honest and skillfully crafted.

Highly recommended.

‘When I Ran Away’ by Ilona Bannister #BookReview

This morning Gigi left her husband and children.

Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.

As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.

An unforgettable novel about love – for our partners, our children, our mothers, and ourselves – pushed to its outer limits.

This is a very well-written, smart, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad novel with a very likeable and relatable main character.  

My children are adults now but I remember clearly that being at home alone with babies could often be lonely and boring and was absolutely exhausting. It’s still taboo to say so, even more so now, I feel, with these ‘influencer’ mums who are always immaculate (and so are their homes). So honesty like this is always refreshing. I would have loved to have read this when my children were little.

The characterisation is fabulous, and very well-observed. There are some wonderful observations of middle-class life here, and how it feels to not really fit in. There’s an understanding too of how past events continue to have ramifications on our emotions, our choices, our lives, however long ago they happened.

Recommended.

‘Dark Corners’ by Darren O’Sullivan #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

You thought you’d escaped your past

It’s been twenty years since Neve’s best friend Chloe went missing. Neve has never recovered and promised herself she’d never go back to that place.

But secrets can come back to haunt you

When Neve receives news that her first boyfriend Jamie has gone missing, she’s forced to return. Jamie has vanished without a trace in a disappearance that echoes the events of all those years ago. Somebody is watching and will stop at nothing until the truth about what took place that night is revealed …

Neve left the mining village where she grew up after her best friend Chloe disappeared. Now, after the breakup of her relationship, and struggling to run a business with her friend, she returns to help in the search for another friend, and her first love, Jamie.

The story switches between the present day, and the events of twenty-one years ago. This is done very well, and there is no confusion. The plot is quite complex and there are lots of twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy, and the atmosphere is quite spooky. The writing is very good in places, particularly in the evocative descriptions of the abandoned mine, the headframe watching over everything.

But I did find it hard to really connect to the characters, which made it difficult to really feel the tension. and there were quite a few errors in the text, including a lot of unintentional switches from past to present tense in the earlier chapters.

I also found the ending a bit of a disappointment.

So, not for me, unfortunately, but the book does have a lot of really great reviews, so the author is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the mystery genre.

‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.

Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

I’ve read quite a few of Hazel Gaynor’s books and have loved every one of them. She has a really lovely way of writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, showing how those people find such strength of character in order to cope. The relationships between her characters are always a highlight too.

This novel is no exception. Elspeth and Nancy are authentic and likeable narrators, showing clearly their fear and bewilderment as their lives change so dramatically. What works particularly well is their belief that this can’t possibly be happening, that someone will come and hp them. It really made me, as a reader, think about what how I would react in those circumstances.

I did find, however, the storyline around the Girl Guides a little overdone. I can appreciate that it was something to hold onto, for the girls and their teachers, and something they used to give life in the camp a sense of normality, but it did take over the narrative in places.

Otherwise, another great novel by Hazel Gaynor, and definitely recommended.

‘Space Hopper’ by Helen Fisher #BookReview

If you could go back in time to find answers to the past, would you?
 
For Faye, the answer is yes. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to find out what really happened when she lost her mother as a child. She is happy with her life – she has a loving husband, two young daughters and supportive friends, even a job that she enjoys. But questions about the past keep haunting her, until one day she finally gets the chance she’s been waiting for.
 
But how far is she willing to go to find answers?
 
Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life.

When she is just eight years old, Faye loses her mother. Taken in by kind neighbours, she forges a happy life, albeit one that has a sadness at its heart.

She has a good job, a lovely, supportive husband, two daughters, lots of friends, but nothing quite fills that hole.

When she finds an old space hopper box in the loft, it paves the way for her to return to her past, and to be with her mum, but as is usually the case with time travel, interfering with the past isn’t always a wise thing to do, and the consequences can be much more far reaching than you expect.

I did enjoy this. For a debut novel it’s very well-written, confident, well-paced, and absorbing in places, and the details of Faye’s past were so well done, really authentic.

That said, there were a few places where things dragged a little, and some of the time travel aspects didn’t really work for me. And I’m not sure I completely believed in the ending.

But certainly a good read, and I’d definitely read more by this author.

‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie #FridayReads #BookReview

It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it’s under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

Last week I reviewed Cash Carraway’s book about her struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter under the current social system in this country. It felt timely then to read this book straight after – a book that praises that once great system, when the much maligned ‘nanny’ state looked after the people of this country and helped those who needed help.

I am slightly younger than Maconie, but I very much recognised the world he described – albeit that I lived further south, first in London and then in an estate in a new town, built to cater for the London overspill. Like Maconie’s estate, the estate we lived in had been planned to put open spaces at its heart – terraces of houses not in rows but in squares around a green area, and we had a toilet downstairs! 

I had a free education,  free library, free care from the NHS, and when I when to university I had a grant – a grant that didn’t need to be paid back – ever.

Things weren’t perfect. There was snobbery. There was still need. But it was a damn sight better than now.

Maconie’s book then, is a love letter of sorts to those institutions that meant so much to those of us who were working class – the swimming pools, the parks, the libraries (especially the libraries), the completely free education. And it’s also a warning that we are letting it all slip away. That we are letting this false narrative of scroungers, of benefit cheats, of people swanning up to food banks in Range Rovers (yes, I have been told this I by someone I know – she firmly believes it) to allow us to turn our back on a system that, although not perfect, was genuinely a safety net, was genuinely a way out for many of us.

Maconie writes with wit, with warmth, with intelligence. The book isn’t perfect though. In a section about how the privately educated have taken over the music industry, with the majority of bands in this country formed of ex-public schoolboys, Maconie wonders where are the John Lennons, the Jarvis Cockers, the Johnny Marrs? In doing so he completely overlooks grime – a whole genre of working class and independent music.

I also found his defence of the BBC a little hard to swallow, and a little disappointing too.

That said, however, this is a really important book. The ‘nanny’ state is not a terrible, interfering, wasteful behemoth that needs continuous overhauling – it is a lifeline for many that definitely needs proper funding (might help if the rich paid their taxes). We need those Sure Start Centres, those public libraries, the school playing fields, the public swimming pools. And we most certainly need free university level education. I couldn’t have done without these things. I wish the generations after me had had the benefit of them too. 

A much-needed warning, well-written, very readable, and an important book, especially as we head into the uncertainty of 2022.

‘Skint Estate’ by Cash Carraway #BookReview #FridayReads

I’m a scrounger, a liar, a hypocrite, a stain on society with no basic morals – or so they say. After all, what else do you call a working-class single mum in temporary accommodation?

Skint Estate is the darkly funny debut memoir from Cash Carraway, a scream against austerity that rises full of rage in a landscape of sink estates, police cells, refuges and peepshows.
A voice that must be heard.

Sometimes, when there’s an article posted on Twitter about foodbanks, or people having to choose whether to heat their homes or eat, I read the comments and wonder what’s wrong with people. I can guarantee that someone will say something about flat screen TVs (all TVs have flat screens), or mobile phones (you have to have internet access to apply for jobs, and access information and services relating to universal benefit, and a mobile is often the cheapest way) or alcohol and cigarettes, the lottery or scratch cards (no evidence that people in poverty buy these disproportionatly, and even if they do, well, god forbid the poor should have any pleasure, just sit on the floor and stare at the wall). Anyway, the ignorance, smugness, and lack of compassion always makes me furious. These people should read this book.

Cash Carraway tells it exactly like it is, with an intelligence and wit that makes reading this book bearable. Because without her skill as a writer, it would be unremittingly depressing. Which a life in poverty in the UK undoubtedly is.

The frustration of moving from temporary home to temporary home, of trying to find work that fits in with childcare, the sheer exhaustion of just trying to keep your head above water, the author relates these things with an honesty that is raw and brave, and with a scathing humour and a justifiable anger. 

I’m currently reading ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie, partly a celebration of the funded NHS, libraries, education, that my generation enjoyed and benefitted from. Had these things still been available, rather than completely decimated by recent policies, you can’t help thinking that Cash Carraway would have had a much better chance in life, that she would have had access to resources, to care, that would have set her on her path earlier, that she wouldn’t have had to have gone through what she has gone through, and write about it, to be a successful writer and journalist. 

I come from a working class background, and I know first-hand the benefits of libraries, and student grants, and access to education. I have also had first-hand experience of the NHS providing lifesaving care for my child – goodness knows what would have happened without it. Reading of experiences like Cash Carraway’s and reading the way people like her are demonised and blamed for society’s ills really brings home just how much in danger we are of losing these things for good. I also wonder how much my life may have been like hers had I been born twenty or thirty years ago rather than fifty-odd years ago.

It’s not just a blessing for the author that her writing and her talent has been recognised, it’s a blessing for the rest of us – her work is so important, and deserves to be shared. She’s a real talent, and I do hope she’ll write more of her experiences. 

‘The Other People’ by C.J. Tudor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Driving home one night, Gabe sees the face of a little girl he knows in the rear window of the car in front.

She mouths one word – ‘Daddy’. It’s his five-year old daughter, Izzy.

He never sees her again.

The police believe she’s dead. But three years later, Gabe still drives the roads, searching for the car that took Izzy, never giving up hope . . .

Meanwhile Fran and her daughter, Alice, aren’t searching – but running.

Always one step ahead of the people who want to hurt them.

Because Fran knows the truth about Gabe’s daughter.

And she knows what the people chasing her will do if they ever catch them . . .

The beginning of this book is fantastic – such an exciting and interesting premise. What a clever idea for a novel. 

It’s gripping, dramatic, exciting, with plenty of twists and some characters to get behind too. I so wanted Gabe to find Izzy, or at least find out what happened to her – his grief, his guilt, his longing for her are palpable; he’s so well-written.

I really loved Katie too – at last, a realistic portrayal of single motherhood, the boring, badly paid job, rushing here and there to pick up the kids, she felt very real and, like Gabe, was so likeable.

Living far from family, we spend a lot of time on the M4 and a lot of time in service stations, and the idea of Gabe driving from services to services is compelling. Motorway services are odd places, and the author’s descriptions are spot on. Standing in the queue for a coffee, I often wonder where everyone has come from and where everyone is going – this book opens up a whole new set of possibilities!

A clever, entertaining, and gripping read.