book reviews for grown-ups
The Strange in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom
I've been a fan of Mitch Albom's from the beginning, and aspired to read all his works after I connected so deeply with Tuesday's With Morrie. I went into reading The Stranger in the Lifeboat knowing nothing about it plot wise.
The plot for The Stranger in the Lifeboat goes like this, the result of a suspicious yet catastrophic shipwreck leaves ten survivors, albeit strangers, onboard a life raft fighting for survival. On the third day, the group save a man floating in the waves. Can the strangers trust him when he claims not to have come from the shipwreck? Will any of them survive? And what cause the ship to really sink? These questions make for a compelling, And Then There Were None meets Life of Pi mystery.
But this is Mitch Albom we’re talking about and his writing is largely recognised for its philosophical and inspirational insights. And it’s here’s where the story takes a Albom-esque turn - the stranger pulled onboard the lifeboat claims to be God who promises to save them all but only if they believe in him. Now we’re left pondering, is the man who he really says he is? Did any of the strangers actually survive the shipwreck, or are they in some kind of transcendental dimension?
What follows is a series of ambiguous ordeals that shed light on dark truths and evener darker demises. But at the heart of Albom’s tale is one of love, hope and faith in the face of hardships, with notions of grief, revenge and humanity intertwined.
Divided into three sections - Sea, Land and News - across different timelines and points of views - a survivor, a police officer and a news reporter - left me feeling, forgive the pun, a little seasick. A narrative structure typically used to create suspense and speculation, created nothing more but a jarringly disjointed read. Why Albom used an epistolary approach I’ll never know - it feels so The Perks of Being a Wallflower but with a heavy spiritual slant. This, coupled with lazy character development and riddled with flimsy impossibilities (the fact Benji had a ziplock bag to keep his notebook safe and dry in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a miracle in itself) resulted in a mediocre, Marmite read.
Albom’s unanswerable question, what would happen if we called on God for help and God actually appeared?, is exactly that, unanswered. Instead we’re left with a wholesome, if not a little laboured, metaphysical conclusion: “In the end, there is the sea and the land and the news that happens between them. To spread that news, we tell each other stories. Sometimes the stories are about survival. And sometimes those stories, like the presence of the Lord, are hard to believe. Unless believing is what makes them true.”
Fans of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist will find comfort in this story, but if you’re looking for Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, or even Five People You Meet in Heaven, then you’re not going to find it here. But I can’t deny that Albom is a gifted storyteller and his ability to write such thought-provoking and thoughtful stories is truly extraordinary. I’ll continue to read anything and everything he churns out.
On reflection, I can't help but wonder if the marketing of the book pushed the mystery and suspense aspect too much, definitely for new readers coming to Albom's work.
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
Fierce, funny and unapologetically feminist, Peace Adzo Medie's dazzling literary debut is Tayari Jones meets Crazy Rich Asians in this striking and sharp portrait of womanhood, marriage and family set in modern Ghana.
The marital dramas, family conflicts, and Afi’s navigation of a new life drenched in wealth makes for a rich and entertaining plot, but it is the inner beauty of female independence, personal growth and staying true to yourself in a challenging and confrontational world that really captures your heart. I loved Afi and everything she stood for. Instantly likeable, Afi’s voices sings loud with a young wisdom and dignity that evokes feelings of great empowerment. We can all learn a lesson or two from Afi.
His Only Wife is an impressive debut that will no doubt be recommended beside the likes of Abi Daré, Bernardine Evaristo, Candice Carty-Williams, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Island on the Edge of the World by Deborah Rodriguez
Deliciously descriptive and boldly eye-opening, Deborah Rodriguez transports you to the beautiful, beating heart of Haiti in her sensational story of courage, survival and friendship.
In the bustling, colourful streets of Port-au-Prince, Rodriguez brings together the paths of four courageous women as they attempt to reunite a mother with her missing child. As they navigate a city devastated by the 2010 earthquake, Charlie, Bea, Lizbeth and Senzy find themselves on a heartrending journey of determination and self discovery.
Written with heart and diligence, Island on the Edge of the World is a stunning summer must read!
The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah
One of my favourite books this year. Hauntingly honest and profoundly stirring, Sahar Mustafah’s remarkable debut captivated me completely.
Set against the backdrop of a mass shooting at a Muslims girls’ school, Mustafah strips back her narrative and protagonist to reveal a rich and robust insight into issues surrounding faith and forgiveness, community and compassion, oppression and belonging.
Written with grace, empathy and precision, The Beauty of Your Face is an achingly beautiful and alarmingly timely tale that will stay with long after the last page.
The Switch by Beth O'Leary
I’m a big fan of Beth O’Leary. I adored her debut The Flatshare, and was delighted that her second book, The Switch, was as equally warm, witty, and full of heart. I loved Beth’s premise of a generational location swap, and her focus on a grandmother and granddaughter relationship was as refreshing as it was heartwarming. Eileen Cotton was such a character. One, as Anstey Harris fabulously described, proves you don’t have to be in your thirties to be Bridget Jones.
A gentle, feel good romcom for 2020.
Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham
An unflinchingly raw debut about fate, faith and female resistance.
Set over the course of two decades in Lagos, Nigeria, Tola Rotimi Abraham skilfully delves into the heart and mind of a young family wounded by the abandonment of their mother. Abraham does not shy away from difficult topics, including those surrounding oppression, poverty, and political corruption, but tackles them a strong sense of sincerity and grace, revealing each of her protagonists deepest aches and desires.
A slow but nevertheless a worthy read.
The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves
A lifetime of love. Six months of silence. One last chance.
A heart-wrenching, utterly captivating debut from a shining new voice. In The Silent Treatment, Abbie Greaves celebrates the phenomenal power of love, loss and leaving nothing unsaid through a unique portrayal of a long marriage with all its secrets and silence.
Cleverly crafted and beautifully written, this novel pulses with an unspoken tenderness that moved me beyond means. Frank and Maggie are unforgettable characters who’s love and challenges will repeatedly capture your heart.
A must read debut of 2020.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
Beautiful, raw and lyrical. Elizabeth Smart pours her very soul into the pages of her destructive love affair with the married poet George Baker. Written with such passion each sentence is like a kick or a kiss to your heart.
Don't Let Go by Michel Bussi
When I first read the plot to this book I was immediately gripped. Even before the first page I was already trying to work out the fate of Liane Bellion and the meaning behind the husband's erratic behaviour of his innocence vs. his guilt. The suspense was already heightened but, unfortunately for me, it didn't last.
The plot ended up dragging, the thriller aspect fell flat, and the writing at times felt staggered and stilted. The ending was cleverly thought through and I probably would have appreciated it a lot more if I was more connected to the story throughout. The unfolding story is told from the perspective of several characters and Bussi really masters capturing the different characters voices, manners and thoughts. But this character changing point of narrative technique is truly a hit and miss with me - sometimes I like, sometimes I don't, and this generally has a lot to do with the plot and writing as well. I didn't really engage with any of Bussi's characters, perhaps because their narratives were constantly stopping and starting. They lacked depth and at times originality and this left me unable to form a connection with them.
Needless to say, there were some aspects I did like. I liked how Bussi used chronological time stamps with each new chapter or point of narrative. Whilst this technique is something I usually glance over in other books, in Don't Let Go it really added an additional level of reality and suspense. I was constantly aware of the sense of time and it really got me thinking about how dangerous lost time can be to investigations of this nature. This idea of the 'every minute counts' concept really enabled Bussi to maintain this constantly flowing story format, even with the constant changing of point of narrative and the drag of the cat-and-mouse chase scenes.
Also, Bussi did a fantastic job of setting the scene, so much so that I felt the tranquility of Réunion's palm trees and beaches but also the concealed ruin of the lava and ash covered outskirts from the surrounding volcano.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
From the critically acclaimed author of The Kiss Quotient comes a romantic novel about love that crosses international borders and all boundaries of the heart.
Wonderfully warm and witty whilst equally steamy and smart, The Bride Test makes for a perfect, fast-paced summer read!
Breaking & Mending by Joanna Cannon
Heart-wrenchingly honest and exceptionally powerful, this beautiful memoir tells of Joanna Cannon's insight and story into life as a junior doctor. Walking the wards of Cannon's memories we witness the extraordinary and the tragic, the shocking and the heartache as Cannon unashamedly reveals stories of her first post-mortem to sitting with a patient in their final moments.
Cannon's words ring wise and raw. So beautifully written is Breaking & Mending that even in the darkest moments of Cannon's snapshots, a glimmer of hope and compassion was nearby. I was so moved by the stories of humanity and love and loss which Cannon trusted us with that I found myself, on multiple occasions, paused in a quiet moment of reflection. I am so grateful to all those who work in healthcare and this book undoubtedly shows us why we need to take better care of those who care for us.
Since Adam Kay's This Is Going to Hurt, there has been an undeniable mass of medical memoirs. From sobering stories on the frontline of intensive care to the startling notes of a brain surgeon and the remarkable insight into the life of nurses, these books have been devoured by many. Breaking & Mending should be at the very top of your list.
Whisper Network by Chandler Baker
Fiercely compelling and more timely than ever, Whisper Network is a powerful novel rooted in sisterhood solidarity.
Rightfully praised as the ultimate #MeToo book, Chandler Baker brings women in the workplace into full focus as she skilfully weaves together an unflinching narrative of female discrimination and suppression that is intricately intertwined in a thrilling murder mystery.
Slow paced yet incredibly sharp, Baker’s writing is confidently controlled and hard-hitting in a way that each sentence had me lingering for more.
A worthy read.
The Guest House by Abbie Frost
Seven guests. One Killer. A holiday to remember… A thrilling premise that puts a contemporary spin on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were One but it's one that I found sadly disappointing.
Unsatisfying slow and relatively predictable, The Guesthouse is a book that I found difficult to place. At times is read like a ghost story, others a chilling psychological thriller but neither followed through with potential.
Nevertheless, I've read a huge number of 5 star reviews of this book so if you like a little mystery and mayhem then The Guesthouse might be much better suited to your taste!
Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey
In a split second, Morgan's life changes for ever. A stranger hands her a baby, then jumps in front of a train. But why did the stranger jump? And why can no witnesses corroborate Morgan’s version of events?
In the frantic race to prove her innocence, Morgan tries to retrace the strangers final steps. But nothing is as it seems and something much darker is about to surface.
Thrilling and intense. For a debut Samantha M. Bailey has mastered everything a thriller should be - a fast-paced, gripping plot, with an ending that keeps you guessing.
My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
After the Sickness has killed off her parents, and the bombs have fallen on the last safe cities, Monster emerges from the arctic vault which has kept her alive. When she washes up on the coast of Scotland, everyone she knows is dead, and she believes she is alone in an empty world. Monster begins the long walk south, scavenging and learning the contours of this familiar land made new. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows. Changing her own name to Mother, Monster names the child after herself. As young Monster learns from Mother, she also discovers her own desires, realising that she wants very different things to the woman who made, but did not create, her.
Inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, My Name Is Monster is a novel about power, about isolation, and about the strength and the danger of a mother’s love.
Whilst My Name is Monster probably won't enjoy readers looking for a fast-paced, thrilling read, Hale has undoubtedly written a lyrically intriguing and refreshingly new viewpoint to the overcrowded post-apocalyptic genre, and offered a compellingly contemporary novel which will leave you thinking long into the silence that follows the ending.
Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior
I absolutely adored Hazel Prior's Away with the Penguins! Heartwarming, thoughtful and just plain wonderful, this book gave me the literary escape I so needed - and who thought it would be to a penguin colony in the freezing Antarctic!
From the very first page I found myself immediately immersed in this uplifting tale of ageing, adventure, and second chances. 85-year-old unlikely heroine, Veronica McCreedy is such an unforgettable character! Stubborn, spirited and hilariously unstoppable, Veronica, like Eleanor Oliphant and Bernadette Fox, completely captured my heart.
Skilfully spilt into a dual narrative between Veronica and her long lost grandson Patrick, and peppered with blog posts and diary entries throughout, Prior's writing radiates charm and confidence. But underneath this is a serious commentary on climate change and the responsibility we have in protecting our natural environment and wildlife, and Prior's research into this is evident. Light information and facts about Adélie penguins and environmental issues are subtly weaved into the narrative without the story ever losing any of its wit and warmth.
An absolute must read for 2020.
The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver
I loved One Day in December, but this was something else. Heart-breakingly captivating yet gorgeously uplifting, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird broke my heart and put it back together again.
An utterly rich and romantic sorry about love, death and learning to live again. If there's one book you read in 2020 please let it be this one.
You, Me and the Movies by Fiona Collins
A wonderfully charming and feel-good book that gave me all the feels!
Uniquely crafted with classic Hollywood movies referenced throughout, You, Me and the Movie is a uplifting tale of lost love rediscovered, and one that will have you hooked from start to finish.
Now excuse me while I go and watch all the movies from Arden's and Mac's list!
The Dilemma by B A Paris
Emotionally hard-hitting and thoughtfully crafted, The Dilemma is an intense drama about family, loss and the unravelling effect of harbouring dark secrets.
Despite being set over 24 hours, the plot felt disappointingly slow and needlessly repetitive, yet Paris' ability to tease out the secrets and the harrowing motivations behind the characters decisions captivated me enough to finish.
The first book by B A Paris that I've read and I'm looking forward to reading more by her.
The Choice by Claire Wade
Imagine a world where everything you ate was monitored by the government. Every step you took was counted. Your children were weighed every day at school. Neighbours reported on neighbours and no one was safe from judgement. Sugar was illegal, and baking was a crime.
Imagine if that world was here... What would you do? Toe the line or fight for your freedom?
The Choice is a cleverly crafted, and chillingly current novel that imagines a world where a government ruled on control and oppression has become a terrifying reality and even an innocent act of baking a cake could end in life or death. But when strength and humanity unite in an uprising, Claire Wade rightfully questions, to what extent do we, as humans, have a choice in times of fear.
Literary Places by Sarah Baxter
Literary Places makes for a perfect coffee table book as Sarah Baxter takes you on an enlightening journey through the key locations of literature’s best and brightest authors, movements and moments.
With short chapters, comprehensive research and beautiful illustrations, Baxter outlines the history and culture of 25 literary places around the globe from the wild Yorkshire moors from Wuthering Heights to Lucy's romantic Florence in A Room with a View and the languid backwaters of Arundhati Roy’s Kerala.
A perfect book to dip in and out of, I got lost in the wonder and culture of each place which for most, resulted in me going back and re-reading the original book or dreaming of visiting the locations for myself.
I'll definitely be checking out Baxter's Hidden Places and Spiritual Places, and I look forward to what will come next in the Inspired Traveller’s Guides.
The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay
A refreshingly hilarious novella that offers a compelling celebration of female power.
At eighteen, Somlata married into the Mitras: a once noble Bengali household whose descendants have taken to pawning off the family gold to keep up appearances.
When Pishima, the embittered matriarch, dies, Somlata is the first to discover her aunt-in-law's body - and her sharp-tongued ghost.
First demanding that Somlata hide her gold from the family's prying hands, Pishima's ghost continues to wreak havoc on the Mitras. Secrets spilt, cooking spoilt, Somlata finds herself at the centre of the chaos. And as the family teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, it looks like it's up to her to fix it.
The Flat Share by Beth O'Leary
If you're looking for an utterly charming, feel-good book than look no further then Beth O'Leary's deliciously funny and delightfully uplifting debut novel, The Flatshare!
The premise for The Flatshare shouldn't work (Tiffy and Leon share a flat; Tiffy and Leon share a bed; Tiffy and Leaon have never met...) but O'Leary has pulled it off perfectly, whilst offering a refreshingly unique perspective to the crowded romcom scene. Told through a dual narrative - charismatic and reliable Tiffy, and quiet and kind Leon - and witty dialogue, The Flatshare is charmingly fast-paced, with just enough oomph that made me devour it in one sitting.
For a debut, this book already feels like an unforgettable classic, ringing bells of Bridget Jones and Me Before You. A must read!
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
An Agatha Christie inspired premise that will have you gripped from start to finish, despite its pretty predictable ending.
Cleverly plotted with a cast of unforgettably eccentric characters and a deep-seated tension that you could cut with a knife, The Guest List is an inviting tale of secrets, deception and murderous revenge.
Will definitely be checking out Foley’s The Hunting Party!
The Furies by Katie Lowe
A deliciously dark thriller that begins with a sixteen-year-old girl found dead on a school property, with no known cause of death. What slowly unravels is a hauntingly intense tale of obsessive friendships, the power of sisterhood and the sinister revenge that comes at the cost of keeping secrets, all rooted in witchcraft and murder.
The premise of The Furies is a thrilling one and for Katie Lowe's debut it was incredibly well written and researched, but sadly the outcome fell flat for me, and left me questioning what really happened. I craved more witchcraft and spells and desperately wanted to know more about the Furies, but instead I felt like I read a book about a toxic friendship group who's murderous revenge became unsettling and at times questionable.
Nevertheless I'll definitely look out to see what Katie Lowe writes next.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty
An intense and dark thriller that will keep you on your toes, even if it doesn't keep you up all night.
The premise was incredibly gripping but for me the story, surprisingly, fell flat. Still, a fast-paced read should you want to be a part of the chain..
The Harpy by Megan Hunter
An exceptionally raw and riveting tale that consumed my mind, body and soul - I’ve never read anything quite like it.
In The Harpy, Megan Hunter confronts the mundane and the mythical in a plot that is sharply turned on its head.
When Lucy learns of her husband’s shattering infidelity, a special arrangement is agreed to even the score and save their marriage. Lucy can hurt him three times, but Jake will not know when the hurt is coming, nor what form it will take. But as the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to an otherworldly transformation of both mind and body.
In this novel of love and betrayal, revenge and renewal, Hunter interprets the seamless, unsettling blending of mother and monster through a metamorphosis rich with female rage and myth.
Told in a beautiful, lyrical prose, each sentence spoke volumes and imbued a signature, solid flair so distinctive to Hunter, that I savoured every word, individual detail and turn of the page, unaware of the passing of time.
Also, never have I seen such a stunning book cover. It, in itself, is a masterpiece.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
A weirdly, wonderful gem! This Japanese translated literary sensation draws a sharp line under what’s human versus what’s female, single and different.
Meet Keiko. Keiko is 36 years old. She's never had a boyfriend, and she's been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years.
Keiko's family wishes she'd get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won't get married. But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she's not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store.
What Red Was by Rosie Price
A deeply hard-hitting, powerfully complex exploration of power, privilege, and consent.
What begins as a novel about a close friendship quickly turns into an incredibly heart-rendering insight into the aftermath of sexual assault when Katie Quaile's life is suddenly shattered after being raped at a friends party.
For a debut, Price writes fearlessly and with great skill. Each sentence flows with a genuine rawness offering a gripping yet unflinching narrative on not only the aftermath of the trauma but the effects this has on the mind, body, memories and ultimately the voice.
A measured yet compelling read, What Read Was is another incredibly timely book that will have people thinking long after the last page.
The Silent House by Nell Pattison
Bringing death into a deaf community, Nell Pattison's debut is a cleverly crafted and captivating thriller that sets the bar high for crime fiction in 2020.
If someone was in your house, you’d know… wouldn’t you?
But the Hunter family are deaf, and don’t hear a thing when a shocking crime takes place in the middle of the night. Instead, they wake up to their worst nightmare: the murder of their daughter.
Was it an intruder? Or was the murderer closer to home?
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I absolutely loved Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters was a perfect match! Deliciously rich in detail and wonderfully witty in its writing, this is a remarkable tale of home, heritage and the power of sisterhood, all wrapped up in a life changing pilgrimage to India.
Tradition versus modernity is skilfully illuminated within its stunning setting, and issues surrounding love, acceptance and forgiveness were enveloped between the delicate layers of each of the sisters personas and the bond they share with one another.
I honestly cannot wait to see what Balli Kaur Jaswal gifts us next!
Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams
A witty and wonderful revamp of a modern Sliding Doors 'will-they-won't-they' rom-com. Each page brought butterflies to my tummy as I devoured Nadia and Daniel's #OurStop journey. I loved it!
Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay
An impressive, hair-raising thriller set in the most vertical city in the world which is quickly plunged into chaos when daily and deadly elevator accidents start happening across Manhattan skyscrapers.
A fast-paced novel that will keep you on your toes and taking the stairs in the future.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
There just aren't enough words for how utterly exceptional this book is. Described as a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood, Girl, Woman, Other, is this and so much more. It's a masterpiece of our time and of our future.
Seamlessly uniting notions of identity, race, struggle, social history, love, loss, womanhood and home, Bernardine Evaristo composes a beautiful chorus of 12 unforgettably, distinct characters. Each rich and vivid with such a rare honesty that makes each sentence linger long after you turn the page.
I'm in awe of Bernardine Evaristo's writing and of her extraordinary talent that has enhanced literature to a new level.
If there's one book you read this year or ever, let it be this one.
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik
This Green and Pleasant Land is an absolute must read! Overflowing with wit, warmth and charm, I was transfixed by this story of love, faith and belonging. So insightful and sensitive is Ayisha Malik's writing, that I was laughing one moment and in tears the next. This intimate and quintessential British village that many would simply overlook is beautifully brought to life. Each character is distinct and masterfully constructed, and what initially brings conflict and apathy also brings hope and unlikely friendships.
Malik has skilfully challenged the notion of preconceptions and prejudices and has delivered an essential and thoughtful read on the power of identity and what it means to be British in today's world.
A standout book for 2020 and one that I'll be recommending year in and year out.
The Neighbours by Nicola Gill
An unpredictable gem!
On the surface The Neighbours by Nicola Gill is a witty and entertaining Bridget Jones-esque romcom about one woman navigating the emotional rollercoaster of life, but underneath it's a beautiful and honest testament to the power of friendship and the hardships that come with it.
Gill's writing is warm and authentic and I adored the unlikely friendship between Ginny and Cassie, but The Neighbours is so much more than your average romcom. Touching sensitively on issues surrounding loneliness, depression and suicide, Gill's book is full of heart, hardship and heartbreak as much as it is funny and uplifting.
A brilliant debut from an exciting new author who I'll definitely be looking out for what she does next!
Us Three by Ruth Jones
What a book! Us Three is the first book by Ruth Jones that I've had the joy of reading, and it definitely won't be my last.
Spanning the lives of best friends, Catrin, Judith and Lana, Us Three is a touching exploration into love, loyalty, loss and the power of friendship and how it defines us.
So refreshingly raw and real were Jones' characters that I slipped so effortlessly into each of their point of view narratives. I cried through their heartbreaks, laughed during their highs and was utterly gripped by their dramas.
Warm, witty and just plain wonderful.
The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann
Heartwarming and hilarious, The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann is 2020s feel good must read! ‘Suddenly single..and not quite ready to mingle’, Mann gives the seemingly clichéd romcom plot a refreshing makeover when homeless and skint Elissa finds herself applying for an elderly live-in companionship scheme. When paired with feisty and stubborn Annie, Elissa is quick to realise that hitting rock bottom was probably the best thing to ever happen to her.
Witty and wonderful, The Lonely Fajita is a light and uplifting story of new beginnings and unexpected friendships.
I hope we get to see much more of the loveable Elissa and Annie in the future!