Review – Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kuppersmith

Review – Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kuppersmith

First things first, a huge thank you to Tandem Collective for having me on the readalong for Build Your House Around My Body.* This was my first ever readalong and it was so much fun to take part!

Summary:

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book quite like this, it’s certainly one-of-a-kind. Part puzzle story, part mystery, part revenge story, part folklore, Build Your House Around My Body is a sweeping narrative which follows the disappearance of two women. The first, 22-year-old Winnie, an American-Vietnamese woman who arrives in Saigon in 2010 to reconnect with her heritage whilst she teaches English. The second, the daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family who loses her way in an abandoned rubber plantation. As the two storylines unfold, we begin to discover that the women’s disappearances are linked through time and space.

My Review:

I have to say, this book really wasn’t what I expected but I absolutely LOVED it. It’s such a strange blend of genres and there’s so many characters and time jumps that I did get confused at times, but somehow Kuppersmith pulls it off and it all comes together in an epic conclusion. The writing is hypnotic, it’s so rich and vivid. Kuppersmith masterfully weaves together evocative imagery with folklore and magical realism to create a bizarre and unsettling read.

I’ve read a few books recently which focus on disaffected heroines and their bodies (Kylie Whitehead’s Absorbed comes to mind). When Winnie first moves to Saigon, it soon becomes clear that she’s plagued by demons from her past. Her biracial identity is a particular point of contention as she finds herself too “White/American” to fit in with her Asian peers but too “Asian/Vietnamese” to fit in with her Caucasian peers. Crumbling under the weight of her identity crises, she neglects her work, makes reckless decisions, drinks to excess and has random encounters with strangers in the sweaty nightclubs of Saigon. Make sure to pay attention to these “random” encounters and the eclectic characters we meet along the way, there are clues everywhere…

Kuppersmith’s novel spans over fifty years of Vietnamese history and we meet a boy who is sent to a boarding school for the children of French expatriates, just before Vietnam declares its independence from colonial rule; two Frenchmen who are trying to start a business with the Vietnam War on the horizon; and the employees of the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co., who find themselves investigating strange happenings on the edge of a forest. Haunted by a smoke monster, a two-headed snake and a soul-swapping dog, this isn’t a story for the feint-hearted, but if you pay close enough attention, you’ll realise that Kuppersmith’s use of the supernatural acts as a symbol for the history of possessed land and possessed bodies under Vietnam’s colonial rule.

This is an absolute fever dream of a novel and I’m not sure whether I could ever fully capture it in a review. This kaleidoscopic story is an ambitious debut, but Kuppersmith’s gamble paid off. A little confusing, sure, but it’s not a book I’ll be forgetting any time soon. It left my head spinning in the best way possible.

Star Rating: 4.5/5

*{AD PR PRODUCT – Thank you so much to Tandem Collective and Oneworld Publications for having me on the readalong for Build Your House Around My Body. You can buy your own copy here.}

Review – How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

Review – How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

I’m such a big Bella Mackie fan that I squealed when this proof came through the post! It was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year and it did not disappoint. You know those books that you lose sleep over because you’re constantly like “just one more chapter”? Yeah, it’s one of those books.

Summary:

As the title suggests, How To Kill Your Family* is a gritty novel full of twists and turns and dark comedy galore. We meet Grace, a twenty-something-year-old woman who has just been imprisoned for a murder she did not commit. But she is not innocent. Grace has killed every member of her estranged and privileged family, including her father, the fashion tycoon, who abandoned her as a baby. The story is quick-paced and Grace is such a compelling antiheroine that you can’t help but feel a little smug at being her comrade as she embarks on her plans to avenge her late single mother.

My Review:

I’m seriously concerned about what Bella Mackie’s search history must have looked like when researching this book because the attention to detail is second-to-none. The way that Grace tracks down her victims is actually terrifying, sometimes taking months of planning and befriending unbeknown accomplices. Grace is an expert at murder, seriously, she makes it look easy.

Grace will stop at nothing to exterminate her entire family, but the way that she’s so blasé in her discussion of killing her victims really makes it seem like what she’s doing is just a normal pastime. She’s definitely not as twisted as similar characters, and I would have sometimes liked a bit more detail surrounding her motives, however, there was something very unnerving about how comfortable she felt committing the murders. It takes a certain kind of character to be so casual about ending someone else’s life.

Our protagonist isn’t entirely without a conscience, however, and it was really interesting to see how she made decisions on who to murder and who to spare. Grace is SO sarcastic, she had me absolutely cackling. There’s a particular description about people who wear crocs which was the most accurate thing I have ever read – sorry (not sorry) to all you croc wearers out there.

Mackie makes some super interesting insights into the lives of the rich and privileged and the ways in which society favours them. Even more so, her social commentary on misogyny and gendered violence was truly fascinating. It was so refreshing to read about a woman who went against all ideals of the quiet, passive woman; Grace is not the victim of violence, she is the inflictor of it. I won’t spoil the ending because it is WILD, but I will say that it really epitomises the ideologies of patriarchy.

If you’re a fan of My Sister, The Serial Killer, Killing Eve or just want a book about a bad-ass woman, pick this one up. I had an absolute riot of a time reading it and you’re bound to as well.

Star Rating: 4.5/5

How To Kill Your Family is out tomorrow! *{AD – Thank you so much to HarperCollins UK for my #gifted copy of How To Kill Your Family. You can buy your own copy here.}

Review – No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Review – No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I first heard of Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This, when it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but it wasn’t until the reviews started coming in that I was really intrigued by it. I think that it’s fair to say that the reviews I’ve seen for this book have been polarising, some seem to love it and others hate it. I definitely fell into the former of those camps, but whilst I enjoyed this quirky novel, I can’t say that I loved it.

Summary:

No One Is Talking About This is a novel of two halves. In the first half, our protagonist obsessively scrolls social media which is referred to throughout as ‘The Portal’. Lockwood shows just how much social media can infringe on reality as our protagonist gets more and more disengaged with reality. In the second half of the novel, our protagonist is brought back down to earth with a thud as she receives some life-shattering family news.

My Review:

Although, on paper, these two storylines seem entirely at odds with one another, I thought that the structure of the novel works really well. Written in short, fragmentary paragraphs which are often random and don’t lead on from one another, reading No One Is Talking About This is reminiscent of scrolling through social media.

Lockwood is known as “the poet laureate of Twitter” and it’s clear that she is well-versed in social media; if you’re not someone who keeps up with memes, social media trends and pop culture, a lot of this book will go over your head. It’s incredibly ‘of the moment’, ironic and on-the-nose, engaging with topics including Trump and how social media allowed his rise to power, Black Lives Matter and virtue signalling and many other topics which have punctuated our lives (and timelines) in the last few years. Lockwood has an incredibly dry sense of humour and I found myself laughing a number of times when reading – we’ve all come across people on social media like those described in the novel at some point or another.

The second half takes a more sombre tone (although written in the same format) when our protagonist is forced to confront real life. I won’t go into details about the news she receives because I think it would spoil it, but for those who are familiar with Lockwood, they might already have some idea as she draws on her own life experiences. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, but it’s also life-affirming in the way that it makes readers re-address their own social media habits and the way that it can preside over reality.

This book is incredibly timely and it’s a brilliant examination of the ways in which social media has an influence in every element of our lives (and especially in those of millennials), but I do wonder how relevant it will be in a few years time. Like the fleetingness of social media, will it get forgotten about as we move on to the next hot topic? Only time will tell, I suppose, but I for one am very glad I read this book (even if I didn’t know what was happening some of the time!)

Star Rating: 3.75/5

Review – The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

Review – The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

Historical fiction fans! Stop what you’re doing, because oh boy, do I have a recommendation for you.

Summary:

Set after the end of the American Civil War, we meet two brothers, Prentis and Landry. After being newly freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, they are found wandering the woods, penniless and desperate, by George Walker, a man grieving for the loss of his only son. A newfound friendship is formed between the men when the brothers start working on George’s farm, but the inhabitants of the nearby town aren’t all as open-minded as George. At the same time as this storyline unfolds, a pair of Confederate soldiers try to keep their love for one another hidden from prying eyes…

My Review:

I actually think that this is one of these rare times where the blurb of a book undersells it. I thought it sounded like a good story, but I didn’t expect it to be a GREAT story. There were so many twists, turns and unexpected subplots which really added to the main storyline. This book has it all, mystery, a love story, revenge, secrets and lies, I genuinely wasn’t ever sure where the story was going to head.

Unlike some historical fiction, Harris’ prose isn’t bogged down in facts or flowery writing which is heavy and hard to decipher. He accurately captures the setting of the book and it aids the plot without dominating over it. There is enormous heart in this book, especially in the way that characters cling to one another after years of conflict have torn the country apart. The trust and respect that George has for the two brothers was particularly moving as he becomes a father-like figure for them; George fills a gap in the brother’s lives after years of separation from their mother just as the brothers fill the space of George’s dead son.

Whilst the blurb really paints this book as George’s story, I would say that it also that of his wife’s, Isabelle. I don’t want to give too much away, but the focus on female friendship is really quite special and the women in this narrative are a force to be reckoned with. The ending, in particular, really moved me.

I was a bit worried that The Sweetness of Water was just going to be another stale male-centric novel about the Civil War, but I honestly can’t tell you how much I loved this book! It’s definitely up there with the best I’ve read this year. If you’re a fan of Colson Whitehead or even if you’re not and just want a bloody good storyline, pick this one up! I can barely believe it’s a debut and you won’t either. There’s a reason why it’s an Oprah’s book club pick, I’m just saying.

Star Rating: 5/5

*{AD – A big thank you to Hachette for my #gifted copy of The Sweetness of Water. You can buy yours here.}

Review – Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Review – Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

I tore through Acts of Desperation on a rainy Sunday recently. Messy, dark and twisted, this fierce novel had me reading through gritted teeth. It’s a classic case of dreading what’s coming next but being unable to look away.

Summary:

As the title suggests, this is a novel about the desperate acts that our protagonist, a young university dropout in Dublin, will go to for the man she loves. Right from their initial meeting, before they’ve even spoken, it becomes clear that Dolan’s heroine has an unhealthy and impulsive view on love; she begins to completely worship Ciaran, a half-Danish poet, who she believes is the most beautiful man she’s ever seen. We know almost immediately that their relationship is going to be turbulent, but just how toxic it becomes is quite horrifying.

My Review:

Like many of her Irish contemporaries, Dolan’s debut is sharp, witty and occasionally painfully relatable. The novel has been branded as an anti-romance and I can’t think of a more apt description. Despite the warm and bright tone of the prose, their relationship is a dark illustration of sexual violence and victimhood. I was shocked by the way that she ironises and even eroticises such blatant degradation, so seemingly understanding of Ciaran’s hatred of her friends or the way that he controls her alcohol consumption.

For all her faults, Nolan’s heroine is relatable to anyone who has ever felt lost in their teens and early twenties. The sad reality is in her belief that love truly conquers all (which she defines as “the great consolation”) and could help her to find meaning in life, yet her relationship with Ciaran turns her into a woman who seeks out those who humiliate and hurt her to feeling any sense of purpose.

For all it’s intoxicating qualities, I do wonder how memorable Acts of Desperation will be when stood up against its millennial fiction counterparts because it does seem to fit nicely into the wave of fiction we’re seeing a lot of lately. Nonetheless, fans of Boy Parts, Luster and Absorbed (amongst others which touch on similar theme) are bound to enjoy this.

Star Rating: 4/5

Review – Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker

Review – Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker

I had never heard of Xanthi Barker or her father, Sebastian Barker (the famous poet), before picking up this memoir, but something about it really intrigued me and my lack of knowledge definitely didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

Summary:

Just like her father’s poetry which tells of his battles with addiction and alcoholism, Barker’s memoir is a personal account of her relationship with her father both before and after his death. The memoir is made even more intimate by being written in the second person with Xanthi directly addressing her father. The memoirs’ central focus is on grief, both in the period of time after his death and the period of time before, when the relationship between the pair was often strained due to Sebastian’s prolonged periods of absence. It is a memoir about longing, longing for those final moments, that final conversation, but it is also about the idea we can paint of someone retrospectively through rose-tinted glasses.

My Review:

Rarely have I read a memoir which is so raw and emotive and I think that a lot of this came from the poeticism of Xanthi’s writing. She includes excerpts of her father’s poetry throughout, often poems written about her, and this memoir seems to be in dialogue with her father’s words. I almost felt like I was intruding on an unsaid conversation between father and daughter.

You can really feel Xanthi’s conflicting emotions towards her father: on the one hand, she idolises him (sometimes to a very intense level) but, at the same time, she feels resentment, pain and disappointment. I found the passages where she revisits some of her childhood memories on holiday with her father in Greece particularly enlightening. Looking back with the knowledge that her father was actually an alcoholic, Xanthi’s posthumous view of her parent is completely altered.

I won’t go into too many details surrounding her father’s death, but, of course, those who know of Sebastian Barker will know how he died. I don’t say this because it’s a massive spoiler, I just don’t think that I could give voice to Xanthi’s grief in the same way that she does.

This was a really unique and heartbreaking memoir which made me reflect a great deal. I went into it knowing nothing of Xanthi and Sebastian Barker, but I came away from it feeling like I knew each of them closely. If you’re looking for a memoir to add to your wishlist, I’d definitely consider this one.

Star Rating: 4/5

{AD – A big thank you to Tinder Press for my #gifted copy of Will This House Last Forever?}

June Reads Wrap-Up

June Reads Wrap-Up

It’s been another slow reading month, however, I did manage to read in the garden! Does this mean that summer is finally here? I don’t have a huge amount to say about my reading habits this month, so I’m just going to dive straight in.

My first book of the month was The Ends of the Earth* by Abbie Greaves. This was probably my biggest surprise of the month, but in the best way. It really exceeded my expectations and had me completely hooked. If you’re looking for the perfect summer read which is a blend between a mystery and a love story, I’d really recommend this one.

Next, I read Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters which I did enjoy but felt slightly underwhelmed by. Perhaps my expectations were too high going in, but although I thought it was an entirely unique concept, the writing was a bit too much for me. I’d still recommend giving it a read as it touches on so many important themes and it’s a pioneering piece of trans literature, just not my favourite book of the month.

My penultimate read, and the only non-fiction I read in June, was Will This House Last Forever?* by Xanthi Barker. I was unfamiliar with Xanthi Barker and her father, Sebastian Barker, a successful poet, before reading this memoir, but this definitely didn’t hinder my enjoyment. I’ll have a full review up soon, so I won’t say too much, but I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for Xanthi Barker’s writing in future.

Finally, I rounded off the month with one of my most-anticipated reads of the year, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. I’ve really been enjoying Irish literature recently and I was so intrigued by this book being referred to as an ‘anti-romance’. Sad girl millennial fiction? I’m sold. My full thoughts will be up soon so watch this space!

June was another great reading month but another slow one, so I’m looking forward to seeing what July will bring! What was your favourite book of the month?

As always, if you’re interested in seeing more details about any of the books I’ve read (including star ratings), all of my full reviews are up for you to take a look at!

Happy reading,

Em x

*{AD – Gifted} A big thank you to Penguin Random House for my gifted copy of The Ends of the Earth and to Hachette for my copy of Will This House Last Forever?

Review – Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Review – Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Summary:

Detransition, Baby is unlike anything I’ve ever read and will probably ever read again. Wholly original, the concept is entirely unique (albeit slightly inconceivable). Essentially, the book focuses on a trio of characters and their relationship with not only each other, but also with parenthood. When Reese, a trans woman, receives a phone call from her ex, Ames (formerly Amy, but after a violent attack in the streets, Amy chose to de-transition and become Ames), she never expects to be given the chance to be a mother. Thinking he was infertile, Ames has got his boss, Katrina, pregnant and Ames wants Reese involved in the raising of their child. What follows is a complicated examination of gender and parenthood.

My Review:

Torrey Peters has written a bold celebration of the trans community. Her characters, although flawed and self-destructive, are described with such fullness and compassion that I couldn’t help but be enamoured with them. I wasn’t expecting this to be a funny book, but there were many genuinely laugh-out-loud moments (Reese in particular had some great one liners).

I found the discussions surrounding gender fascinating and eye-opening and was particularly intrigued by the parallels that Peters draws between gender and race in some of the discussions between Katrina and Reese. I took my time with the passages which explored topics such as AIDs and autogynephilia (a term I’d never heard of before) and Peters definitely simplifies a lot of these concepts to open the discussion out to a wider audience.

I can see this book being polarising for a lot of reasons, but it’s definitely a book that sparks debate. I have to admit that I do wish that some of Reese’s unhealthy views on womanhood had been challenged more. I also found some of the writing too indulgent to the point that the excessiveness of the prose pulled me out of the story (some of Reese’s speeches verged on diatribe). The dual narrative between the past and the present was done really well, but I did find myself drawn towards the chapters set in the past more than those in the present, perhaps because these were the slightly more plot-driven sections.

There is no doubting that this is a landmark book and that the topics explored are incredibly important, yet stylistically, something was missing for me. I wanted to love it, but sadly I just liked it, perhaps I’ve read one too many sad millennial fiction books? That being said, Detransition, Baby separates itself from the zeitgeist in many ways, and I do think that it’s a must-read for the themes explored.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Review – The Ends of the Earth by Abbie Greaves

Review – The Ends of the Earth by Abbie Greaves

Looking for the perfect summer read? I’ve got just the recommendation for you.

The Ends of the Earth* is like a warm hug, the storyline pulls you in as if it were folding its’ arms around you and I let myself completely relax into its’ embrace. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I actually came to really love it.

Summary:

For seven years, Mary has held a vigil every day at Ealing Broadway station. In her hands, she holds a sign with the simple but heart-rendering message: ‘Come Home Jim’. Most commuters pass her by with no notice, but when a video of the mysterious woman with the sign goes viral, a junior reporter, Alice, begins to investigate Jim’s disappearance.

My Review:

This book was the perfect blend between love story and mystery. I was equally gripped by both the ‘now’ storyline of Mary who is unable to move on and the ‘then’ storyline of how Jim and Mary came to meet and their subsequent life together. Their love story is intense and fast-moving, but it also felt realistic, this seemingly perfect couple who never left the honeymoon phase, but actually had a lot of issues behind closed doors.

There were some really great subplots and supporting characters, from Jim’s elusive parents to Mary’s friends who work at the Nightline crisis centre with her. Greaves does a brilliant job at balancing humour with heartbreak and this is a really thoughtful and sensitive book. I thought that the messages surrounding male mental health were really delicately handled and cleverly woven into multiple plot strands to really emphasise the fact that you never know who is struggling around you.

Fans of Marian Keyes, Jojo Moyes and Beth O’Leary are bound to enjoy this. A little corny? Sure, but it’s the kind of book which can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, which, I think, is a winning combination.

Star Rating: 4/5

*{AD – Gifted} A big thank you to Penguin Random House for my gifted copy of The Ends of the Earth.

Review – My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Review – My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Memoirs are one of my favourite genres to read because they so often offer an opening into a topic which I might have little to no prior knowledge of. Of course, they can only offer one perspective, but they are also a great introduction into exploring other non-fiction focused on the topics explored.

Summary:

Lemn Sissay’s memoir tells of his experiences growing up within the care system in Britain. Through a series of documents, letters, reports and certificates, combined seamlessly with excerpts from his poetry collection, Sissay’s memoir gives a voice to the children lost in the care system under the rule of ‘The Authority’. His words expose the inhumanity of the “care” system in a way that only one who has experienced its’ negligence can. Tackling themes of race, neglect, and family, his unwavering strength throughout his quest to discover his identity will move any reader.

My Review:

Sissay is a literary force to be reckoned with and the poeticism he brings to the painful encounters of his childhood are incredibly moving. Each section is broken down into his time spent in different care homes or foster families and each section gets increasingly more bleak, yet Sissay’s opening poems which begin each chapter act as beacons of hope; their focus on the contrast between light and dark seemingly suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve never read a memoir which includes government documents before but these added so much depth to the text. I was shocked by how impersonal they were and also by the stark contradictions in how ‘The Authority’ recall events compared to how Sissay himself remembers them. Considering the fact that every single document in the memoir is about Sissay, he was strikingly absent, erased and forgotten. Rarely do the documents refer to him with any semblance of empathy, instead, he is a pawn passed about from institution to institution, never even knowing where he comes from or, indeed, his real name until later in his teenage years.

Many critics have branded this memoir as a game-changer for the ways that children in care are treated and regarded by society and I really do pray that this is the case. It’s a painful read, but I think we owe it to these children who have been swept under the carpet for so long to hear their stories. I’ll definitely be watching the recent BBC documentary, The Memory of Me, and taking a look at his books, plays and poetry, what an incredible man. If anyone has any recommendations of where to start, please do let me know!

Star Rating: 4/5