Review – Keep Them Close by Sophie Flynn

Review – Keep Them Close by Sophie Flynn

I’m never normally much of a thriller reader, but if there’s one book which is going to convert me to become a fan of the genre, it’s Keep Them Close by Sophie Flynn. I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump all summer in the sense that I’ve been reading but I’ve not felt that compulsive urge to put everything on hold because I’m desperate to finish a book; little did I know, Keep Them Close was the perfect tonic to cure my slump.

Summary:

Emily, mother of four-year-old twin daughters, hasn’t been finding motherhood easy. The only place where she feels understood and free of judgement is on an online internet forum, MumsOnline. Her anonymity on the site allows her to voice her darkest thoughts, things she could never say in real life, but when an internet friendship blossoms with a fellow mum, she realises she’s shared too much. As the online “friend” begins to threaten Emily with secrets from her past, she takes drastic measures to protect her perfect life.

My Review:

What can I say about this book other than that I completely loved it? Sophie cleverly interweaves chapters between Emily’s internet posts and the current day, so there’s an intoxicating foreboding throughout the entire book. The dual timeline adds layers of secrets to Emily’s puzzling past and I found myself trying to turn the pages quicker than I could read them, desperate to find out what terrible accident had happened in her past (I won’t say anything more on this, but OH MY you’re in for a shock twist!)

I completely love an unreliable, unlikeable narrator, and as the story develops and Emily’s mental state becomes increasingly confused, it’s difficult for the reader to know who to trust or whether the events we’re seeing are real or imagined. Unlike some thrillers I’ve read before, Emily’s fragile mental state isn’t just used as a narrative tool, instead, Sophie sensitively engages with post-natal depression and the struggles facing new parents. You can feel Emily’s desperation as everyone around her begins to doubt her ability as a mother, and despite all her terrible qualities, I couldn’t help my heart wrenching for her. You can tell in the way that Sophie carefully treats the theme of mental health, just how close to home this book was for her to write and it is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

I don’t want to spoil too much, especially in terms of the explosive ending, but I really can’t recommend this to thriller lovers enough. This dark, twisty psychological thriller will have you on the edge of your seat right until the very end. Sophie’s next book, If They Knew, is out in November and I am SO GLAD I don’t have long to wait for my next dose of her writing!

Star Rating: 4/5

Review – Still Life by Sarah Winman

Review – Still Life by Sarah Winman

Anyone who knows me well will know that Florence is one of my favourite cities in the whole world, so when I received Still Life in NB Magazine’s quarterly subscription, I couldn’t wait to see if the contents of the book lived up to the beautiful cover and end pages.

Summary:

Still Life is a sweeping story which spans over four decades of history and brings together an eclectic mix of characters who form a ragtag family between London and Florence. Opening in Tuscany in 1944, Ulysses Temper, a young English soldier, and Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian, find themselves in an unlikely meeting in a wine cellar of a deserted villa as bombs fall on war-torn Italy. Their chance encounter forms the foundation of this story, and what proceeds is a beautiful journey with all the highs and lows of life.

My Review:

Still Life starts off slowly, a chance encounter where two unlikely souls come together as kindred spirits through their shared love of the beautiful Tuscan city of Florence. It takes a while to get fully immersed in the story and to get to grips with the huge cast of characters, especially as there’s so many changes in point of view, but bear with it and take your time, because Winman’s prose is as gorgeous as the city she’s writing about.

Whilst the huge ensemble of characters was one of the aspects of Still Life I found more challenging to begin with, the motley crew of characters quickly earned my love. Winman’s sense of place is next-to-none, but it’s her characters that bring the story to life. From Ulysses’ friends from his local pub in London and the Italians he meets in Florence, to Claude, the Shakespeare-quoting parrot, Still Life has some of the best secondary characters of any novel I’ve ever read. It takes serious skill to create that many characters and have your reader invested in each and every one of them, but Winman pulls it off with ease.

For those who may be put off by the length of this or by the blurb which suggests a war story, I would just say, if you let those preconceptions keep you from reading this, you would be missing out. This is so much more than a war story, it’s a story full of love, grief and laughter that spans decades in the lives of characters that not only connect beautifully with each other, but to the reader. There is heartbreak and loss, but there is also art, music, food, friendship and joy. Still Life is a love letter to Florence and it sure did win me over.

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Review – I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee

Review – I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee

(TWs – mental health, depression, anxiety)

Looking to get into non-fiction but don’t know where to start? I think Baek Sehee’s best-selling memoir might be the one for you.

Summary:

Written in the form of a transcript taken from the recordings of the conversations between herself and her psychiatrist over a twelve-week period, Baek’s insights make for a raw and vulnerable read. Part memoir, part self-help book, each chapter is broken down into individual therapy sessions and has an overarching theme or message.

My Review:

Translated with requisite precision by Anton Hur, this personal story is one that readers will return to throughout the highs and lows of their lifetime. Whether they see themselves in Baek or recognise someone they know in her, her words will encourage everyone to view those who suffer from mental health issues through an empathetic lens.

Admittedly, this is not the most profound memoir about mental illness, and some of the chapters did begin to feel a little repetitive, but I don’t think that’s what it’s trying to do. Instead, Baek extends a hand to her readers, showing them that they’re not alone and acting like a warm hug. What her words lacked in depth, the warmness that seeped through on every page certainly made up for it.

Whilst Baek’s memoir didn’t blow me away, it’s certainly an important book in the ways that it destigmatises mental health and therapy as a form of treatment. Her book is especially profound given the staggeringly high percentage of individuals who suffer from some kind of mental illness in South Korea and the general attitude towards depression and other mental health problems – I’d love to read some more non-fiction books about these statistics.

At less than 200 pages long, it would be easy to fly through this memoir in one sitting. It’s also the perfect non-fiction book to pick up during Women in Translation month! A big thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for my gifted copy (AD PR Product). I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki is out now!

Review – Berlin by Bea Setton

Review – Berlin by Bea Setton

Today is my stop on the blog tour for Berlin by Bea Setton, and if you’re a fan of unlikeable protagonists and dark character-driven narratives, you’re going to want to get this on your summer reading list!

Summary:

Berlin is a story of reflection and re-invention; when Daphne arrives in Berlin for a fresh start in a thrilling new city, she’s ready to make some new friends, grapple with online dating and improve her German language skills. The last thing she expects is to run into more drama than she left behind, but after something strange and dangerous happens one night, life in bohemian Kreuzberg suddenly doesn’t seem like the clean break from her past that she’d hoped. As this series of events continues to make Daphne’s life a misery, she begins reaching for desperate measures to maintain a sense of control.

My Review:

Much like many of her millennial counterparts, Bea Setton has captured the modern female experience with extreme wit, insight and good humour. Daphne spends much of her time ruminating on her past, the decisions that have led her to her current state, and comparing herself to her peers who seem to have a much better grasp of adulthood than her. Inherently scheming, manipulative and self-centred, Daphne is the kind of protagonist who readers will love to hate. You can’t trust a single thing that comes out of her mouth, yet you can’t help but hang on to her every word.

I also enjoyed how Setton writes about language; Daphne’s narration is littered with footnotes, which, at first, I worried might distract from the beautifully-written prose, but instead, they act as a nuanced insight into the German language and Daphne’s relationship with it. Berlin, as a city, is depicted as a melting pot of culture and a place for reinvention, and I loved how Setton quickly turned the feelings of hope and renewal which will be familiar to anyone who has ever moved to a new city on their own, into something sinister and eerie.

I don’t want to spill too many more details, especially about the plot twist, but if you like books like Exciting Times (Naoise Dolan) or Intimacies (Katie Kitamura) which focus on an unlikeable female protagonist abroad, I think you’ll really enjoy this one.

Berlin is out now! With thanks to Hamish Hamilton for my copy (AD PR Product).

Review – Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Review – Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

With the release of the TV series under the same name last month, I finally decided to succumb to the hype and pick up Dolly Alderton’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love.

Summary:

Full of hilarious anecdotes and drunken nights of debauchery, we follow Dolly as she navigates love and friendship throughout her twenties. From graduate jobs and unemployment to break-ups and breakdowns, no matter your experiences growing up or your relationship history, there’s something in this that everyone will relate to.

My Review:

Before going into Dolly Alderton’s memoir, I expected some kind of cringey self-help book, preaching about how to live your twenties, but I couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, whilst Alderton has had an extremely privileged upbringing, my main takeaway from her book was that it’s okay to make mistakes. Dolly is unapologetically reckless, selfish and, at times, pretty unlikeable, but she’s also real.

Reading her memoir felt like catching up with an old friend, and I came away from it with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. I loved how much she focused on the importance of friendship in your twenties, and the relationships between Farly and her other friends are some of the most genuine I’ve ever read.

This isn’t the kind of book that’ll challenge you or radicalise the way you think, but it’s not intended to be. Instead, it’s a book that you’ll place in the hands of friends and turn back to when you want comfort. Dolly writes in a way which makes you feel like you’ve known her for years, and I can’t wait to see how they’ve brought the book to life in the series. Have you read this one?

Star Rating: 5/5

(AD PR Product, with thanks to Penguin Random House for the gifted copy).

Review – Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson

Review – Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson

Little Scratch is one of those books where both nothing and everything happens at once; I couldn’t put it down. It’s extremely rare that I consume a book in mere hours, but Watson’s punchy paragraphs and fierce wit had me turning the pages quicker than I could keep up. This being said, before I go on, I do want to say that this has a lot of triggering content surrounding sexual assault, so I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone.

Summary:

Little Scratch tells the story of an unnamed woman as she slowly spirals into an increasingly anxious state in the wake of a recent sexual assault. Over a 24-hour period, we follow her attempts to get through the mundanity of her working day as she replays the events of the night before in her mind.

My Review:

Watson’s use of non-linear and fragmentary storytelling is refreshingly innovative, yet it also makes you work hard. I can’t say that I fully followed the entire story, but I’m not sure that you’re supposed to; after all, our narrator doesn’t know the full story herself.

Since finishing the book, I keep reflecting on whether I should have taken it at a slower pace, digesting the poeticism of Watson’s words, but then I realised that the franticness with which I read was all part of its cleverness. The reader is quite literally seeing the narrator’s thoughts pouring out on the pages in front of them, faster than she can process what’s happened.

I don’t want to go into too much detail as my words feel somewhat redundant and I’m unable to fully express how I felt whilst reading, so I’ll just leave it at this. Little Scratch won’t be a book for everyone, but it’s deserving of all the praise. Much in the same way that Michaela Coel explored consent and millennial life in I May Destroy You, Little Scratch is, in short, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement.

Have you read Little Scratch?

Star Rating: 4/5

(With thanks to Phoebe at Faber for my gifted copy, AD PR Product).

Review – Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Review – Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I wish I could say that I looked this happy whilst reading Piranesi, but realistically, I think my face probably reflected my confusion whilst reading this bewildering book.

Summary:

I’m sure most of you know the premise by now, but to quickly summarise, Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls joined by endless corridors with walls lined by statues. Piranesi is entirely alone except for his friend, The Other, whom he meets with twice a week to help research ‘A Great and Secret Knowledge’. One day, when exploring the house, Piranesi meets another person and the truth begins to unravel…

My Review:

Admittedly, if this weren’t chosen for the book club I’m a part of, I doubt I would have picked it up. Although I normally really enjoy the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Piranesi just didn’t sound like my kind of thing. Nonetheless, I’d seen lots of rave reviews so I went in with an open mind, and I think that’s the best way to approach this strange little book.

Sadly, whilst I started off intrigued by the first twenty pages or so, I quickly became bored with the repetitiveness of Piranesi (there’s only so many descriptions of corridors and statues I can enjoy…) I was initially endeared to his childlike innocence, but I eventually found him to be quite a frustrating character, I just wanted to grab him and make him realise what was going on! But perhaps the irritation I felt just shows how wonderfully Clarke has created such an unreliable narrator.

One of the only reasons I continued reading rather the DNFing was because of the promise of a massive twist towards the end of the book, but when this eventually came, I didn’t feel like it delivered. If I’m having to read 150 pages of build up before anything major happens, I want the twist to be completely unexpected, but I found it all pretty predictable.

Ultimately, Piranesi wasn’t for me, but it’s a beautifully written book and I can imagine that fans of mythology-retellings would enjoy it a lot more than I did. I’m in the minority with my opinion on this one, so don’t let me put you off!

Review – You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

Review – You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

If you’re looking for a steamy romance to binge-read on a sunny summer’s day, you’re going to want to pick up You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty.*

Summary:

Five years after the death of her husband in a tragic accident, Feyi, with some encouragement from her best friend, Joy, decides it’s time to re-enter the dating scene. She never intended for anything serious to happen, but her love life quickly takes a turn in ways she could never have imagined. This is hot girl summer like never before.

My Review:

I wouldn’t describe myself as a big romance reader, but as a fan of The Death of Vivek Oji (also by Awaeke Ezemi), I was keen to give their first foray into the genre a go. Whilst the two books couldn’t be more polar opposite in many ways, both deal with characters coming to terms with grief in the wake of tragedy. Ezemi has a gift for writing so beautifully about all of the messy emotions that come with losing a loved one, yet also the hope that comes from finding yourself again in the aftermath.

Feyi is a messy character who blames a lot of her mistakes on the heartbreak and trauma she’s suffered. Similarly, her best friend, Joy, endlessly finds herself entangled in affairs with married women, yet they support one another no matter what. Their friendship was actually my favourite part of this book and I found myself a lot more invested in their journey together than I ever did with any of Feyi’s romantic relationships. I would have loved to have learnt more about Joy and Feyi’s crush on her, but this is only ever mentioned in passing. If Ezemi were to write a sequel, I’d definitely like to see Joy with more of a central storyline because she’s hilarious and the kind of best friend that every girl needs.

I struggled to connect with Feyi as the storyline takes an unexpected turn (no spoilers, but if you know, you know) and found some of the relationships she pursues to be quite surface-level. Although the plot twist was quite predictable, I just didn’t really find myself believing it, but boy, was it juicy to read about!⁣

This being said, this is a fun and easy read which would be a great one to take on holiday with you! I can see why romance fans are lapping this one up and I’d love to see Feyi’s story played out on screen one day, it would make a great TV show!

* With thanks to Faber for my gifted copy (AD PR Product).

Star Rating: 3/5

Review – Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Review – Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, Vladimir, is the more grown-up version of the ever-popular millennial/sad girl fiction. Instead of a lost twenty-something year old woman, however, the action of Jonas’ novel is centred around a fifty-eight year old woman’s spiralling midlife crisis.

Summary:

At the opening of the novel, an unnamed English professor gazes at her beautiful colleague, Vladimir, as he sleeps serenely in a chair. A scene which at first seems mundane quickly takes a dark turn when it reveals that Vladimir is, in fact, tied to the chair. Jonas’ clever prologue grabs its reader as if it were an ambush predator, luring us in under the guise of innocence before capturing us with an element of surprise. The rest of the novel unfolds in the wake of seven allegations of sexual misconduct against the female academic’s husband, John, triggering a debate surrounding his removal from the college. As our protagonist grapples with the repercussions of her husband’s actions, her infatuation for Vladimir intensifies…

My Review:

Vladimir is the kind of book that sucks you in, chews you up and spits you out again; I was completely engrossed from the first sentence. Rarely do I read a book in one sitting, but I relished a four-hour long train journey to Leeds earlier this week which allowed me to give Vladimir my undivided attention. Similar to my experience with Boy Parts (still one of my favourite debut novels to date), this book both intrigued and repulsed me in equal measure. It’s the kind of book where you hate every single character, yet you can’t look away.

Following in the footsteps of many of her contemporary counterparts, Jonas has chosen to jump on the trend of the nameless protagonist, an interesting decision given that one of the overarching themes of the novel is female agency. The novel is fraught with some big questions, most importantly, the narrator’s complicity in her husband’s affairs (she frequently mentions their ‘agreement’ of a free marriage yet rarely engages in extra-marital affairs after being left heartbroken by another colleague), and, moreover, how consensual these relationships were. Reading about the age-related power dynamics from the perspective of the perpetrator’s wife (whilst she pursues a relationship with a man fifteen years her junior) is jarring to say the least.

For all of Vladimir’s delicious messiness which enamoured me, the ending felt like a stilted attempt to tie up loose ends. In the last twenty pages or so, the novel really loses its footing and I was left disappointed, but perhaps this is the price we pay for such an explosive beginning. All this being said, I was left in awe of this astonishing debut and I’ll definitely be picking up anything Jonas writes next.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Review – Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin (translated by Jamie Chang)

Review – Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin (translated by Jamie Chang)

By now, it’s no secret that I’m a huge translated fiction fan. Translated by Jamie Chang, the same translator for Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, this is another short but impactful piece of Korean fiction.

Summary:

All Green’s mother has ever wanted for her daughter is a steady income and a good husband. When Green loses her job teaching at the university in a case of unfair dismissal, her mother welcomes her into her home, but she never expected her daughter to turn up with her girlfriend, Lane, in tow. Yet when the care home she works in instructs her to lower her standard of care for a dementia patient who chose her career over a husband and family, she begins to question everything. Why should not having chosen a traditional life mean that your life is worth nothing at all?

My Review:

Kim’s narrator lives in a perpetual state of terror, unable to let go of her ingrained beliefs in the supremacy of conventional family. She did everything expected of her: marriage, a family, a career but still has almost nothing to show for it. Widowed, working a low-paid job as a carer and surrounded by a run-down house, our narrator will do anything to stop the same fate for her own daughter.

Having read a lot of Korean literature which focuses on characters outcast by society, I went into Concerning My Daughter having some understanding of Korean culture, but this is the first book I’ve read which focuses heavily on the marginalisation of the LGBTQ+ community. At first, I thought this might be another stereotypical generational conflict which takes a rather superficial approach to representing the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Yet Kim’s introduction of the dementia patient, Jen’s, storyline broadens the discussion into something far more intricate and moving. Through the relationship that slowly builds between the mother, Green, Lane and Jen comes the possibility of connection, reconciliation and understanding.

Exploring themes of family, ageing, isolation and love in all its forms, this is a story about women raising their voices against criticism and prejudice. There are some harrowing scenes (particularly involving ageism and homophobia), so it might not be for everyone, but it’s certainly an eye-opener.

Star Rating: 4/5

(AD PR Product – With thanks to Picador for my gifted copy).