‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’
Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
Child Abuse, Psychological and Physical Abuse, Gas Lighting, Mental Health, Drug Dependency, Alcohol Dependency, Violence, and Blood.
‘They huddled together on the floor, bloody and naked, like the survivors of some terrible atrocity. Like the last people in the world, or else the first.’
Girl A, Abigail Dean
I was three years old when ‘A Child Called It,’ was published, so I don’t remember a time before it. It makes it difficult, when talking about Girl A, because that’s the first comparison I want to make- and whilst both books look at the trauma of child abuse, Girl A’s angry protagonists are modern, cold, and broken survivors. And it’s part of what makes this book such a unique read.
I could also make a comparison to ‘The Room,’ in that Girl A is an introspective narrative directed to the audience with the limited information that the protagonist has. Lex, or Girl A as she’s known in her file, offers us the truth as much as possible, which is a refreshing take on such a twisted story. This book was initially sold to me as a thriller/mystery. But for all of her flaws, and there are many, Lex tries to be an open-book to the audience, even in those moments when she can’t be with her family. This book doesn’t have the pent up suspense of a thriller. It’s the aftermath of a horror, a brutal, psychologically damaging existence that each of Lex’s siblings have fought in their own way to escape. It’s intense, and overwhelming, and even in those moments when you want to hate characters, incurably human.
Little white wraiths squirming in the shock of sunshine.
Girl A, Abigail Dean
Because Lex is talking to us directly (from the opening page where she directs her conversation to ‘you’) it’s impossible to extricate yourself from her story. Dean has done a wonderfully-horrific job of tying the flash-backs together in a cohesive but fractured structure (which is, obviously, a great representation of the characters). None are wholly without empathy, even if Lex cannot bridge the gap to them, and each of their experiences are individual and dark.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy dark mysteries, slow pacing and character driven narratives. The slow pacing isn’t a detriment to this novel (though I usually prefer faster/more action driven stories). It creates a cerebral quality needed for such dark/taboo topics, and it’s expertly crafted.
Anna Ellory and I attended the same Creative Writing course at Bath Spa University, and I was lucky enough to see some very early drafts of this MSS shortly after she’d sold The Rabbit Girls. I am totally honoured to read and review her book, but if it sounds like I’m totally in love with Ellory and her work – I am. This is the second time I will be openly reviewing Anna Ellory’s poignant historical fiction. The Rabbit Girls, her debut novel, was a bestselling novel about love and betrayal in a time of war. It made me cry, and I’ve no doubt this novel will do the same. The Puzzle Women is about ‘truth, freedom, and the unbreakable bond of a mother’s love.’
Berlin, 1989. Siblings Rune and Lotte are awakened by Mama and told to follow her quietly into the night. Last time they snuck away from Papa, they were back within the week. But this time they are starting a new life, Mama says – where nobody can hurt them again. Ten years later, the memories of their escape are blurry; Mama is long gone and the siblings are back at Papa’s house. But when they receive a mysterious notebook from Mama, Papa tears it apart. Could there be more to their past than they’ve been led to believe? Can they learn the full, brutal truth in Mama’s own words at last?
Domestic Abuse, Police Brutality and Threat.
The First Three Chapters:
‘to exist in the hope of newly fallen snow… for it to be both fleeting and everlasting; to be both feather-light and solid’.
Anna Ellory, The Puzzle Women
I’ve been hosting a Gothic Fiction themed readathon over on Youtube, and therefore reading a lot of Gothic Fiction recently. So maybe it’s that tinted-lens that’s making me connect the dots in this way, but The Puzzle Women, even on the opening page, SCREAMS Gothic Fiction to me. The luxurious language and descriptions are a rich even as they paint a dark and sinister scene. So, obviously, I’m a big fan. I haven’t seen anyone comment or call this novel Gothic – so like I said, it might be a lens, context and time thing. But with phrases like ‘I should like to feel the safety of words imprinted on my soul,’ and ‘the dark is so porous it is tar, it is suffocation, it is time itself’ – you can see where I’m coming from?
In the opening chapters, we learn just enough about Papa to be frightened of him. He’s abusive, first and foremost, a dark terror of anger and control. He’s homophobic, misogynistic, manipulative, controlling, and a police officer. It’s worth mentioning this contextually, with BLM and SARS Riots ending in Police Brutality, violence and Death, there are very few things more terrifying than a Police Officer who can be violent at the drop of the hat and then be protected by his friends and colleagues. It’s a disgusting reality for many and it hits like a punch to the stomach in this narrative to. Anna Ellory has written several articles on what it’s like to be a victim of Domestic Abuse, and it’s the startling reality and brutal truth of her words that add a layer of poignancy that simply cannot come from pure imagination.
“Victim-blaming is transference of ownership and official agencies use this to relinquish responsibility and perpetuate fossilised misogyny which leaves women silenced, confused and inevitably managing their abusers alone.”
Anna Ellory, for the Independent.
Papa’s presence is felt in every chapter, as both Lotte and Rune navigate the abusive and domineering household. They are aware of every change, every sound. And it creates for a very intense reading. It’s heart-breaking, and powerful, and it makes me want to cry.
Teenage Rune wants to be an artist. Working as a Janitor, unpaid, with the Police Academy and the life his father has planned for him ahead, his life is dark and desperate. When he fails to get into the Art Institute, he feels as though his one means of escape is slipping from his grasp.
Lotte has Down’s Syndrome, and experiences the world very differently from Rune. It’s unclear if her child-like nature is related to her learning difficulties, or the damaging upbringing. When the letter from her Mama arrives, she has to spell out each letter and is surprised to see her own name. Yet she’s so in-tune with the house and the kitchen, it’s clear that is her comfort zone. (Remember earlier, when I mentioned her father is a misogynist?)
The scene which is described in the synopsis: of Papa tearing up the notebook from Mama is so painfully slow and surreal. You know it’s coming, and yet the quiet atmosphere created by Ellory is loud in your head. You want Lotte to take the notebook before he has to break it – and that’s when you know it’s too late for you, too late for these characters. You’re in this together now.
This is a powerful, poignant and (I’m struggling to think of another P-starting and relevant adjective, but you get the idea) – novel. It’s lengthier than The Rabbit Girls, and the pace does slow towards the middle before picking up again. But I am so enamoured with Anna’s writing that I have NO QUALMS recommending and promoting this book to you. Just be prepared to cry, as I did. A lot.
‘Classic Novels to Read Before You Die’ has become ‘Books to Read During Lockdown‘.
Now this bothers me because, even as someone who enjoys reading Classic Literature, I understand that if you give someone a list of books to read, throwing a long list of classics at them is 1. going to put them off coming to you for a recommendation every again because a. you are obviously a snob or b. they feel intimidated and can’t tell you. And 2. completely ignores the fantastic novels, verse and novellas that have been produced in the last five to ten years.
What about the amazing authors of colour who’ve ONLY JUST had their debut released? What about the amazing LGBTQ+ writers? Disability Rep Advocates? #MeToo Champions? All the wonderful progress the publishing industry has made to be more inclusive? (Although, I’m a realist, I get they (and we as readers) have a long way to go!). You give someone a list with JUST CLASSICS, even Middle Grade Classics, you’re letting your audience know that nothing from recent generations will ever be as good as this. And you’ll be disappointed to find out – you’re dead wrong.
So here’s my 40 books you should read during lockdown (or whenever) that were written in the last 10 years. (Multiple genres, Multiple Age Ranges, Enjoy!).
Instead of Pride and Prejudice, you should read Queenie by Candice Carty Williams. (2019) Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. Pride and Prejudice is 1st and foremost a romance, and whilst Queenie is dealing with modern relationships her way, it echoes a the ‘contemporary honesty of women’ that Jane Austen evokes with Lizzie B. But, you know, more realistically for the 21st Century.
Instead of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, try picking up The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor) by Jessica Townsend. (2017) Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for a child to be born, she is blamed for all local misfortunes. The curse means Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. But, a strange man named Jupiter North appears to take her to a secret, magical city named Nevermoor. Middle Grade reviewers keep coming back to this one time and time again. Wonderful whimsy and fantastic writing, the Nevermoor series is a fantastic read no matter your age.
Instead of Things Fall Apart, prepare yourself for Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017). Set in Nigeria, this novel gives voice to both husband and wife as they tell the story of their marriage – and the forces that threaten to tear it apart. Adebayo’s was nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize, Dylan Thomas Prize, Women’s Prize for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards and the International Dublin Literary Award. This powerful and poignant novel looks at married life in Nigeria, infertility, the trauma of losing a baby and how far a couple will go to keep their family safe. 10 out of 10, this book will break your heart.
Looking for the teen-angsty-melodrama of Adrian Mole? Try Love is For Losers by Wibke Brueggemann (2020 (I think this may have been pushed back to 2021?) Fifteen-year-old Phoebe thinks falling in love is vile and degrading, and vows never to do it. Then, due to circumstances not entirely in her control, she finds herself volunteering at a local thrift shop. There she meets Emma . . . who might unwittingly upend her whole theory on life. Love is For Losers has all the charm and drama of Adrian Mole, but for a modern LGBT audience. The characters are friendly and warm, there’s Disability Rep and Neurodiverse characters, emotional plot points and the diary style you’ll recognise from other moody teenager books.
Instead of 1984, you should read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019) “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood. The Testaments is the sequel to the 1985 Dystopia ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Now a popular TV series on Netflix, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Offred, and her life in Gilead, where as the Testaments takes places 15 years after the first book ends. A stunning piece which looks at an established dictatorship and genuinely scary. It was also the Goodreads Choice Award winner for 2019.
Yes, I really wanted to leave Rebecca on the list because I love Gothic Fiction and I haven’t read it yet, so it felt mean taking it off the list. But! Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) has taken the Gothic world by storm, and is one of the few titles worthy of displacing Du Maurier. After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger… A far more visceral Gothic than you might be used to, Moreno-Garcia’s take on the genre is designed to shock and awe!
Instead of Great Expectations, try Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. (2021) IN THE YEAR 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. A far more accessible read, Ready Player One looks at the recent industrial revolution of virtual reality, whilst still being fun, fast paced and adventure driven. You can still enjoy secretive benefactors, destructive class status and male protagonists, but with pop-culture references and in-jokes everyone can enjoy.
Instead of To Kill A Mockingbird, try The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017). Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Steve Rose from the Guardian described this book as ‘Fictional, but barely’. All too often we see another Black name in the news, murdered by the police under false pretenses. For THUG’s character Khalil, it’s for the hairbrush they thought was a gun. The Hate U Give is a powerful lesson in institutionalised racism, and the importance of using your voice to speak against it.
Okay, you can keep Wolf Hall because it came out in 2010. But if you’d like some wicked Historical Fiction books, my honourable mentions are:
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) – Greek Mythology contemporised.
Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton (2020) – A Gender-Swapped and very Sapphic Henry V Retelling.
The Miniaturistby Jessie Burton (2014) – 17th Century Amsterdam, Mystery with Magical Realism.
The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester (2015) – A Suffragette Mystery.
The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory (2019) – Berlin as the wall comes down, and during the Holocaust.
Instead of The Big Sleep, I’d like to recommend My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018). When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. A hundred and one ‘traditional’ murder mysteries a published every year, but this fresh take on ‘blood is thicker than water’ will have you tense from start to finish.
I have almost NOTHING bad to say about Frankenstein, other than I wish it wasn’t 100 pages before anything interesting happened. It looks at an important scientific vs religious question of the time. And whilst that question is still being asked today, and we praise the absolute QUEEN Mary Shelley for posing it, I’d like to suggest An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018). Roaming New York City at 3am, April May stumbles across a giant sculpture, makes a video and uploads it to Youtube. The next day, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. In a world where infamoy is the right click away, this novel looks at the overwhelming reality. Psychology, aliens, safety and identity are the least you can expect from this novel.
Did you read Wuthering Heights at School? Or because Bella from Twilight did? Either way, angsty teen girls everywhere grew up with OG Love Triangle and it’s a bit played out. Can I suggest instead Hearts Are Jerks by Gabrielle Harbowy (2020). 16 Year Old Alicia’s parents have been in a stable, nurturing polyamorous relationship all her life, so dating boy a boy and girl in high school doesn’t seem like a big deal to her. When Allie crashes the car, her love life crashes next. She’s determined to handle it on her own, and stay true to herself. A Poly-Positive YA, this book is a fresh take on relationships that’s ready for 2020.
Instead of Lord of the Flies, pick up Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019). It’s been 18 months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. (Yeah I know we’re living our own pandemic, but just go with me on this one.) Pulling Hetty’s life out from under her. But when Byatt, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. Raxter School For Girls is on an isolated Island, and the teachers haven’t survived as long as the students have. This LGBTQ+ novel has a visceral reality that William Golding only ever hinted at. It’s brutal, and wonderful, and the ending may break you. (I still don’t know how I feel about it… but I’m still recommending it to people for that very reason!)
Vanity Fair is a convoluted novel about a young woman trying to find her place in a society that looks down on her. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (2017) does that but so much better! Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.Her’s a female protagonist you want to champion from the first page, with authentic familial characters who love and support her in a world that doesn’t want to. I really loved this book and I keep forcing people to read it, so, it’s on the list.
Instead of Midnight’s Children, try Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016). Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through shadows or at the back of a wardrobe. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experience… they change a person. But her adventures at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children has just begun. Part Murder Mystery, Part Alice in Wonderland, this (too short in my opinion) novel is such a great read and (thankfully! because did I mention it’s too short) part of a series which you’ll absolutely love.
For Lolita… I mean. Any book. Pick up any book instead of Lolita. If you want to know about predatory behaviour, sexual abuse and murder just google ‘Hollywood News’. But, I guess, if I had to recommend a book about those topics, Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (2015) is a brutal depiction of the reality modern girls are dealing with. TW: all of the above really. Hardest book I’ve ever read EXCEPT for Lolita which threw me into such a rage I broke the mug in my hand (having made myself a tea to calm down… yeah it didn’t work).
Instead of Jane Eyre, a novel about the expectations placed on women with a side-quest romance story, can I interest you in Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)? Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty to say. Poet X us the debut novel by slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo, and written in verse. Each poem is a look into Xiomara’s inner thoughts, and an expression of all the thoughts she can’t communicate to those she cares about. Poignant, powerful and perfect for a modern audience.
Okay… two on the list… Americanah is also within the last ten years. BUT! My honourable mentions for BIPOC Own Voices are:
I Am Thunder by Muhammed Khan (2018) – YA Muslim Romance set in London.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Trevor Noah’s powerful memoir about growing up in South Africa.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (2020) – Finding your identity in a society that is more prepared to cast you down than accept you.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) – The first African American First Lady of the USA, this is her story in how she helped create the most inclusive White House in History.
Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi (2018) – Award Winning Nigeria Orisha Fantasy.
Cold Comfort Farm could easily by replaced by Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019). Teeming with live and crackling with energy – a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood. Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. This book had me laughing and crying in equal measure. It won the Booker Prize in 2019 for good reason, and is a more realistic depiction of British life than you could ever ask for.
Beloved is a Pulitzer Winner and published in 2004. I’m not giving you a replacement for this one. Give Toni Morrison the time her novel deserves
Instead of Brideshead Revisited, try The Fortunate Ones by Ellan Umansky (2017). In 1939 Vienna, the spectre of war darkens Europe and Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their daughter and send her to live with strangers in England. Six years later, the war is over and grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. This is not the ‘nostaligic’ glory days of the Golden Era. This is a cruel reality for many, and a test in empathy. I hope you’re up to the task.
Dune is epic, there’s no deny it’s the Game of Thrones of the Science Fiction world. BUT! Have you heard about Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)? Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the colour-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he walks all day, believing he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. He discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Leaving Darrow – and Reds like him – are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. The Red Rising saga has taken the internet by storm, and I can’t find (and I’m not looking for you to break this rule for me) a single reviewer who thinks it’s anything less than incredible.
Butlers and their dip-stick ‘masters’ are a well past their prime. No one is interested in a privilege idiot having the answers handed to them any more. Not with one still in the Oval Office. So I offer you, instead of The Code of Woosters, The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (2019). Self described as Scandinavian Blanc, vastly different of Scandinavian Noir, we enter the world of Ulf Varg, Detective Inspector in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Criminal Investigation Authority. Ulf is concerned with odd, but not too threatening crimes, and the peculiar goings-on. From the creator of The No. 1. Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana, Mcall Smith’s writing promises levity and comedic relief rather than another Girl With A Dragon Tattoo Scandi-Horror-Mystery. For which I’m greatly thankful.
I haven’t read The Great Gatsby. I know. Tragic. But! Would you like ANOTHER roaring 20’s style book? But this one has the supernatural in it, has won loads of awards and came out in 2012? The Diviners by Libba Bray. Evie O’Neill has been exiled to the bustling streets of New York City. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult. Evie worries her uncle will discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer. This is the start of a fantastic series, and waaaaay better than a book I’ve actively not read. (When a guy you despise tells you he reads it every year because it ‘reminds him what’s important, and nostalgic and so much better than the modern era’ you tend to give it a wide berth).
Instead of A Clockwork Orange, try The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017). Something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly. This intensely feminist novel follows the lives of five people during the lead up to the ‘incident’ that changes our history forever as young women finally have the power over men. Brutal and powerful, and will make you uncomfortable from start to finish.
Put down Tess of the D’Urbevilles and pick up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2014) instead. We’re done with ‘fridging’ characters, especially main characters, just to show the moral growth of their male counterparts. With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around. This is an unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Instead of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the seminal novel which became The Blade Runner film franchise, try The Bees by Laline Paull (2014).Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. She finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all. If you thought you’d read every type of dystopia, I ask that you make space to try this fantastic, award winning debut novel.
Instead of The God of Small Things, try Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (2018). I’ve been falling more in love with every Roidan Presents that I read. 12 Year Old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. Whilst her classmates travel the world, she spends her Autumn break at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, waiting for her mum to return from her latest archeological trip. Is it any wonder Aru makes up stories? From the other that brought us The Gilded Wolves, this Middle Grade is full of Own-Voice’d magic and wonder, Hindu mythology and lots of adventure.
I really didn’t enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I don’t know how much time I should advocate you spend reading about Colonialism in general, so I’d like to recommend Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad (2020). Me and White Supremacy teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.
The Secret History is fantastic, but a more supernaturally led murder mystery you might enjoy is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019). Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Still searching for answers about her past, she arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players, their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.
We can blame L.J. Smith and Stephanie Meyer for taking the dark, brooding vampires and making them angsty boyfriend material. But The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (2020) is trying to bring back the supernatural thriller vibes of the original Dracula. This novel is a Southern-flavored thriller set in the ’90s, about a women’s book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.
How about, instead of Middlemarch, you pick up Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014). In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. There’s no such thing as the perfect feminist, but this nonfiction will have you considering your internalised misogyny and how your interactions form part of a wider picture of feminism.
I have no idea what The Catcher in the Rye is about and when I looked it up on Goodreads I got distracted by phrases such as ‘Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it’. What does that even mean?!? Want a book which is completely accessible, has a teenage protagonist and isn’t going to punish you for wanting to understand it? Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (2018). Three girls live on an island with a monster who considers them the PERFECT midnight snack. It’s dark, twisted, sapphic and it won’t talk to you like an idiot. I’d really appreciate it if you could read it because I think it’s great.
Instead of The Bell Jar, I recommend All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015). Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries. This is another YA which threatens to break you right at the end, but it’s such a heartfelt and traumatic book that I can’t help but recommend it every chance I get. TW for Suicide and Mental Health struggles.
Anna K by Jenny Lee (2020) is the modern adaptation of Anna Karenina we’ve been waiting for. Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K.: A Love Story is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina―but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.
Instead of Catch 22, try The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne (2015). Brought to us from the same author who broke us with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it tells of Pierrot, an orphan, who must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his Aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy household at the top of the German mountains. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler.Quickly, Pierrot is taken under Hitler’s wing, and is thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets and betrayal, from which he may never be able to escape.
I don’t read enough smut to give a true replacement for Dangerous Liaisons (or Cruel Intentions if you’ve seen the Ryan Phillipe film… which you definitely have) but if you’re looking for a compelling ‘Rivals to Lovers’ with Cruel in the title as a giveaway, I’d definitely recommend The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (2018). Now I know this hasn’t been THE book for everyone else but I loved the characters so much that I’m not going to lie, I didn’t try very hard making this leap, you know? Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.
Instead of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I recommend The Island Child by Molly Aitken (2020). The Island Child tells two stories: of the child who grew up watching births and betrayals, storms and secrets, and of the adult Oona, desperate to find a second chance, only to discover she can never completely escape. As the strands of Oona’s life come together, in blood and marriage and motherhood, she must accept the price we pay when we love what is never truly ours . . . This dark, superstition driven, search for identity is a wonderful book dripping with Irish Folklore. Also Molly Aitken is lovely! I’m totally biased.
Instead of The Trial, try picking up The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019). The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, this powerful and poignant novel looks at the Civil Rights era and the real story of a reform in Florida. Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training”. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors.
I really struggle with nostalgic novels about any kind of aristocracy (but that says more about me than the novels themselves) so I’d like to recommend you put down The Leopard and pick up The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee (2014) instead. The Land Where Lemons Grow uses the colourful past of six different kinds of Italian citrus to tell an unexpected history of Italy. From the arrival of citrons in 2nd century Calabria, through Arab domination of Sicily in the 9th century, to the earliest manifestations of the Mafia among the lemon gardens outside Palermo, and traces the ongoing links between organised crime and the citrus industry.
And that’s it! You’ve made it to the end! Are there any books on here you’d swap out for something else? Are you going to stay loyal to the Classics list posed by the Independent? Let me know in the comments! Until next time!
Loveboat Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen is a New Adult Contemporary Romance about a second generation Chinese American woman who expects to be sent to a strict summer school, but actually goes to the ‘infamous Loveboat’ program in Taiwan.
Never Have I Ever by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher is a Teen Romance Drama on Netflix, about an second generation Indian girl, growing up and finding love after her father’s death.
These stories are not wholly synonymous; there are plenty of elements within them that are vastly different. Ever Wong (Loveboat) grows up in a 2.4 family, understanding that her parents have sacrificed so much to give her the opportunities she has, without the confidence to tell her parents what she actually wants. Abigail Hing Wen described her story as, “a story to showcase more diversity among Asian Americans […] with a cast of over thirty Asian American characters who are simply themselves: funny, quiet, timid, outrageous, sensitive, flirtatious, artistic – and all talented and flawed in their own ways.” Devi (NHIE) is a rambunctious, self-centered comedienne dealing with grief, the pressures placed on her by her overbearing (but sensitive, caring and kind) mother:- which she does not do quietly. In a promotional trailer Kaling said, “In most teen dramas, the nerds are just little losers in the corner. That’s not what we wanted to show. Our nerds are out in the crowds”.
There are enough similarities that I felt warrented comparison. For example:
Both narratives are lead by a female protagonist.
Both narratives look at second generation Asian women in America
Both narratives explore a non-white culture through the eyes of a character ‘caught between’ their family’s traditions, and their cosmopolitan aspirations.
Both narratives are driven by a conflict within those characters related to their cultures.
And most importantly: both narratives look to represent the cultures and nationalities within their stories in an honest and authentic way. And I say ‘look to’ because one story manages to do this. And the other does not.
Representation is important. That goes without saying. And as a CIS White Woman, I’m rarely without representation whether it’s on the big screen, little screen, or paperback. This is not the case for Asian women, and even though representation is growing, there isn’t enough. So when I talk about ‘failed representation’, I do so in a commentary ‘3rd party’ capacity. I am actively trying to read less ‘white washed’ narratives. I want to see the publishing and film industry run with own voices, and voices of colour. But as I started to read Loveboat, I knew something with off. And I started doing my research.
I related to Ever in a way. The Immagrant story, the guilt, your parents, the expectations they place on you, identity, the disconnect. But these issues are glanced over, too rushed.
There are expectations that we will be immersed in Chinese culture. Indeed, to a limited extent we are exposed to its certain aspects […] such as some basic Chinese and calligraphy. We don’t get an authentic cultural immersion experience, which I found a shame considering the potential.
I am Asian myself and I do speak Chinese. I couldn’t help by notice that quite a few of the Chinese references are inaccurate. Please tell me I’m not the only one who realised Xiǎo péngyǒu does NOT mean little friends. It means children. It pains me to see the author keeps calling these 18+ y/o adults LITTLE CHILDREN.
It didn’t take me long to realise that the majority of the positive reviews for Loveboat were from white readers. And many of those giving Loveboat one or two stars were Asian readers. You know, those LOOKING for representation. There were other complaints about how badly the author looked at depression, dyslexia and victim shaming. Which I’m sure I could write another essay on (possibly with more success than this post). And as I continued reading, I couldn’t help by make comparisons to Never Have I Ever. The only person surprised by the success of NHIE is Mindy Kaling herself. Audiences and critics alike have praised the series for it’s entertaining authenticity and charm.
So let’s take another look at those earlier comparisons: Both narratives are lead by a female protagonist: NHIE has a strong female collective, and only two male perspectives which we see (once they’ve been established through the MC’s gaze). Devi is opinionated, brash, rude, honest, confident, and awkward. (Which could also be used to describe every teenager I ever taught). Ever begins her story as quiet, unassuming, lying to her parents and pressured by them and, for the most part, inherently bland. I haven’t read far enough into the story to see if this changes, and I don’t care enough at this point to try.
Both narratives look at second generation Asian women in America: Ever is raised by a God-fearing Christian woman, who shows through her overbearing actions how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her family. Devi is raised by a Hindu woman who still believes, but feels abandoned after her husband passes away. A woman who constantly pushed and fought against her daughter, and carries the guilt with her because of the things that were said before Devi’s father died suddenly. She’s willing to sacrifice so much for her family too. And both mothers are Queens.
Both narratives explore a non-white culture through the eyes of a character ‘caught between’ their family’s traditions, and their cosmopolitan aspirations: There are three white characters in NHIE. Ben Gross, the Jewish competitor and long standing rival of Devi. [SPOILER ALERT] And potentially my favourite Rivals to Lovers storyline to date. Eve, the LGBTQ love interest for one of the main characters, who is also Jewish. And Mr Shapiro. Who is every ‘White Knight Woke-Man’ rolled into one cringe worthy string bean. (And I mean that with love and affection. His dialogue is so bad it hurts, and I love it.) Every other character is a POC. They all have their quirks, and their culture. Some of them resist, some of them indulge. And because it’s a comedy, there is no shortage of parody and irony designed to entertain rather than hurt. The whole series is thoughtful, well-crafted, funny and YES I CRIED, OKAY!? ARE YOU HAPPY?! Ahem*
Both narratives are driven by a conflict within those characters related to their cultures: One of my favourite scenes in NHIE is when Devi is openly mocking traditional Indian dancing at a Hindu festival, and she’s immediately shot down for it. I love this for several reasons. The first is, there are some people who do not like the culture/race/religion they’re brought up in, and there are some that do. And there are some caught between what they’re expected to be, and what they want to be. And this short scene with maybe two or three lines of dialogue encompasses all of that. Another reason is, both characters speaking are correct. The writers do not shame either character for having that opinion. Whilst feeling like an outsider is the key theme of the episode, fundamentally, all three Jagannathan women (Devi, her mother, and her cousin) feel feel the push/pull of being caught between two cultures, regardless of their age and experiences. And thirdly, it’s inherently relatable to enjoy slamming something, right up until someone who cares about the thing you’re slamming checks you.
Because the opening chapters are from Ever’s perspective, we have to infer the struggle and perspective and fear her family feels. She hides from the conflict behind a false selflessness which doesn’t translate on the page particularly well. And because so much of her story is away from her parents, we’re unlikely to see her grow and understand her culture in the same way we see it in NHIE.
I binged Never Have I Ever across two days. (I had to work… otherwise it would have been one) and I’m DNF’ing Loveboat Taipei. I want to read more Asian voices. I want to be entertained, but not at the expense of authenticity. And if the Asian community tell you that a book is a poor representation of their culture, I’m going to believe them.
I know, I know, it’s been 100 years. I’m a bad blogger. I’m really sorry! I’m going to AIM for more consistency. But it seems that once I get one line of content running smoothly, the other falls apart.
Definitely check out my other content streams, because I like to try a little of everything! Anyway, enough about me, let’s get back to the review!
I wanted to wait until #Believathon before I started this book for a couple of reasons. The first is, I don’t read Middle Grade or Children’s books very often, and the other is, when I have read Middle Grades or Children’s, they don’t evoke the same wonderment as the children’s books I read when I was – you know – a child. I can read YA for days but there’s always been some marshland I can’t find my footing in when it comes to Middle Grade.
Believathon is a readathon created by Gavin Hetherington (Although everyone knows him by his Booktube title: How To Train Your Gavin) to encourage readers to engage with Middle Grade. I’ve got 4 books lined up alongside The Unadoptables, and I’m hoping (with the use of his gorgeous map!) that I’ll be able to finally navigate those marshlands and discover some Children’s books that can rival those of my childhood.
I can see why other reviewers have compared The Unadoptables to Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet. It’s whimsical, charming and fun. The narrative is perched in the perspective of Milou, the leader and escape artist of the group. This is going to be a story of ‘found family’ and daring adventure.
There were times when I wondered if my enjoyment of the book really rested on its own shoulders. Maybe because I’d seen the comparisons before I went in, I noticed them more readily. How often the phrasing or plot seems familiar (to the point of taking you out of the story a little bit), and how predictable certain narrative points were. I really enjoy Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchet and Lemony Snicket. So is that why I enjoy this book so much? Possibly. Is that a problem? Not really. Hana Tooke has taken the elements I enjoyed as a child and reimagined them for an audience of 2020. And that’s just fine with me.
I’m sold. It was fun, and lively. Tooke’s Amsterdam feels like the real thing, although I’ve never been so I don’t know how helpful that is to you.
Can you believe I’m going into this review as a Sarah J. Maas virgin? I know. Crazy. There are a few of us still out there. But we’re like unicorns, or leprechauns, or any other ‘orn’. Tricky to find, and possibly just a horse in disguise.
Sarah J. Maas burst onto the writing scene in 2012 with her Throne of Glass series. It was a good year for YA Romantic Fantasies; Cassandra Clare’s 5th book of her Mortal Instruments series came out the same year, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, plus a whole slew of other sequels. Looking at the list, I’m surprised how few I’ve read, but at least I know I’ve got a back catalogue to while away the hours.
Of course, the most notable works SJM is known for is her Court of Thorns and Roses series, a beauty and the beast retelling with fae, intrigue and a lot of steamy scenes. So I’m told. As I’ve said, I’ve not read it.
No! Don’t leave! I’ve got nice things to say!
Crescent City is written for the adults that grew up with those previously mentioned books. Who loves the intrigue and fascination with fantasy – but won’t settle for ‘just kissing’ anymore.
It’s also written by someone who has won awards, claimed the best seller, as not just one but three series under her belt, as well as side novels, manga projects… Which means it’s long. It’s thickly packed. And it’s fun!
I always find urban fantasies fascinating because you’re not throwing people into a world they’ll willingly accept, because it borders the real and the tangible. So the opening chapters are thick with description, whilst the action is relatively mundane. We’re introduced to key characters, and given a LOT of information about them to develop them as a character, and the world they live in.
Bryce, our main character, is half-fae. She has pointed ears, long red hair, and a not-so-secret-crush on one of the wolves in her flatmate, Danika,’s pack. The opening three chapters see Bryce navigate the world she lives in, from her job, to her home, to her social life. The f-bomb is dropped a lot! (Not dissimilar to when JK Rowling wrote for adults after 100 years of writing for kids, and she dropped the F-bomb like she’d been hoarding them the whole time for just this occasion).
As for plot, there are a lot of potential avenues, so if the romance element doesn’t hold your interest, the bomb-threatening mystery might. The political intrigue is there as back up, and the banter between characters will certainly see you through if you’re not that fussed.
This is a book written by someone who is wholly comfortable with her craft, her style, and her audience. Books, films, even Youtube videos are getting longer, and as someone who likes to binge on their content – I’m here for it. Crescent City is no different. At just over 800 pages, she’s a doozie and I’m not surprised. How does an editor tell a Goodreads Choice Awards Best Young Adult Fantasy winner, winner of the Publisher Weekly’s Starred Review, Dragon Novel twice nominated winner, that she needs to cut out anything?
*Side note* – I’ve just read some of the reviews on her House of Earth and Blood Goodreads, from people who haven’t even read the book yet. (Which is crazy to me in of itself). And people seem to be expecting smut (I’m sure!) bad writing (which is harsh. Some sentences run on a little long, but she’s trying to build a layered world here people!) and “cliche stereotypical depictions of feminism and strength”.
Feminism is a lens guys, there is no ‘black and white’ way of being a feminist. Although could you imagine how easy life would be if there were?! There are some stereotypes of femininity and femme fatals in the opening chapter, but I’m interested to see how these characters continue to explore the world they’re in, especially as they’re put under pressure and have to make tough decisions. No, I’m not expecting this to be a ‘Booker Style’ literary fest. But to be honest, that’s not my thing anyway.
So as a summary:
Interesting opening chapters, packed full of maybe a little too much information and not enough action for me. But too soon to tell much more. I guess I’ll have to read it to find out!
For those of you who have not read an ‘On Three’ review before: I review books after the 3rd chapter and determine whether I’m going to continue reading or not. Most agents only give a book three chapters (or the first 50 pages) and I find it’s gauge enough to know whether I’m going to enjoy a book or not. Sometimes I’m wrong but hey – what’s life without a little surprise?
The Sin Eater.
For some, history has an uncanny way of drawing you in with seemingly mundane facts that illuminate a world so distanced from ours. Me, I’m some. I bloody love little history blossoms between a thicket of fantasy; so when the opening words are an author’s note saying ‘this isn’t real’ (I’m paraphrasing) and a list of sins and their associated foods, I’m not only intrigued, but inspired. What platter would be laid next to my death bed? Is that too morbid? Who would be the one eating it? What kind of person does this, and gets paid to? I have so many questions, and the narrative hasn’t even started yet!
I was less interested in the family tree, but is a historical fiction really a historical fiction without one?
Also, there’s a mild prologue. I say mild because whilst it builds the word our Protagonist is in, being harsh, and visceral, and real, it is short. The stage is set. The descriptions of the food alone set the scene for the rest of the narrative. This is not a light read. This is not escapism for escapism’s sake. But I enjoy that about it. And then chapter 1 begins.
Each chapter is carefully crafted to balance the microcosm narrative – that of May Owens, our main character – and the wider context of the world outside. Through conversation, we determine era, religion, context, without it feeling heavy-handed or forced. And because our main character is a chatterbox, and we are in her internal dialogue, she guides us through both in equal measure.
May Owens is not wholly good or wholly bad. She has agency, opinions, and personality. I like her. An orphan, a thief, and isolated as a new, young sin eater. No one speaks to her. No one looks at her. And the cruelest part is, all she wants is the company. When her parents die she actively seeks it out. Now she cannot. She doesn’t need your pity. I like her for that too.
Megan Campisi bridges the gap between genre and literary effortlessly, and as we wind through the old streets, activities and understanding of an old world, we’re also embarking on a journey of melancholic self-discovery. I will finish reading this book because the character-driven narrative and interesting world are so rich and well developed, it would be rude not to!
Highly recommend this book, the first three chapters have broken my heart without any promise of mending it!
I always thought there were two types of book which allowed for social commentary on absentee parents, broken friendships, and the prospect of new romance. Those that allowed characters to breathe, reflect and learn. And those that rush through the narrative at breakneck speed.
Somehow, Love is for Losers does both.
‘Mum’s a docter first and a mum second. I’ve always known that. And I stopped doing goodbyes a long time ago.’
The day by day structure allows the reader the plough through the narrative, whilst creating an image of isolation and abandonment. Phoebe is not a happy teenager. Her mum has prioritised her calling as a ‘doctor without borders’, her best friend has replaced her with Tristan (the new boyfriend who can’t ride a bicycle (I don’t really get why this is such a big thing for Phoebe)), and she has to get the bus to school.
The style of writing feels like it has been stripped directly from my teenage journals, and it all feels very ‘Adrian Mole’ and ‘Bridget Jones’. Everything is perfectly curated to remind you how rubbish it is being a hormonal teenager.
I suppose I could have watched Polly and Tristan make out while eating my sandwich, but then there’s the gag reflex.
One criticism I had was the slander against the Lush staff. I will not have the peppy people at Lush besmirched. They’re smothered in a scented fog for hours at a time, washing people’s hands and getting covered in glitter. If you think they’re intense, it’s because they’ve not smelled unperfumed air for days, and they’re busy trying to provide products that don’t hurt the planet. Cut them some slack.
Overall this is a contemporary, docile teen drama that doesn’t isolate New Adult or more mature readers. The voices are authentic, if a little pessimistic. It has a convincing narrative and a protagonist with agency. And you can’t overlook the importance of representation included and the friendly and stylised design of the page. I’ve enjoyed it.
Imagine, if you will, Firefly – the Whedon TV series which shamefully only got one season – but with Psychic kittens. I’m so in love with it already. This book could end there and I’d be happy. But it doesn’t! There’s more! You should be really excited about that.
“There’s just one.” Leroy paused for dramatic effect. “The leader.”
“Cats don’t have a leader, honey,” Pink said.
“Tell that to…the leader”.
There are so many reasons you should read Chilling Effect. My three favourite reasons are:
POC Cast and Own Voices
Outerspace Sci Fi
Excellent Pace and Character development.
This wonderful book manages to find a balance between Epic Drama, and Casual Humour. Each character feels whole and unique, whilst also tiptoeing around tropes people love to see like; the best friend who served alongside them, the rogueish yet cerebral love interest and, the animal sidekick who always seems to know better than the protagonist.
I didn’t know I’d been looking for a book like this. I feel like…
You know that scene at the end of 100 Days of Summer, where it looks like LoverBoy has learned his lesson from chasing Summer, and then he meets Autumn? And you realise he hasn’t learned his lesson and he’s about to have his heartbroken again.
I am LoverBoy.
Summer is Firefly.
Chilling Effect is Autumn. And I’m so ready to have my heart broken again, you don’t even know! I don’t want to give away the actual story, I just want to find someone as excited as I am about this book.
If you’ve read it, or you read it and love it – please feel free to contact me.
The students at Raxter School for Girls have been stuck on their island for two years. Those of them that are left anyway. In the opening three chapters, we follow Hetty – a quiet, thoughtful 17-year-old who has been living with the Tox and it’s effects alongside her two best friends Byatt and Reese.
“We had to burn the books for warmth, and wondering wasn’t fun anymore.”
The obvious comparison would be the 1954 novel by William Golding, ‘Lord of the Flies’. An attempt to maintain order, ‘at first’, before human nature, fear and the uncontrollable slide into chaos. But this works in concept only. A slightly more contemporary comparison could be made for The Maze Runner, and ‘The Flare’ plague which kills millions and the young men and women experimented in on aid of a cure.
But Wilder Girls is a horror. It’s a monster all its own.
The opening chapter may fool you into thinking the fast-paced drama is where the tension will build, but it’s the quiet moments of discomfort that are really powerful. Hetty, for me anyway, has the quietest way of describing horrific scenes of blood, and pain, and ‘Tox’ as mere facts. It’s hard to read, because imagining it is unavoidable. There isn’t a single character I don’t empathize with, even though they’re wildly different, and dying/grieving in their own way.
Maybe it’s the Maine setting, the creepy Navy who seem to micromanage every part of the situation – except the one that matters, getting the girls a cure- or maybe it’s just I just don’t read a lot of stand-alone horror, but Wilder Girls has some Stephen King tang to it. It’s supernatural, and creepy. Dark, mysterious and dangerous.
I really enjoyed the way ‘time passing’ is shown in little motifs. Little ‘talismans’. The idea that the Tox isn’t one wave of pain and suffering, but a cyclical plague which follows the ‘seasons’. That girls fall ‘headlong into puberty’ before the Tox comes for them. That their symptoms are similar, but cruelly different. That the only two adults, Welch and Headmistress, suffer too, with the implicit further suffering of having to keep order amongst the girls who can become ‘feral’ or try to kill themselves.
Wilder Girls is compelling and thought-provoking. Cold, cruel and powerful. A Must-Read for 2020.