I fear the celebrity who takes to writing books: please don’t let this be a painful exercise in ego. So I was wary of Losing It, the debut novel from actress Helen Lederer, who is well-loved for her role of dippy Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous. I shouldn’t have worried. Lederer is hardly a stranger to the typewriter, having an extensive portfolio of her own comedy material already notching up her word count. And it shows in Losing It.
The story of Millie, a fifty-something, one-time QVC starlet, who agrees to be the front woman of a new diet pill in a bid to lose weight, pay off her debts, and get a sex life is packed full of laughs. Every other line of this sharp mid-lit novel is a joke, and Millie’s riotous adventures gallop along faster than the personal trainer that’s been forced upon her. From randy second-best friends with testosterone implants, to dodgy next door neighbours with a bad line in yoga pants and erect sundials, the cast of characters in this book are as lovable as they are hysterical.
A triumph of observational wit, Lederer’s style is reminiscent of the late Sue Townsend. As an author her fearless confrontation of life’s humiliations had me crying with laughter and routing for Millie. And what a bloody great delight to read a funny, fast-paced novel, where the heroine is a fifty-something woman who, shock, horror, and gasp, is interested in sex. (At least she thinks she is). When I grow up I want to be Millie. Minus the explosive food poisoning incident.
Losing It, Helen Lederer: A delightful and delicious treat to be devoured: 5/5
*I subsequently had the chance to meet Helen at her book launch, and was touched by her talent, warmth, and in particular the generous way she seeks to support and encourage other creatives she meets. A top woman with a top book.
I met Daisy on Twitter, when I laughed so hard at one of her tweets a bit of the Crunchy Nut Cornflakes I was eating came out of my nose. Which seems like the perfect place to start discussing her book Meeting Your Match – Navigating The Minefield of Online Dating. We met online – see! The minefield could be my nose cavity! Ahem. Since the cereal snot incident I’ve come to know Daisy IRL, which is how I – a happily married woman who last dated when there was dial up (no, really) – found myself reading a book about Internet dating. I knew it’d be funny (see above) and I hoped I might learn how to sound less clueless or patronising when discussing dating with my single mates.
Daisy’s style is LOLsome: ‘We all like going to the movies, but do you go to watch Armenian films about genocide that have no subtitles and last 17 hours, or do you prefer films with so many exploding robots that the heroine faints right out of her bikini?’ And with her strong background in relationship, dating, and sex advice I knew Daisy would have some great tips. All the practical stuff is here: what to put in your profile, what not, which photos to use, which sites, how to initiate, chat, and close down. She walks you through first dates, via short term flings, and on to happy ever after. And sprinkled throughout are choice real life stories to commiserate with, laugh at, and inspire.
What I hadn’t bargained for is the compassion and care Daisy has put into this book. Speaking not like a fusty removed agony aunt, but like a loving older sister: checking you’re okay, that you’re doing things for the right reasons, that you’re happy. Deftly elevating Meeting Your Match far above a simple fun jokey guide. This book has heart, and not just in pictorial form on the cover. Having read it I am better equipped to empathise and support any single friends embarking on an online love adventure: I’ll give them Daisy’s book.
Meeting Your Match, Daisy Buchanan: wearing her heart on her sleeve 5/5
Full disclosure: I know Shelley personally. We have the kind of friendship that sprung from fireside chats in a writers’ retreat. Where your admiration for the person’s work, spreads to an admiration of them. I like Shelly. I love her book.
Vigilante has an amazing premise: a woman, a real woman, a mother, dresses up like a superhero and fights crime in her sleepy English town. Except this isn’t a cartoon caper of the likes of Kick Ass, this is a visceral, heartfelt act of courageousness by one woman who feels she is disappearing into the mundane mediocrity of her daily grind. Jenny Pepper is flesh and blood and very real. Not simply a midlife crisis, Jenny’s story is a battle cry against hers and the fate of many: the disappearing middle aged woman. She was once young, once lithe, once felt sexy, once full of dreams, and hopes and aspirations. Now she is invisible. Until she puts on her mask. Perversely, by covering up she becomes unavoidable – even if that means people laugh at her, or worse.
With a guttural scream Vigilante shakes what we’ve come to accept: that women reach a certain age and vanish into the background. It slashes through the sexualisation of young women. Tears at the social conditioning that tells us women are weak. Shreds the notion that only men are heroes. Fashion. Footwear. Roles. Sexuality. Society. Marketing. Motherhood. Expectations. Fear. Suppression. Sacrifice. Kick! Smack! Kerpow! Vigilante takes them all on. It shouts of the army of women that cook, feed, clean, that sacrifice their own bodies, their attractiveness, their dreams on the alter of their children. This is a story of love, and fear, and hope, and anger. The effortless fast-paced twists and turns of Jenny’s journey, ever closer to the dark corners of humanity, rip along like flayed fishnet stockings. I’m not playing dress up, I’m not playing at all: Vigilante is one of the great feminist novels of our age. It’s time to fight back. Ladies, don your masks.
Vigilante, Shelley Harris: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No: it’s a great book! 5/5
Okay, I’m going to just come out and say it: I need to stop reading books that are halfway through a series. I was drawn to Sophie Hannah’s The Telling Error because, among other things, its plot involves secret online personas, Twitter spats and, well, the Internet. Oh, how I love the Internet. But my Internet-based attraction ignored that The Telling Error is part of the successful Culver Valley Crime series. So, as I have experienced before with books read out of sequence, I found this slow to get into. I don’t have the character investment those familiar with the series presumably do. I also found there to be a confusing (and possibly deliberately so) number of characters. As I read this on a Kindle I really wished I had the real deal in my hands, in order to flick back and check who was who.
That said, once my brain had caught up I found this to be a gripping and darkly comic tale. When a key character revealed the reason for their dissatisfaction with their partner I genuinely laughed out loud. Hannah has clearly had a lot of fun writing this and, (once I’d really got stuck in), the reader is in on the joke.
Laughs aside, there is genuine fear and apprehension to be found in these pages, and Hannah’s analysis of the human character feels uncomfortably like the ugly truth. (Please note this book doesn’t contain overly gruesome detail of dead bodies: always a plus in my eyes!) An interesting premise for existing fans, but new arrivals may be better starting at the beginning of the Culver Valley series.
The Telling Error, Sophie Hannah: My bad: 3.5/5
Heart Shaped Bruise is a cracking Young Adult Crime/Adult Crime crossover. This is the tense angst-driven story of 17-year-old Emily Koll who, for reasons that become clear, adopted a different name and infiltrated the life of 16-year-old Juliet Shaw (who happens to have stabbed Emily’s father). It’s a brilliant premise.
Please note if you are buying this for your teen there is some swearing, some underage drinking and smoking, and brief mentions of sex (though there’s nothing graphic and everything happens ‘off page’). There are also some hefty themes of: media manipulation, anger management, living up to your parents’ expectations, first love, loss, suicide, and (minimal and not gratuitous) violence.
Written as if Emily’s journal while in Archway Young Offenders Institution, this desperate smear of emotions pulled me toward the revelation of Emily’s darkest secret in two sittings. The big twist comes brutal and swift (even though I have to confess I’d guessed what it would be. Don’t read too much into that: as a writer I understand the ebb and flow of plot. I also spot seemingly unnecessary sentences that have been left in for plot purposes which would otherwise have been edited out of a tightly written text like this).
Byrne’s writing style is gripping and occasionally packs real punch. I shall remember this sentence forever: ‘The moment I’d had enough of flicking matches at her and finally set light to everything she had’.
A riveting read for adults, young and mature alike, this book leaves a stain after it’s finished. Much like a bruise that takes time to heal.
Heart Shaped Bruise, Tanya Byrne: I <3 this 4/5
The early arrival of my new nephew delayed this review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. When I got the 5am call to baby-action I grabbed a handful of things enroute: spare pants, phone, wallet, house keys, and my copy of The Miniaturist. Come hell, high water, or a screaming baby I wasn’t going to miss out on what happened next. That’s how gripping this book is.
The Miniaturist is the story of eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, who arrives to start her new life as wife of successful merchant trader Johannes Brandt, in Amsterdam 1686. Her husband is not at her grand new home to greet her. Instead Nella encounters her sharp-tongued sister-in-law Marin. Things are off to a shaky start. When Nella enlists the help of a mysterious miniaturist to furnish Johannes’ wedding gift of a cabinet-sized replica of their house, dangerous secrets start to surface.
Burton crams historical, visual and sensory detail into The Miniaturist. But far from leaden, her descriptions are as richly satisfying and as deftly executed as the sugar dusted treats that appear throughout the book. Seventeenth century Amsterdam is alive.
But its the pace and suspense of The Miniaturist which really elevates it. Taut and heart-stopping on occasion, Nella grabs you by the hand and runs with you through her life. A staggering story, full of emotional punch, this book has wonderfully strong, brave, and complex female characters at its heart.
Upon finishing I re-read the prologue, and it made me reconsider everything I’d just read afresh. A stupendous achievement. I don’t want to risk blurting out any spoilers, so I’ll just say: read this book, you won’t regret it.
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton: A sugar coated star debut 5/5
Full disclosure: I know Claire personally. We’ve got pissed together in a staggering number of places. I’m a writer, I hang out with other writers, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I got round to reviewing a pal’s book. I’m not going to pull the wordy wool over your eyes and neglect to mention our relationship. That’s not cool. But I will let you know my policy for reading and reviewing my mate’s books (whether on a public forum or face to face): only say something if you liked it. Everyone’s different with different tastes, and even a bad book is hard to write. There’s no point needlessly hurting the feelings of your writing buddy if you don’t dig their work. However, if you love it, and you love them, it’s your duty to tell anyone who’ll listen how bloody brilliant it is. And McGowan’s book is bloody and brilliant.
The Dead Ground is the second in McGowan’s Paula McGuire series. Paula is a forensic psychologist in a current day Northern Ireland specialist team investigating missing persons. In The Dead Ground she is investigating a stolen baby and, in case with many dark twists and turns, soon the disappearance of a heavily pregnant woman…and more. Paula is also pregnant and she doesn’t know who the baby daddy is, and whether she wants to keep it. Let’s hear it for an interesting, multifaceted strong female lead. You know, like a real life woman.
Just like McGowan’s first book in the Paula McGuire series, The Lost, this one plunged me into a world I thought I was familiar with from the telly box news. Turns out I know nothing about post- troubles Northern Ireland. McGowan’s writing illuminates a unique culture, in which the tensions of the past permeate the present. It makes for a fascinating and complex backdrop to what is an incredibly gripping, and at times distressing, story. Be warned the prologue is particularly brutal. And to think I’ve slept in the same room as the mind that conjured that up.
The Dead Ground, Claire McGowan: a heart beating 5/5
This book is hot. In more ways than one. First it is everywhere. Walsh’s fourth novel has generated the kind of splash you imagine took place moments before the front cover image was snapped. Reviews are plastered throughout newspapers. It’s in all the bookshops. Everyone’s talking about it. Clearly a contender for a summer hit.
The story revolves around Jenn, whose holiday with her husband in Deià is disrupted by the arrival of her teen stepdaughter Emma, and her boyfriend Nathan. Nathan stirs something unexpected in Jenn. The second way in which this book is hot? It is good old-fashioned steamy, dripping with desire and the promise of sex. H.O.T.
The Lemon Grove is about many things: coming of age, and aging, youth, and middle age, rebellion, desire, experience and loyalty. It is about what we give up for those we love, and what we let go in ourselves. It’s refreshing and satisfying to read about a sexually active, sexually desirable middle-aged woman. More of that please. Women don’t cease being sexual at 45. At least I bloody hope they don’t.
Walsh’s skilful prose had me longing for a summer holiday of my own. You can feel the heat, hear the waves crashing on the beach and smell the lemons. Less than halfway in and I was craving a long tall drink to cool me down. Jenn’s story is intoxicating; the reader is pulled, as if with ease across the buoyant sea, toward an ending that clings to you like a wet swimsuit. This book quenches a thirst within.
The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh – A refreshing glass of holiday lemonade 4/5
This book was recommended too me by Isabel Costello following a hibiscus margarita and a conversation about female satirists.
Eat My Heart Out is a satire of our narcissistic, hedonistic, post-post-feminist world. It centres upon Ann-Marie an anti-heroine in her early twenties who, after suffering a mental breakdown and walking out of her finals at Cambridge, is trying to find her way in the world in London.
Ann-Marie’s voice is startling and unique. Her journey allows Pilger to lampoon a whole host of targets, including burlesque dancing, reality TV, contemporary art, academic feminism, hipsters, class, wealth, privilege and the baby boomers. Ann-Marie is misunderstood, abused, and taken advantage of by all around her. She resolutely refuses to take control of her own life, and instead favours the naive optimism of a quick fix in the form of ‘sweet love!’ Surely a hangover from popular culture’s happy ever after? The reader is left with the feeling that everyone, including themselves, want to make Ann-Marie into something else. To be the sculptor of her life. Too control her. Ann-Marie rebels kicking and screaming against all, even when she herself doesn’t know what it is that she wants.
Eat My Heart Out is a bleak, shocking, and, in places, repulsive tale, it is also very, very funny. The detached and grotesquely comic sex scenes remind me of those in Lena Dunham’s Girls. Despite occasionally reading like a lurid fantastical novel, the familiarity of the characters and situations in Eat My Heart Out leave it routed, unnervingly, in reality. A dark comedy for the cynical.
Eat My Heart Out, Zoe Pilger: A raw and meaty 4/5
I started to read this book and abandoned it after 20 pages. It was too well crafted, too tense, too good. I didn’t want to waste it in drips and drops of paragraphs, squeezed into tube journeys’, or a few more pages wrung out before I fell asleep at night. I wanted to savour it, luxuriate in it like a warm bubble bath. So I fought the temptation to pick it up, and waited till I boarded a Eurostar bound for Paris. For a novel based on the four wives of Ernest Hemingway, whose lives often wove through Paris, this seemed perfect.
And it was worth the wait. Split into four parts, one for each of Hemingway’s wives, this story is skilfully executed. It took until Martha, the third wife, before I realised Ernest was little more than a bit part character. Though the wives’ thoughts, memories and actions revolved around their feelings for him, he rarely appeared in person in the text. Wood has performed a clever magic trick: the machismo, the allure, the cruelty, and the career of Hemingway are here in the pages, but she has given full voice and focus to the women in his life, elevating them beyond the unique club they found themselves in by romantic association. She has made them whole, they are not simply the ‘wife of’. Not simply Mrs. Hemingway.
An enticing, passionate, and at times heart-wrenching read, Wood maps not only the intricacies of each couple’s relationship, but the increasingly destructive relationship Hemingway has with alcohol. Each wife’s cocktail hour starts earlier than the last. As patterns and echoes of past behaviours emerge through the lives of the women, so too do they resound through Hemingway, charting his descent into depression. Devastating.
This book haunts me, pleasingly, like an ex-wife hovering in the background.
Mrs Hemingway, Naomi Wood: Raise a glass of Papa Doble 5/5