‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara


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A Little Life

To do the book justice I have to say first that A Little Life had me thoroughly gripped. Despite it being a very long book, over 700 pages, I read it in two days flat and for those two days I could hardly drag myself away from it. It was also incredibly moving—it made me cry A LOT. The author writes grief, pain and trauma skilfully. The characters, although larger-than-life, are interesting and engaging. I was invested in their stories.

Having said that, it is also a flawed book that would have benefitted from some stringent editing. I wouldn’t take issue with the flaws if it had not been so widely, hyperbolically lauded and shortlisted for every literary prize going.

A Little Life begins with four young men: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, fresh out of college and starting out in New York. Hanya Yanagihara’s New York is cloyingly cool: the characters’ extended friendship circle are the Bright Young Things of their generation, they are all minorities, everyone is from an ethnic background, everyone has a fluid, non-specific sexuality—the only group it seems to overlook, weirdly enough, is women. At this point I wondered if it was going to be a ‘Boys’ version of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Sadly not. Initially we get a section from each character’s POV but then abruptly JB and Malcolm are abandoned and we begin to focus primarily on Jude—from his own perspective and from Willem’s perspective. From what we can glean upfront it seems that Jude has a problem with his legs, he is unable to climb stairs, his background is mysterious—the others don’t know anything about his upbringing before college, and it becomes apparent that he is hiding some terrible trauma in his past.

As the story unfolds the author teases us with glimpses of Jude’s traumatic past until the full horror is revealed with a distastefully melodramatic flourish. The author is quite competitive about the extent of Jude’s suffering—Jude St Francis will be THE MOST damaged person you‘ve ever read about, she seems to assert. This authorial sadism is off-putting, I had a similar response to The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, it made me long for the character’s death to liberate them from the cruel machinations of the writer.

There are a number of strangely convoluted moments in the plotting: some characters and storylines are introduced in retrospect, as though the author had forgotten to add them in earlier. There are also some strange gaps in logic: despite the author’s focus on supportive friendships, Jude’s friends fail him spectacularly when it comes to intervening in his self-destructive behaviour. Despite his very obvious issues he is never medicated or hospitalised and only resorts to counselling very late in the narrative. Jude has a brief reprieve in the clunkingly-signposted section ‘The Happy Years’ before everything, inevitably, goes to hell again.

Hanya Yanagihara has spoken about her desire to write about male friendships and the support of non-traditional families—this is a fantastic theme that I think she should have developed even further in A Little Life. In an age when the idea of the family unit is evolving it is fascinating to look at ‘families’ that are based on something other than a romantic relationship. If she had stuck to her guns on this I think it would have been a better book. Instead she compromises and loses the momentum of this concept.

A Little Life is a moving and an engaging book but it is also a self-conscious book that takes itself very seriously, and, in combination with the author’s relentless persecution of her protagonist, is in danger of slipping into farce.

Ten Best Book Cover Designs of 2014



It’s the time of year when people seem to write lists, so here are my favourite book cover designs of 2014, generally grouped according to colour scheme – which is always the best way to arrange things:

Bone Clocks300David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks seems to be the epitome of everything book cover design was about this year. As much as independent booksellers have suffered from the advent of the eBook, I think that book design itself has benefitted as designers strive to create books so beautiful that they simply have to be owned in hardback. The Bone Clocks cover is as dazzling and bewildering as the novel itself. Colourful page edging also seems to be a thing, my current favourite colour is somewhere between cyan and teal and the designer used this colour to great effect on the page edges juxtaposed with a black, cerise pink and gold design on the cover.

Layout 1Another blue and pink one, Toby Litt’s collection of interlinked short stories, Life-Like, portrays two damaged, distressed mannequins and beautifully transmits a theme of dysfunctional relationships, while the splashes of vibrant colour add a sense of humour and optimism to what could otherwise be a grim image.




The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, was inspired by a real miniature house in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and a complete miniature house was constructed and photographed for the cover of the novel, a labour of love that beautifully suits the content but is also in itself an intriguing, mysterious image. As far as I can remember (I have lent my copy to a friend) the hardback edition of this book also has those beautiful blue edges.



StationelevenUKHCA particularly vibrant cerise pink (or magenta as graphic designers might call it) kept popping up this year and it is used to great effect in the title of Emily St John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven. I love how the designer creates the effect of a negative image by using a white silhouetted design framing the cover.




Ikhda by IkhdaI’d like to make special mention of The Emma Press who publish poetry books illustrated with wonderful whimsical images by the Editor, Emma Wright.  (A panacea to the great tide of badly-photoshopped stock art image covers prevalent in indie publishing.) I particularly love the quirky woman with antlers pictured on the cover of Ikhda, by Ikhda, and there’s that pink again.




what_was_promised_(approved_cover)It’s the pink again, this time in a bold, eye-catching combination with black and yellow ochre on the cover of What Was Promised by Tobias Hill.






The-Incarnations-by-Susan-BarkerNot pink, but The Incarnations, by Susan Barker, was one of my favourite books published this year and I don’t think it received all the acclaim it deserved. The cover, designed by Good Wives and Warriors features a beautifully constructed, incredibly detailed illustration in black and gold, alluding to all the complicated facets and twists of the story.



Book of Strange New ThingsThe cover of Michael Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, has a twenties feel with an op-art-style creation of golden swirls and teardrops that makes you want to touch it. I haven’t read this one yet but I’m hoping the story lives up to the razzle-dazzle.





H is for HawkI love the slightly nostalgic, woodcut feel of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, it evokes retro nursery decor but the bold, black outlines are fierce and uncompromising. The design made me want to read the book long before it was nominated for any prizes.






MeatspaceArtworkFinal.inddThe cover design of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace is this year’s Hawthorn & Child – a collaged image constructed of actual meat. It is an image that is, like the title, a bit gross but also strangely compelling.

National Poetry Day


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The_Persistence_of_MemoryI don’t write a lot of poetry but since it’s National Poetry Day today and the theme is ‘remember’, here is a poem that I wrote a few years ago that has sentimental if not literary value.

The brief was to write an ekphrastic poem (a poem inspired by a work of art) so I wrote about Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, which was my favourite painting when I was a teenager, and about my Grandad who died when I was sixteen.


The Persistence of Memory

Do you remember when we went to Anglesea?

Do you remember the cliffs,
daunting, fractured, fissured,
and the sea—gnashing grey below?
The water was so cold it took your breath

and your toes away, the sand was coarse
and crunchy, how our fingers smelled fishy
but the sandwiches still tasted good,
they were your favourite—
Grandad’s spread.

Do you remember Heather?
Do you remember when
Heather fell over,
the blood and how she cried,
and the clocks melted?

On the way we’d passed that place
with the unpronounceable name,
Grandma taught us to say it
the extra letters rolling
in the roofs of our mouths.
Can you still say it?

Do you remember
how they always liked to
stop off at the Little Chef?
Until one day, at the Little Chef,
his heart stopped.
And all the clocks melted.

44 Square Fiction


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Our final module for the BA Creative Writing was a publishing project and our task – to create three new literary journals (44 Square: Fiction, 45 Square Poetry and 46 Square: Creative Non-Fiction) with work submitted from all four years of the Birkbeck BA Creative Writing Programme.

44 SquareI was Editor of 44 Square Fiction and, as group projects go, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. We generally agreed on most things, from selection of pieces to the front cover design, so our meetings were relatively stress-free. We were fortunate to have a number of illustrators in the group so we were able to supplement the writing with some lovely line drawings.

The most difficult part, I thought, was the final proofreading and copyediting. It seemed that no matter how many times I read a piece I would find (or worse, miss) errors and typos. I’ve always thought I had quite a good eye for typos but it was a much more painstaking job than I was prepared for. My favourite part of the process was the production of the print journal. We were only required to produce an eBook, but our editorial team decided to produce a limited number of print editions and I particularly enjoyed this. It was very satisfying to have a physical souvenier of all of our hard work to keep at the end of the process, and to present to our contributors and teachers.

DSC_1134The final publications were launched on the 4th of June at Stratford Circus. I was fortunate to have had my submissions selected for 45 Square and 46 Square and I was also asked to read an excerpt from my creative non-fiction piece, ‘The Birthday Cake’. The publicity team did a wonderful job of organising the launch and it was an enjoyable evening.

You can download pdf versions of the three journals for free from the following links:

44 Square Fiction
45 Square Poetry
46 Square Creative Non-Fiction

Writers & Artists Historical Fiction Competition


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Marie_CurieIn my third year of the Birkbeck BA Creative Writing I did a module on ‘genre’ fiction and I had to write, amongst other pieces, a short piece of historical fiction. I have always loved historical fiction but was not sure that I had the capacity to do the research necessary. But for the purposes of the assignment I thought I would write something about Marie Curie. I read that when her children were young she’d set up, together with some other scientist friends, a sort of school that they called ‘The Cooperative’ to educate their children, including the girls who did not have as many educational opportunities those days. Her educational approach was obviously successful as her daughter went on to be a scientist as well and to win a Nobel prize. I also read that Marie Curie used to carry samples of radium with her sometimes and even used it as a makeshift nightlight next to her bed. And of course it was this exposure to radiation that eventually killed her – a tragic irony. In my piece I imagined a young boy travelling with his father to meet Madame Curie for the first time and join the school.

I entered the piece in the Writers & Artists Historical Fiction Competition and was very pleased to discover that, though I didn’t win, I was one of the three runners up. This has encouraged me to consider developing it into a longer piece. She’s a fascinating character and it would be an exciting time to write about – though I’d have to work on my science knowledge!

You can read the piece here on the Writers & Artists website.

‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth’ by Chris Ware


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Jimmy CorriganI particularly enjoy reviewing books that I hate at first, but that grow on me as I read. Jimmy Corrigan was on the reading list for the module I’m taking at the moment so I didn’t have a choice—I had to read it. I picked it up with some interest but within a few pages I was feeling lost, annoyed and depressed. This feeling persisted for at least the first half of the book. Despite myself I became invested in Jimmy somewhere around the middle of the book. By the end I was weeping, awarding it five stars on Goodreads (and I don’t give five stars lightly) and ready to start reading it all over again—a very satisfactory transformation.

I have never got into graphic novels. It seems that as a graphic-designer-turned-writer this should be my ideal medium, but I haven’t read very many. Perhaps this is because I didn’t read a lot of comic books as a child. I read a bit of Asterix (which was useful for me when my kids started school in the UK and I was expected to know what a ‘mufti’ day was) and I got into Archie for a while but the endless love-triangle was very annoying—why did no one ever call Archie out for being a two-timing cad? I’m sure Archie comics have a lot to answer for in terms of gender relations…

What I find frustrating about graphic novels is that the illustrations slow me down. I am usually quite a fast reader and I tend to skim along the surface of the page without sinking into the individual words and phrases. Jimmy Corrigan required me to read differently. Chris Ware said in an interview in The Guardian:
“…comics are a very active medium. The appeal is they masquerade as a passive medium, but they’re not at all. It takes a lot of effort to read comics, even though it seems like they’re easy.”
Each page of Jimmy Corrigan mires you down in beautifully illustrated detail. Sometimes the format changes and you have to change the orientation of the book. Some of the text is really small and printed on a dark background so you have to turn a bright light on to read it. Sadly, it’s not a book you can read easily in bed and this is obviously not a book that you can read on a Kindle. I bought the paperback edition but I think the hardcover would have been even better. This was a book designed for hardcover and a great case in point to promote the survival of the book as a physical object.

In style Jimmy Corrigan owes a lot to Tintin and classic broadsheet comic conventions—it is a nostalgic flashback to an earlier time. Chris Ware calls the book a ‘comic’ not a ‘graphic novel’ and this in itself is disarming; the author is not pretentious and the book is unassuming—it’s working-class literary fiction.

Jimmy Corrigan himself is an insecure, lonely little man—tied to his mother’s apron strings, desperate to be loved but too fearful to make a move towards his own happiness. He has grown up without a father but one day, at the office, he receives a letter from his biological father suggesting that they meet. He has fantasised his whole life about what his father might be like and the reality is bound to disappoint. Jimmy has a vivid inner-life and through the graphic medium we see his imaginings running parallel to the actuality of his situation. We also learn the sad story of Jimmy’s great-grandfather whose loses his mother and is abandoned by his father, and of Amy—Jimmy’s adopted, African-American sister. None of the characters are comic-book beautiful. They are all rather unattractive and ordinary, but each character has their own inner world of memory, imagination, hopes and fears that is incredibly colourful and moving. It is a book that champions empathy. As Chris Ware says:
“I suppose we all feel like we’re inadequate in some way, and there’s no reason why you can’t empathise with anyone, regardless of their circumstances.”

In traditional novel form this would be an incredibly depressing book but there is something in the rich visual detail that renders a depressing story more appealing. It somehow gives meaning and dignity to an undignified life. A comic about a lonely man with an overactive imagination becomes a haunting and devastating treatise on the human condition. It’s quite the magic trick.

In class last week we also got to look at Chris Ware’s latest book, Building Stories, which I hadn’t realised was a box the size of a board game containing a set of smaller pamphlets which could be shuffled and read in any order. So that’s on the top of my Christmas wishlist now.

‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory


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The-White-QueenI generally try to read a book before I watch the TV adaptation—I like to see if my image of a character lines up with someone else’s interpretation—but I had watched the first three episodes of the new BBC series The White Queen before I decided to read the book. I haven’t read Philippa Gregory for a long time—she used to be an established feature of my Johannesburg book club—but I haven’t read any of her books since her very popular Tudor series.

The White Queen is an enjoyable, readable piece of historical fiction, set in a period that I’m not very familiar with—so I did some googling about The Wars of the Roses as I was reading. It was a complicated web of warfare and treachery, so kudos to Philippa Gregory for taking it on. The scope of the book is ambitious—she does cover a huge stretch of time, twenty-one years, which gives it a slightly disconnected, episodic feel. I do like the idea that two other books in the series deal with the same events, just from a different perspective: The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. As a collection I think it must give a layered, nuanced view of all of the characters involved.  But I haven’t read the others yet…

Elizabeth Woodville, the Yorkist ‘White Queen’, is a compelling character and great foil to the ‘Red Queen’—the Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort. She perceives the other woman as grasping, scheming and ambitious but she is a blind to her own relentless ambition—and it is better concealed behind her beauty and charm. Though the men are the ones wielding swords and spilling blood, the women are just as quick to send them off to battle in the name of their cause and their superior claim to the throne. Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of the blood on her own hands is poignant, as well as her realisation of the backlash that the curses she has wrought on her enemies have had on her own family. The Rivers family connection to the myth of Melusina is beautifully woven into the story; in historical fiction accusations of witchcraft are common enough but rarely founded on any real evidence—so the Woodville women’s supernatural gifts add a fascinating element.

The White Queen has also given me a better understanding of Henry VIII, in particular the desperation he felt to produce a male heir to avoid any return to the bloody years of The Wars of the Roses, and also the very great strength shown by Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I to hold on to a throne that had been traditionally so unstable in the absence of a male heir. Yes, I know that historical fiction is not history—but it does help us to engage with history and to visualise what it might have been like.

The BBC adaptation, so far, is a very faithful rendering of the book. I think they’ve done a good job with casting and adapting the script. Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson are suitably young and attractive as the King and Queen. Amanda Hale, as Margaret Beaufort, is incredibly annoying, but I suppose she is intended to be. James Frain is very good as the scheming kingmaker Warwick, better than he was as Cromwell in The Tudors. (Hilary Mantel has set the bar very high for any depiction of Cromwell.) The creators of the BBC White Queen, however, will have the same problem as the creators of The Tudors—how to age a cast of twenty-somethings for a script spanning twenty years. Save me from Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ gruff, old-man voice and Henry Cavill’s pompous posturing. We’ll see…

I am also very glad to report that I now fully understand the historical background behind the first Blackadder series. Forget about The White Queen, I’m off to watch Blackadder again.

Then I Don’t Feel So Bad


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With-Tall-Walls-image-620x414My short story ‘Then I Don’t Feel so Bad’ was published on the Litro website for their #StorySunday on the 5th of May.

It is about a pregnant woman who suffers from claustrophobia and is terrified that her unborn child might be feeling claustrophobic as well.

It was originally called ‘With Tall Walls Wall Me’ referencing Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’:

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

But the Litro editors suggested that this rather pretentious literary reference didn’t suit the tone of the rest of the story and I had to admit that they were right. The new title references The Sound of Music instead.

You can read the story on the Litro website.

‘The Great Gatsby’


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the-great-gatsby-poster1I was sixteen when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet was released in 1996 and I was absolutely dazzled—I had never seen anything quite as cool as this before. I was already a Claire Danes fan after My So Called Life, I had watched Leonardo DiCaprio grow up in Growing Pains, and ‘Verona Beach’ was a grungier, funkier version of Beverly Hills 90210. Luhrmann had created an incredibly stylish time-travelling device with which to resurrect Shakespeare for a new generation. I was slightly older but no less impressionable when Moulin Rouge came out in 2001. I sat with my mouth literally open through the opening scenes—overwhelmed by total sensory overload. A year later, in Paris, I dragged Paul through the red-light district for the purpose of photographing the famous windmill. I did enjoy Strictly Ballroom but it didn’t have quite the same impact on me and I have to confess I still haven’t seen Australia. To this day, though, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge rate in my top-ten favourite movies. So I was rather excited to hear that Baz Luhrmann was doing Gatsby and I re-read the book a year ago in preparation.

It was beautiful: an opulent visual feast—I would expect nothing less from Luhrmann. The twenties aesthetic is perfectly rendered in the typography of the titles, the costumes and the sets. It is probably unfair to say that I was less overwhelmed by Gatsby than I was by Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge—film-making technology has advanced so much in the last decade or so that it must be increasing difficult to surprise or impress an audience. Luhrmann was working with an additional element this time though, 3D, and he made good use of it but sometimes the 3D was a little distracting and I felt that it may not have actually been necessary.

The casting was very well done. Leonardo DiCaprio’s awkwardly contrived accent and painful idealism were well-suited to Gatsby. Carey Mulligan was lovely as the beautiful, self-absorbed Daisy, attempting to be the heroine of her own life but not quite able to live up to Gatsby’s idealised version of herself. Tobey Maguire was convincing as indecisive Nick Carraway—the perpetual observer, and Joel Edgerton did a very good Tom Buchanan. They were all pretty close to how I had always pictured them.

The music was a little disappointing. The twenties had such great music that there was scope for an amazing soundtrack, but Gatsby’s parties had a twenty-first century sound that wasn’t particularly exciting. The mixing of eras and stylised anachronisms that were thrilling and revolutionary in Romeo and Juliet felt a little contrived in this soundtrack.

The film has been criticised for losing of lot of the subtlety of the original and this is a fair assessment. The TRAGEDY is rather hammered home and all of the intricacies of plot and nuance are spelled out just to make sure we didn’t miss any of the CRUEL IRONY of this story. There were some sequences that were laughably over-the-top—the moment when Gatsby is revealed for the first time for example. Nick Carraway has spent the entire party searching for his elusive host; he mutters something to a passing stranger who spins around dramatically to reveal a beatifically smiling DiCaprio who announces grandly, “I am Gatsby!” to a simultaneous climax of fireworks. We did giggle—it was a moment worthy of Willy Wonka. But I can’t imagine subtlety was ever the intention of this film—the intention was to create a lavish, stylish, flashy, theatrical spectacle. Luhrmann is the King of dazzling melodrama and the film should be appreciated for what it is.

The script is pretty faithful to the original plot as far as I can remember. There is one significant element added as a framing device. Nick Carraway is in some kind of mental hospital—he has become a depressed, anxious alcoholic. His doctor encourages him to write as a way to achieve peace and closure. It is not elegant but it works and it does allow the manner in which the story is told—the words themselves—to become part of the narrative. What I really appreciated about this movie, and didn’t expect, is that it is a tribute, not just to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but to his actual words. This is where the use of 3D technology is most stunning and affecting—when the words of Fitzgerald’s original come to life and float in the midst of the cinematic action. (For a graphic designer the typographic visuals were particularly satisfying.) The closing sequence, superimposed by Fitzgerald’s transcendent final line, is intensely moving:

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Although comparisons to the original are inevitable, I believe that each new interpretation of a story should be judged on its own merit and can only extend the reach and influence of the original. (Could a film ever be a true reflection of a book anyway?) Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a visually-stunning movie with an emotionally engaging narrative and it has already, undoubtedly, renewed interest in the book—as a result perhaps a new generation will discover the subtlety and nuance, the lyrical prose and the tightly-plotted narrative of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

‘Zoo City’ by Lauren Beukes


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ImageOne thing that is sure to put me off reading a book is to describe it as a ‘gritty, urban fantasy’. I am an escapist reader and I have an uneasy, love-hate relationship with dystopian fiction and dark fantasy. Despite my literary-snob pretensions I secretly long for happy endings. The only things that overcame my aversion to this category and motivated me to pick up this book were personal recommendations and its South Africa context.

As it turns out there were many things I enjoyed about this book but firstly; the South African setting. I lived in Johannesburg for eight years, ten minutes’ drive away from Hillbrow (‘Zoo City’) so many of the settings in the book were very familiar. And it is not just that it was familiar; Lauren Beukes brought it to life—the vibe, the pace and the slang of Joburg were pitch-perfect. I did wonder if the cultural references might have been off-putting or confusing for international readers but the book did very well in the UK—winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award—so apparently not.

The second thing I loved was the really imaginative concept behind this alternative dystopian world. It lends from the animal familiars of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials—but adds a new dimension. The animals are not universal—only people who have blood on their hands receive an animal. They are albatrosses—signs of guilt. Zinzi’s sloth represents her responsibility for the death of her brother. This physical manifestation of difference allows all sorts of stigmatisation and segregation and the formation of ghettos such as Zoo City. The animal familiars do come with some advantages though—other magical gifts. Zinzi’s gift is for finding things: ‘Lost a small item of personal value? I can help you find it for a reasonable fee. No drugs. No weapons. No missing persons.’ Against her will she gets sucked into searching for a missing girl—half of teenage pop-duo sensation ‘iJusi’. But the case is more complicated than it first appears.

Zinzi December is a fantastic heroine—she’s tough, she’s brave, she’s cocky, but she’s not perfect. Far from it; she’s an ex-con, ex-drug addict, paying penance for her past life—forced to write scam emails by her former drug dealer to pay off her debts. She’s the underdog—she’s up against criminal overlords and the threat of doom represented by the sinister ‘Undertow’. It a fast-paced, gripping, wild-ride of a story—I couldn’t put it down.

Mention should also be made of the very striking cover design—the edition I have is published by Angry Robot and the cover illustration is by Joey HiFi. It is exquisite—a greyscale sketch collage of animal fur, feather, faces and urban landscape forming the title, and another carrion collage on the back of the sinister Marabou stork. It’s the kind of image that sucks you in—both fascinating and horrifying.

It’s great to be pleasantly surprised by a book—I am really looking forward to Lauren Beukes’ new book, The Shining Girls, now.


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