Twenty Books to Read This Summer


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I’ve done this for the last couple of years on the Writers’ Hub so I thought I’d continue the tradition on my own site. Same format: ten newish books that I’ve read recently and can highly recommend, and ten books I haven’t read yet but are at the top of my To Read list for the summer.


Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my top recommendation for the summer—read this book, if nothing else. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Who knew there was an Essex serpent? I’d only heard of the ‘Essex lion’ which as I recall turned out to be a slightly overweight tabby.

Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith.

And just look at that beautiful cover—I’m quite sad that I bought the Kindle edition. This will definitely be going on my best book cover design list at the end of the year.

The Book of Memory

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and then a final heart-breaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly:

To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.

Highly recommended—poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I’m a sci-fi wuss—I like sci-fi-lite, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy, but I’ve always found proper sci-fi rather terrifying. (Still traumatised from watching the Lost in Space TV series when I was a kid). And ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon. And yet I completely loved this book and I couldn’t put it down.

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Shortly afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet—to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home.

Becky Chambers has taken all of the conventions of sci-fi for the structure of this novel but on top of that she has layered some incredibly rich characterization—in particular the distinguishing traits and motivations of the various alien races. (The alien’s perspective of humanity also provides a humorous note). The most poignant piece of characterisation though is the life she instils into ‘Lovey’, the Wayfarer’s AI operating system. Lovey’s personality has developed through many hundreds of hours of interaction with the crew and, even though she doesn’t have a body, they view her as a member of the crew.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a brilliantly inventive, engaging, thought-provoking read.

The Last PilotThe Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot begins with Jim Harrison, a test pilot in the Mojave Desert in the 1940’s and follows his career through to the peak of the space race in the late 60s. It starts out with a lot of technical jargon about flying and aeronautical engineering but it is very quickly apparent that the heart of the story is the relationship between Jim and his wife, Grace.

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s obviously a compliment to the author’s writing style that he has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, but it does also imply that the book might be miserable and depressing—the blurb even seems to suggest that the book is about failure and tragedy. But it’s not.

The prose does have a kind of sparse realism, but the emotional depth builds up in the spaces behind and between the lines. It is superbly written—beautiful and heart-breaking. Setting Harrison’s personal tragedy against an epic backdrop of space exploration doesn’t diminish it, instead it somehow makes it universal.

Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen:

I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…

Don’t we all!

The Lie Tree 2

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree, winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2015, is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

Faith Sunderly is a fourteen-year-old girl, who is, by virtue of her age, gender and the time period she lives in, rendered invisible in society and definitely perceived as less important that her six-year-old brother. Faith’s father is a clergyman and a well-known natural scientist but at the opening of the novel he has just been accused of fabricating some of his most famous fossil discoveries. The family have fled from the scandal to the small island of Vane where Faith’s father has been invited to join a fossil dig.

Faith, a budding natural scientist herself, possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree. Faith is a great character—possessing all of the intelligence and strength of mind you would hope for but combining it with occasional spitefulness and sullenness that just makes her more real.

The Lie Tree itself, a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth, is a brilliant invention at the heart of this story. Altogether it’s a beautifully crafted, thrilling, intriguing story and Faith is an inspiring character.


One by Sarah Crossan

Winner of the Carnegie Medal and the YA Book Prize in 2016, One is the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace told in prose-poetry from the perspective of Grace. It is beautifully written, insightful, gripping and terribly moving—a book that messes with all of your preconceptions about conjoined twins.

This book was actually recommended to me by my nine-year-old, who LOVED it and nagged me until I read it too.

I bought it in hardback and I love the eye-catching turquoise and cerise cover design and the American cover design looks amazing too.

This Savage Song

This Savage Song by VE Schwab

I would read a dishwasher instruction manual written by Victoria Schwab. There seems to be no limit to her imagination, I loved both of her Shades of Magic books, and This Savage Song introduces us to a brand new, brilliantly weird universe.

It all sounds a bit Romeo and Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version, of course)—the city of Verity is split down the middle and ruled by two families with opposing philosophies, the Harkers and the Flynns. Their children, Kate Harker and August Flynn, start out spying on each other and then end up going on the run together. But of course, there are monsters and this is no simpering romance.

I loved this story, particularly the musical component, and can’t wait for the next instalment.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka lives in a quiet village in the shadow of a malevolent, corrupted forest—the only person who can keep them safe is a wizard called The Dragon. In return for his help, though, he selects one young woman to serve him for ten years and Agnieszka is convinced that this time he’s going to take her best friend, Kasia.

These days it is fashionable for forests to signify wisdom and goodness, so it was refreshing to encounter a forest-as-creepy-villain, with shades of Tolkien.

Uprooted is a magical, thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable read.

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian and seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence. Her husband becomes increasingly sadistic in response, her sister’s husband, a video artist, becomes obsessed with documenting her, but all Yeong-hye wants is to become a tree.

I’m almost hesitant to recommend this one as it is dark and disturbing—not exactly a ‘beach read’, but if you’re not put off by that The Vegetarian is also hauntingly beautiful, uncanny, powerful and intensely moving.

Translated by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.



The Muse

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Next up in my Wimbledon book club, I’m sure I don’t need to say much about The Muse because, if you read The Miniaturist, then I’m sure you were planning on reading this one too. Another beautiful cover.


The Girls
The Girls by Emma Cline

The viral hit of the summer, as recommended by Lena Dunham amongst others—a Charles Manson-type scenario, set in California in the summer of ’69.


Museum of You
The Museum of You by Carys Bray

I loved A Song for Issy Bradley so I’m definitely going to read Carys Bray’s next novel—Clover Quinn curates an exhibition of her dead’s mother’s things to surprise her Dad.


My Name is Leon
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

Been meaning to read this one for a while—the story of Leon and his little brother Jake and what happens when they have to go into foster care.


Nothing Tastes as Good
Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy

YA fiction, Annabel is dead and has been assigned as Julia’s ‘ghostly helper’—she’s convinced it’s her job to help Julia get thinner, but is that really what she’s supposed to be doing?


The Otherlife
The Otherlife by Julia Gray

Another YA novel I’ve been looking forward to: mystical alternate worlds, Norse mythology and exclusive boys’ school friendships—an interesting mix.


Vinegar Girl
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series—a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I’ve never actually read Taming of the Shrew but I loved Ten Things I Hate About You—that’s got to count for something, right?


Lucy Barton
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This one has been nominated for all of the major awards and is about a relationship between a mother and daughter. I’ve got Olive Kitteridge loaded up on the Kindle right now, so might just have to read that one first.


The Loney
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Winner of the Costa Books First Novel Award in 2015, this one has an intriguing cover and an even more intriguing name. What or who is the ‘Loney’—I’ll let you know when I find out.


Mooncop by Tom Gauld

This one will actually only be published at the end of the Summer but I’m looking forward to it anyway. You may have seen Tom Gauld’s whimsical comics in The Guardian, Mooncop is about the adventures of the last policeman living on the moon—I’m imagining a kind of contemporary Little Prince.

War and Peace Interpreted for a Jane Austen Fan


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It’s my sister’s fault that I hadn’t read War & Peace before. As teenagers we enjoyed a fervent rivalry that resulted in us claiming completely opposite tastes in most things, in particular, the family bookshelves were divided between us. I got Austen and the Brontes, while she got Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was the new BBC series that finally prompted me to read the book. (My ‘read the book before you watch the series’ policy trumps even sisterly enmity.)

I started reading on the day before the first episode was broadcast, managed to keep ahead of the action over the next month, and finally finished reading the week before the final episode. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but old habits die hard, and I couldn’t resist comparing it to my teenaged favourite. And so, in lieu of a review, here is a Jane Austen version of War & Peace:

(Warning: Contains plot spoilers.)

War and Peace Interpreted for a Jane Austen Fan

In St Petersburg, Mr Collins says awkward things about Napoleon at Lady Dalrymple’s soiree and makes everyone uncomfortable.

Mr Collins’ best friend is Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy is married to Louisa Musgrove. She has a moustache that everyone finds charming. Mr Darcy does not care for it.

Sir Walter Elliot is looking for good marriages for his children, Henry and Mary Crawford. It goes without saying that Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford have an incestuous sibling relationship.

In Moscow, Mr and Mrs Weston love their children but worry about their finances. They have four children, only the middle two are important: Frank Churchill and the beautiful but flighty Marianne Dashwood. There is also a cousin, Anne Elliot, but she is poor and doesn’t matter. Frank Churchill is devotedly in love with her when he’s around and he remembers to be.

Mr Darcy goes home to his grumpy dad, General Tilney; his sister, the pious Fanny Price; her companion, Mrs Clay; and his wife, Louisa Musgrove. He decides to go to war because he will get to wear a feathery hat and what’s the worst that could happen? He could die but he hates his life and wife anyway. Mr Darcy leaves.

Henry Crawford proposes to Fanny Price because she is very rich. While she is considering it she catches Henry Crawford making out with Mrs Clay. She turns down the proposal.



More war.

Noticing that the troops have lost morale and are retreating, Mr Darcy picks up a flag and nobly leads them into battle.


After the battle Napoleon inspects Mr Darcy’s magnificent noble corpse. BUT the noble corpse is still breathing.


Frank Churchill brings his friend, Colonel Brandon, home on leave with him. Colonel Brandon performs a spirited Mazurka, loses his head and proposes to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne Dashwood turns him down because she’s only 13. Frank Churchill falls in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, but tells her that she shouldn’t wait for him as it is likely he will forget about her when he goes away. But Anne Elliot vows to stay true to him alone.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh dies, cuts her sickly daughter out of her will, and leaves her great fortune and title to her favourite illegitimate son—Mr Collins.

Now Mr Collins is rich and titled Mary Crawford decides to marry him. She flirts with him a lot and he seems to like her but he doesn’t actually propose. So she just announces their engagement at a party and everyone goes along with it.

The dashing and dastardly Mr Wickham has an affair with Mary Crawford. Everybody knows about it. Eventually Mr Collins works it out and challenges Mr Wickham to a duel. Mr Collins, despite not even knowing how to fire a pistol, manages to shoot Mr Wickham. Sadly, Mr Wickham does not die of his injuries.

Mr Collins hates his wife and goes to live in another city. He has doubts about his atheism and becomes a Freemason.

Mr Darcy returns home at the exact moment his wife Louise Musgrove, dies in childbirth. He feels bad because he hated her, a sentiment that was not worthy of his noble character.

Mr Darcy meets Marianne Dashwood and is charmed by her. He had believed that, at age 31, he was too old for love, but now a whole new bright vista opens up before him. Perhaps he will even take his shirt off—there may be scything and some lake-swimming.

His grumpy dad, General Tilney does not approve, and tells Mr Darcy to take a year to think about it. Mr Darcy agrees and proposes a secret, year-long engagement to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne is desperately in love with Mr Darcy and agrees.

Marianne Dashwood forgets the noble Mr Darcy and is seduced by Henry Crawford at the opera. Not knowing that Henry Crawford is already married she agrees to elope with him. Anne Elliot intervenes and ruins everything. Marianne Dashwood has a tantrum and renders herself dangerously ill. Mr Collins visits her as she is nursed back to health.

Mr Darcy will never forgive Marianne Dashwood and vows to kill Henry Crawford.

The Westons and their children are completely broke so they go to their country estate to ride on sleighs and hunt wolves. Frank Churchill falls desperately in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, and pledges to definitely marry her one of these days, if he remembers to.


War strategy.

Some more war.

General Tilney dies of terminal grumpiness. Frank Churchill rescues Fanny Price from her revolting peasants. She is very grateful and looks at him with shimmering tears in her giant luminous eyes. Even thought she’s not very pretty, Frank Churchill falls in love with Fanny Price’s grateful giant, luminous eyes.

Mrs Weston hopes that Frank Churchill will marry Fanny Price, because she is very rich and it will save the family fortunes.

Mr Darcy declines all promotions and honoured positions in the war—the only noble way is to fight with his regiment on the front line. A bomb falls on his regiment but Mr Darcy is too noble to shelter from the bomb that may well be his noble fate. Mr Darcy is blown up by the fateful bomb.


Mr Darcy is not dead, he is wounded.

In the hospital he is lying next to Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford has had his leg amputated in unsanitary conditions so it seem likely that he will die. He deserves it for what he did to Marianne Dashwood. Bastard.

The Westons escape from Moscow, inadvertently taking the wounded Mr Darcy with them. Marianne Dashwood nurses Mr Darcy and he forgives her for being seduced at the opera.

Napoleon marches into Moscow ready to graciously pardon the lives of Russian inhabitants in return for their allegiance. All important Russians inhabitants have already left. Napoleon is pissed off.

Mr Collins decides to assassinate Napoleon. He does not succeed or even get anywhere close. Mr Collins becomes a prisoner of war but the privations render him lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. His wife, Mary Crawford, dies in St Petersburg while attempting to choose which one of her lovers she will leave her husband for.

Mr Darcy is too noble for this world.


He’s properly dead this time. Marianne Dashwood is devastated.

Mr Collins returns from being a prisoner of war all lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. He is still eccentric but his newly-found benevolent love for all mankind and his thrilling war stories make him the focal point of every soiree. Marianne Dashwood falls in love with him and they get married.

Mr Weston dies and the family are now properly and completely broke. Frank Churchill is a bit embarrassed about it but eventually marries the pious Fanny Price with her luminous eyes, and the family fortunes are saved. Anne Elliot continues to love him longest, when all hope is gone.

They all live happily ever after. Except for Anne Elliot who has to live in the same house as Frank Churchill and his rich wife. And except for Mr Darcy, who is dead.

Independent People by Halldór Laxness


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Independent PeopleHalldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is to date the sole Icelandic Nobel laureate. Independent People is one of his most well-known novels, and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘considered among the foremost examples of social realism in Icelandic fiction in the 1930s’. I also did a Twitter search and found that Hari Kunzru had nominated it as one of the ‘world’s most depressing works of literature’. This did not particularly inspire me to read the book but it was selected for book club so here we are.

Independent People is about Guðbjartur Jónsson, a sheep farmer, in rural Iceland in the early twentieth century and, apart from sheep, Bjartur’s main passion is independence. His primary goal is to be an independent man: owning his own land, supporting his family and not in debt to anyone. In addition to being a farmer, Bjartur is also a well-respected poet. The book is an interesting blend of the harshly pragmatic realities of farming life with supernatural elements of Icelandic myths and legends. Bjartur’s land is supposedly cursed, haunted by an evil woman named Gunnvör and the demon she was in league with, Kolumkilli, and his first act as landowner is to rename it from ‘Winterhouses’ to the more optimistic ‘Summerhouses’ in defiance of this supposed curse.

In addition to the battle with Kolumkilli over his land, Bjartur also has a longstanding rivalry with Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson, son of the wealthy local Baliff, whose life is intertwined with Bjartur’s in several ways and who is inexorably successful at all he sets his hand to, while Bjartur trudges through life in stiff-necked, principled poverty.

The book is tough going to start with: the weather and the lifestyle are both bleak, there are disturbing scenes of slaughter, starvation and death. Bjartur is so pig-headed about his independence that he forces his children to live in deprivation rather than ask for help, and is more solicitous for the wellbeing of his sheep than his family. A notable low point was when his first wife dies alone in childbirth while he is away from home, the dog shelters the newborn child and miraculously keeps it alive until Bjartur gets home. After discovering what has happened he goes out again to see the Baliff and spends ages reluctantly hemming and hawing about asking the Baliff’s wife for help with the baby (still at home being babysat by the dog), wasting time with his pig-headed stubbornness as the baby’s life hangs in the balance. This was just one of several moments when I wanted to scream at him.

Despite this inauspicious start the baby survives to becomes the light of his life, his flower, Ásta Sóllilja (beloved sun lily) and the relationship between Bjartur and his daughter is the heart of the book. There is quite a bit about Icelandic history and politics that made me shamefully doze off, but as soon as the book turned back to Bjartur and his interaction with his family, Ásta Sóllilja in particular—I was hooked. Laxness’s characterization is deft and his portrayal of Ásta Sóllilja’s teenaged sexual awakening is as sensitive and nuanced as his portrayal of Bjartur’s independent spirit. The novel was strangely funny as well, I think this description of Bjartur’s afternoon nap sums his character up pretty well:

The man himself remained unaltered. He allowed himself no greater luxury in his mode of life than that of sprawling on a haycock for four minutes during the daytime, in the hope that he would soon roll off, preferably into a puddle.

These moments strike a lighter note in the unrelenting misery of Bjartur’s life and help the reader to forgive him his faults.

As annoying is he is, there is something noble and poignant in Bjartur’s desire to be independent regardless of the fact that the system is stacked against independent men like him. And despite the awful weather, the hardship, the politics and Bjartur’s frustrating, self-sabotaging stubbornness, Independent People is a thoroughly absorbing saga—grim but gripping. You’ll be glad to know, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, that there is a small sliver of hope and redemption at the end, to give the reader some sense of closure.

Books like this are the reason that I belong to a book club (several book clubs in fact), I would never have read this book otherwise and even if I had started it I might not have continued reading it. Having pushed through to the end, and wept copiously through the final chapters, I can concede that it was worth the effort. A literary masterpiece, albeit a rather depressing one.

Best Book Cover Designs 2015


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It is always interesting to see book cover design themes that recur in any particular year—last year was all about bright print process colours: cyan and magenta in particular, and correspondingly bright coloured page edges. This year the palettes are a bit subtler, but there are loads of interesting textures and a continued referencing of the design and printing process itself—a celebration of the medium as well as the message. Long live beautiful books.

These are some of my favourite cover designs of 2015—in particular, designs that are attractive but also appropriate to the content. I have credited the illustrator/designer where I have been able to find out who they are.


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, designed by Pei Loi Koay (Bloomsbury)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian societies are always grimly neon bright and plastic, and the colour scheme reflects this perfectly. The orange outfits and white bars also make reference to the penitentiary-orientated society of this book. There are a few things about this cover that seem maliciously intended to annoy graphic designers: the descender on the ‘g’ of Margaret Atwood that just dips below the white bars, and the white bars themselves that are not evenly spaced and are just slightly off the perpendicular—subtle enough that you don’t notice immediately but still creates a sense of unease, a sense that there is something not quite right. Perhaps, like the deliberate flaw in a Persian carpet, these ‘mistakes’ are meant to remind us to distrust the appearance of a perfect society when created by fallible human beings.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (Tor Books – US, Titan Books – UK)

Most of these are UK editions, but I have to mention this stunning US edition of A Darker Shade of Magic. There is something so compelling about the overhead perspective of the main character travelling between different versions of London: perhaps it is the way the cloak forms a V that echoes the author’s initial, the balance of geometric shapes, the bold red and black colour scheme, the subtly elegant typeface, or just the pitch-perfect harmony of the whole design.

The Ecliptic

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

The title of Benjamin Wood’s second novel is beautifully constructed, with sketched renderings of the mathematical structure of the font just visible. The disorientating interaction between island and the sky, in hypnotic concentric circles, tells you immediately that all is not as it seems on this island.



Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman (And Other Stories)

Kudos to And Other Stories who have broken away from their initial signature look of bold geometric shapes and created another brand that is just as striking and distinctive. I particularly love the Jackalope motif on Angela Readman’s debut short story collection. These book covers would make gorgeous wallpaper or upholstery—I quite fancy a Jackalope cushion. (This is meant as a compliment, just to clarify.)


One Point Two Billion by Mahesh Rao, designed by Jonny Pelham (Daunt Books)

The retro matchbox design cover of Mahesh Rao’s short story collection, a riot of colour and variation, immediately tells you that these stories will be anything but monotonous.


The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt)

Another great retro-style design, the slightly distressed rendering of a wholesome image and the sinister addition of the gun suggests that the protagonist of Paul McVeigh’s debut novel will have some challenges to overcome. And there are those concentric circles again, in this case a target perhaps.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate)

A minimalist typographic approach always makes a bold statement, particularly with a book that is difficult to categorise like Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (I shudder to imagine an illustrative representation of some of the scenes from this book.) The bright yellow stripe highlights a quote from AM Holmes—one of the few authors you could possibly compare Miranda July to.


Randall by Jonathan Gibbs (Galley Beggar)

Another striking monochrome and yellow cover, Randall is a book about art and artists but the designer makes a wise decision to eschew any illustration other than blotches of the artist’s signature yellow paint.

Everything is Teeth 1

Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (Jonathan Cape)

Every single page of this graphic memoir is worth savouring and I particularly enjoyed the contrast of Joe Sumner’s Tim Burtonesque caricatures of Evie and her family, with his more lifelike sketches of the sharks drifting surreally through Evie’s recollections.


The Fox and the Star

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin)

It is the Waterstones Book of the Year so it hardly needs mentioning, but The Fox and the Star is just so beautiful I can’t resist. Inspired by the designs of William Morris and the stories of William Blake, every page is exquisitely rendered.

‘Dawn’ by Octavia E. Butler & ‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ by Helen Oyeyemi


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Inspired by Nikesh Shukla, Naomi Frisby and Dan L, I am participating in #DiverseDecember – a month of reading books by BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. My Goodreads list shows that of the 120 books I have read so far this year, only 6 have been by BAME authors. I could definitely do better. I’m not interested in reading to some kind of politically correct quota, but I am interested in stretching my reading habits and exposing myself to a wider range of perspectives on the world.

Dawn Octavia Butler

I’d never heard of Octavia Butler and her classic Sci-Fi trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, but she was recommended on Twitter and I recently read that Junot Diaz included it in the reading list for his MIT ‘World-Building’ class. I decided to try the first book in the series, Dawn, published in 1987.

Lilith Iyapo wakes in an unfamiliar environment to discover that she is one of the few survivors of a nuclear apocalypse on earth and is now residing on a spaceship with an alien race, called the Oankali. The aliens, though basically humanoid in shape, have no recognisable eyes or nose, just a frightening proliferation of tentacles. They also have three genders: male, female & ooloi, and they copulate and reproduce in groups of three rather than couples. The ooloi can also manipulate genes.

Lilith (a mythological allusion to the first wife of Adam) has been specially selected and genetically altered to prepare a group of humans to resettle on the earth and build a new improved race of human/Oankali hybrids. The humans, however, do not accept Lilith as a benevolent mother – they perceive her as a threat in league with their alien captors, and are not willing to cooperate with this plan.

The Oankali ship is a fantastic feat of imagination, as is the psychological tension between the humans and the Oankali, particularly the capacity of the Oankali, despite studying them closely, to completely misunderstand human motivations and behaviour.

It’s been suggested that Octavia Butler’s trilogy refers to the integration of African slaves into American culture and the resulting African American identity, but the theme of the assimilation of aliens is just as relevant to the current migration of refugees to the UK and other countries. The refugees obviously do not have tentacles all over their bodies, but they may as well have if you consider the xenophobic reaction of the right-wing media. And of course the ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering are increasingly relevant in today’s society.

Dawn is a vividly evoked, thought-provoking read and I’d like to continue with the other two books in the series soon.


Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird has been on my to read list for a while, mainly because the US cover design is so enticing, but I didn’t really know anything about the book or the author. The only thing I’d heard was that it was a retelling of Snow White. It is one of those books it’s better not to know too much about before you read, so I’ll try not to include any spoilers.

Twenty-year-old Boy Novak has beautiful, long, white-blonde hair but she’s no Disney princess—she escapes from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York, and takes the bus to Flax Hill, Massachusetts where she meets widower Arturo Whitman and his beautiful daughter, Snow. Boy seems destined for the role of evil stepmother in this scenario but all is not as it seems. When Boy’s daughter Bird is born she brings a truth to light that has been buried for many years. Snow is the embodiment of the deception practiced by her father and her grandparents and bears the brunt of the exposure of this deception. The book is narrated by Boy in the first section, then by Bird in the second section with letters from the inscrutable Snow, and back to Boy again in the third section.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a book that continually subverts expectations. It is not a straightforward reinterpretation of Snow White but does utilises fairy tale language and imagery, and appropriately, mirrors are a recurring theme. The author approaches the narrative obliquely in a beautiful, assured prose style, and her story weaves a spell on the reader while addressing important issues of race and identity. I was utterly engrossed in this captivating tale.

Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel and I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Next up: I’m reading Mahesh Rao’s new short story collection, One Point Two Billion, and I’ll be revisiting a childhood favourite of mine, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor.

The Casual Electrocution of Strangers


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Literary Salmon, comprising Bernie Deehan, Françoise Harvey and Jane Roberts, is a collaborative group of writers who met at the Word Factory, and it is quite easy to imagine how ‘literary salon’ became ‘literary salmon’ after a few glasses of wine. The inspiration for the name of their first collection of short stories, The Casual Electrocution of Strangers, came from a tweet by Val McDermid, and each of the editors subsequently invited three other writers to submit a story with this same title. When Fran (who I also met at the Word Factory) contacted me and asked if I would be interested in contributing a story with this very specific and evocative title, I jumped at the opportunity.

There is one particular school teacher I can think of who inspired my writing. I was about fifteen at the time and her name was Miss Jacoby, I can still picture her now. Apart for earning my undying adoration by being kind about my awful, angsty poetry, I particularly recall her giving us a creative writing assignment with very specific parameters:

Write a story that begins with ‘Do you like macaroni?’ and ends with ‘You fool’.

It was ridiculously specific but somehow these unlikely lines inspired me and I wrote a piece of rambling memoir about my childhood that somehow convincingly utilised this beginning and ending. She loved it and gave me full marks. It was not a perfect story but somehow the fulfilment of her very specific brief elevated it to something beyond the sum of its parts and her enthusiasm led me to imagine that perhaps, just maybe, I might make a writer one day.

Since then I’ve believed that a very specific brief is a help not a hindrance. But was The Casual Electrocution of Strangers too specific?

My first idea was inspired by an article written by Philip Meyer titled If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably. It was about a study conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s during which test subjects were brought in and instructed to literally electrocute strangers with a series of shocks of increasing intensity—a test of obedience vs. personal responsibility. The study was intended to prove that Germans are intrinsically more obedient which is why they followed Hitler and helped him to implement the Holocaust. But instead the study proved the opposite—that every single one of us have the potential to commit horrific acts when required to by an authority figure. It suggested that most people are far too willing to abdicate personal responsibility and let someone else do the thinking—a terrifying realisation but a great inspiration for a short story.

But then I thought this was probably too obvious a solution, surely someone else would write this story. Annoyingly, of course, no one else did. But I decided that my ‘electrocution’ would need to be metaphorical rather than literal.

Since moving to London in 2010 I’ve been obsessed with trains and the Underground—the arteries of the city—and many of my short stories involve train journeys. It seemed a perfect setting for an encounter between strangers, so I imagined a moment when a bit of strategic eavesdropping might create a scenario in which a perfect stranger could intervene in the life of another with electrifying results. I needed a hero who was unremarkable and so Alexei was born—a character who is so irredeemably bland that his only distinguishing factor is his name, inspired by his mother’s love of Russian fiction. After his first electrifying experience Alexei attempts to recreate the scenario with increasingly disastrous consequences. And of course the literary references are a clue to the outcome of the story.

In the process of putting the collection together we got to read each other’s work in progress and make editing suggestions for three other stories—it’s always so helpful to get this kind of input. Leading up to the publication date the Literary Salmon team did an amazing job of gathering some wonderful feedback about the collection and creating buzz on social media. I particularly love the retro steampunk-inspired book cover design they commissioned by Harry Milburn AKA Prints Harry and the logo by Kate Townsend.

And after all that, it was wonderful to read the final finished product. I particularly enjoyed Françoise Harvey’s ominous birds (being a Daphne Du Maurier fan) and Laura Windley’s sinister village tale—reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. But every story had something interesting to offer and there was such a fascinatingly wide variety of responses to this very specific title—definitive proof that tight parameters are not always restrictive. Quite frequently they are liberating and give the writer a clearly delineated imaginative space within which to frolic.

You can read or download The Casual Electrocution of Strangers for free here.

‘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