Book Review – Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok, Emma Larkin (ARC)

Release Date: 6 May 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher: Granta Publications
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟

In a story that centres around one single plot of land, surrounded on all sides by the ever expanding skyscraper skyline of Bangkok, a myriad of characters’ lives are unfolding. As their lives overlap, their stories intertwine and untold secrets are revealed, each of them will be changed. Even the land itself will be never be the same again. Who will be left on the other side and what will life look like for them?

This is a book with a diverse and interesting set of characters, each with their own quirks and histories that add to the novel. The setting is vividly realised and there are some brilliant moments where I felt rooted in the locations, particularly Comrade Aeon’s hut. To some extent, I think I wanted more from the characters though. There were so many, there wasn’t enough room here I don’t think to fully explore the complexity of who they were, and so at times they slipped into a little more two dimensional frames. That’s not to say they’re not well written – I felt I was able to visualise who these people were and what their wants were – but I could have done with an extra few hundred pages to get to know them better.

And I think that’s true of how I felt about the novel as a whole. I wanted more, I think, from the story. I had a sense quite early on where the story was going (and that’s not me being clever, it’s quite clear in the text I think) and so I was, in some ways, disappointed that what I thought was going to happen did indeed happen. I wanted something to twist, a different way of the story unfolding, I think. It’s not that it was predictable – there were some endings to the characters’ stories that I didn’t expect, but the general denouement was the one I expected.

Nonetheless, I would recommend this for readers who enjoy multiple character perspectives and novels with overlapping stories. It’s a novel that is never dull and, having read the acknowledgements, is rooted in wanting to tell a story that needs to be told – something I’m always on board with.

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Granta Publications for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

Book Review – Sorrowland, Rivers Solomon (ARC)

Release Date:Β 6 May 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher:Β Merky Books, Random House UK
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Vern is a black woman with albinism. Her eyesight may be shaky, but her purpose is sure. She is about to give birth. Escaped from the religious compound she once called home, followed by a fiend in the darkness and now alone but for the part of her that is alive and growing ever stronger, she feels her body changing. In her past lies a tangled web of dehumanisation and horror, which is only now beginning to show itself. In her future, only her body can tell. Soon Vern will learn that some of the horrors in our world are deep rooted and wide-reaching. And she’s ready to face them.

This novel is incredible. What Solomon has achieved here is an intensely emotional, sweeping, ambitious story that has stayed with me since I finished reading a couple of days ago. Even now, I’m not entirely sure how to articulate all of the carefully woven and intricate parts of this story. The characters are complex, and the artfulness in the writing is that we don’t learn everything about their histories. Vern, Gogo, Bridget – they are all part of a story that has been going on for a long time before our story starts and this ability to capture a sense of the historical weight of the events without needing to tell us everything is truly masterful.

The changes Vern experiences in her body and the descriptions of the way she evolves are sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes beautiful. And for me that’s where the real strength of this novel lies, in the juxtaposition between community and solitude, insider and outsider, human and… something else. Dehuman, or maybe even more human than before.

This is a novel that is visceral and unapologetic in its humanity. Solomon’s work demonstrates faer astounding ability to combine the real, the human and the emotionally raw with the bodily and sci-fi elements. It’s haunting and it’s a book I’d really recommend.

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Merky Books for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

Book Review – Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell

Star Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors and that happened accidentally. I read Cloud Atlas in one sitting while on holiday a few years ago and was so intimidated by it and impressed in equal measure that I didn’t pick up another Mitchell book until a year or so later, when I devoured The Bone Clocks.

Utopia Avenue, which follows the lives of the 4 band members of the newly formed band that gives the book its name, is about music-making in the 60s. When bands were gods or destitute, in mansions or bedsits, playing in Student Unions or raking in cash at high-profile gigs. This is a novel about how music is made, and how music makes its makers.

Nothing like I expected and yet everything I wanted it to be. This novel is intriguing in a classic Mitchell way while being one of the more accessible and easy to read of his novels, based on my experience of the other two I’ve read. The characters are human, almost unbearably so, doing things that feel real and a bit gritty in a way that makes you yearn for something a bit ‘storybook’ to lighten the mood. And it comes, often in the form of a well placed cameo from Bowie or one of The Beatles or indeed from one of his other characters who appear in this world and help weave the tapestry of his novels together.

The thing that struck me most though didn’t actually hit me until the end of the novel, when I was reading the essay at the back of my edition about writing music. Because writing something you’re supposed to hear is a tricky thing, actually, isn’t it? How do you write how a sound makes you feel? When I reflect back across the book I think that’s what impressed me most, the ability of Mitchell’s writing to make you hear something, even as you’re reading it.

Another I’d recommend – especially if you’re a music lover.

Books in Steel City x

Book Review – Milk Blood Heat, Dantiel W. Moniz (ARC)

Release Date:Β 6 May 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher:Β Atlantic Books
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

The stories in this collection beat with the heart of what it means to be human. What it means to grieve, to feel love, to be acknowledged. The value of family, sisterhood and of empathetic interactions. A mother grieving the loss of a child, a road-trip and an interesting twist on a classic French dish. Entwining the city and the suburbs with the humanity of the characters, this is a collection of stories that presents the hurt and challenge of the world alongside the beauty and splendour of it too.

Moniz has a masterful grasp on the short story. Each of these is perfectly formed, and while I preferred some more than others, each felt human and real in its own right. And yet, in their ‘realness’, these are stories that deal with the unexpected too. Many of the stories have a ‘twist’, but these never feel gimmicky or unnecessary, and instead feel as though they remind the reader that life is never quite like the well-crafted arc we might find in stories. The endings are at once ambiguous and satisfying – never giving too much or tying off too neatly, but still providing a catharsis much needed in a short story collection. Although to note – there won’t always be a neat and tidy ending in these. Personally, I like that, but worth being aware of if that’s not for you!

The writing is also beautiful. The opening story and titular, Milk Blood Heat, manages to articulate some truly complex and challenging emotions in a way that feels completely right for the young characters at its heart. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue is believable and there were no moments of unnecessary word use, which is much needed in such short stories.

These are short stories only in their length, but not in the way they stay with you after you’ve finished. Another collection I would really recommend.

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Atlantic Books for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

Book Review – Ariadne, Jennifer Saint (ARC)

Release Date: 29 April 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher: Headline
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟 🌟
This book in 3 words: myth, sisterhood, betrayal
Read if you liked: Circe, The Silence of the Girls

Ariadne and Phaedra are sisters. They are also the daughters of King Minos, you know, of the Minotaur fame. Under Minos’ tyrannical reign, each year his conquered enemies, Athens, are forced to send human sacrifice to feed the Minotaur. But this time, a prince is on board who will change the sisters’ lives forever and set them on paths that will lead… only the Fates can tell.

Saint certainly picked a mythological story with a whole heap of dramatic moments to draw from. This is a tragic story, and one I know only from various Greek tragedies and other myths, so I was pleased to see the originality of the novel – this is a myth I haven’t seen retold before and I’m always excited to see a new take on the mythological traditions. Despite this, the novel was very much a slow burn for me, and it took a long time for me to feel I’d settled into a narrative I could lose myself in. I’ve noticed mythical retellings often have a couple of opening chapters of exposition ‘This happened, then this happened, and this, which led us to here’. And that is very much the case in Saint’s novel, where the opening chapters feel like a chapter out of a Greek mythology book, with the perspectives of course flipped to the women but really a set up to ‘what we already know’.

By Part II, things started to pick up and Saint’s writing blossoms, in my opinion. As the story shifted more from ‘this happened back in the day’ to ‘this is happening right now’, I found I cared more for the characters, I was interested in their emotions and Saint’s descriptions became more vivid and engaging. I particularly liked the introduction of Phaedra’s perspective, which brought a much needed alternative voice to the narrative and created some contrast and colour from Ariadne’s story. There were some lovely moments of dialogue in here and something truly ‘real’ in the way Saint captured motherhood, particularly, and its interplay with sisterhood.

This is a devastating story and the way the events unfolded gave enough twists and turns to be shocking. But the ending would have felt more devastating, I think, if I’d have really got to understand some of the relationships more deeply on a ‘human’ level. The relationship particularly between Theseus and Ariadne felt rushed, a means to an end to get to Part II of the story, but actually is a crucial catalyst in the events which follow that I wanted to feel in a more real way.

So, I’ve given this a 4 because of the way it ends – I really would recommend for fans of Circe and The Silence of the Girls. As a book within the canon of modern myth retellings, it stands up for itself and stakes its claim on an as yet untold story in an interesting way. I’d love to know what you think!

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Headline for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

‘A window to the world’ – a love letter to the library

Dear ‘Library’,

And by library I mean, all of it. The walls, the windows, the shelves. The librarians, the volunteers. The people learning how to use computers for the first time, the people printing off CVs. The people who’ve just found their new favourite, and those who are about to read their first ever book. The young, the old, the frequent visitor and the occasional browser.

This letter goes out to you.

I entered my first library in the tiny village where I grew up at around 5 or 6 years old. There was a long-standing joke that I kept the library in business, with my maxed out, 12-book loans on a near weekly basis. It fascinated me, the way I could enter the little square room and find books just there for me to read. Like they were waiting for me to arrive and get stuck in. I’d sit on the floor and read the first page of many more than I took out, just to decide if I’d like it. I remember the brightly coloured covers of my first picture books and the increasingly smaller writing as my confidence grew. I remember events, too. Harvest festival events and drawing competitions. Summer reading marathons. All managed by the couple of volunteers who kept our tiny library afloat, with smiles and warmth.

Though a school library isn’t the same, I still loved it. Our school library was housed in an old building, separate from the rest of the school. When it rained, the run from the front of the main school to the library door was unwelcome, but worth it. Here I devoured Philip Pullman and Malorie Blackman, discovered Darren Shan and borrowed my first copy of the Hobbit. Here I pored over copies of classical literature, The Iliad, The Odyssey as I prepped for my A Levels. Here I shared, in whispered giggles, some cherished moments with my friends. There’s something intimate about a visit to a library with someone you care for.

The silence shared together brings you closer, I think.

Even the looming, five floor, university library was a little bit joyful. No, really! Though I associated it with studying and long, late-night essay writing sessions, fuelled by luke-warm coffees from the long-closed cafes, it was a place of discovery too. In this library, I had ‘Eureka!’ moments as I read obscure masques by Ben Jonson and ‘phew, I got there’ moments as I finally thought I understood Freud. I also have fond memories of the time I spent working as a floor-walking steward. Ostensibly, yes, I’d shush loud students, or pick up the discarded coffee cups left on a desk. But I’d also wander, through sociology and politics, through history and law. I’d marvel at the stacks, the way one shelf could hold so many titles on one, narrow topic. So much learning in one place.

It took five years from last stepping in the library at university for me to join the library in Sheffield. I did so exactly 16 days before the country went into national lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I was gutted, my dreams of wandering the shelves in the Central Library, a stone’s throw away from the office I worked in, were shattered. But Sheffield Libraries wasn’t going to let me down, because libraries never do. It is not in a library’s nature to be thwarted. In a revelation that was unexpected for me, despite Kindle and e-books being a firm part of my life – the library has an online catalogue of e-books. *choral music*

Yep, I know. Pretty earth shattering, if you ask me. And so, dear library, though I couldn’t find shelter and warmth within your walls, the journeys you offer were still open to me, housed in my phone, and my laptop. And I could fulfil my urge to take out 10 books at a time and feel that slight anxiousness as the renewal date loomed. I read, and I read. I checked out so many books in lockdown one, and lockdown two…and lockdown three. I sought solace in your online offer. I even attended one of your events online, feeling the beat of the community even from my front room.

My dear library, you are a delight.

A sustainable way to read while still supporting authors, a way to connect with others in my community, a saviour to my ever-dwindling book-battered bank-balance. A window to the world. You, in your various guises, have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. And one day, in the not too distant future, I will step through your doors again.

With literary love,

Books in Steel City x

Book Review – This One Sky Day, Leone Ross (ARC)

Release Date: 15 April 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
This book in 3 words: magic, senses, belonging

On this one sky day, there is infidelity to discover. On this one sky day, there is a wedding feast to prepare. On this one sky day, there is an addiction to fight, a message to paint and a storm brewing. There is a man with the power to imbue magic in his food. There are wings. Moths, butterflies. Wings not yet discovered. And there are people. Those on one side, and those on another, their eyes deep with nature and the history of a world that turned its back. And on this one sky day, when it rains, the world will begin again.

There are novels which, when read the first time, sink into our minds and assault our senses. They creep into our ears with their cacophonous sounds, their taste rests on our tongue and we can feel the sweetness in the air they emanate. This is such a novel. Leone Ross has created a novel which is unapologetic in its breadth and vigour. Never has so much happened in one day, never such a journey travelled. I already know I’ll read it again, if only to relive the beautiful moments woven here.

The way Ross creates the world of Popisho, from its customs, its magic, its cultures and its prejudices, is artful. This is a world which at once feels real and otherwordly, it’s characters at home in the earth and in the beyond. Dealing with issues of life and death, love and betrayal, hope and despair, beginnings and endings, the themes in this are expansive and left me mulling over my own feelings long after I put it down. And yet, unusually for me, I can also remember the tiny moments too – descriptions of hair, or of the way the sky looks. The handling of a moth in uncertain hands. It is rare for such small moments to stay with me after I’ve finished a novel, but these did.

This is a novel which is loud and beautifully so. It amplifies the voices of its characters and each one is so vivid I could see them. I’m doing this novel so little justice in writing about it like this because I can’t put into words how incredible it is. You should just read it. Read it, then come and talk to me about it.

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Faber and Faber for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

Book Review – My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa

TW: Sexual abuse, suicide, drug use, child abuse

I read this over the space of several hours this afternoon. I didn’t expect to read it in one sitting, and perhaps I shouldn’t have, but once I started I realised I couldn’t stomach putting it down and having the story running through my head overnight.

There have been a couple of books this year that I’ve felt unable to give a star rating. The first was The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, which I still even now can’t find the words to write a review for, such was my visceral reaction to it. My Dark Vanessa came close to that feeling. It’s a story so horrifying, so entirely believable and shocking in it’s believability, that I came out of reading it feeling numb. Truly tragic and truly disturbing, because of the subject matter, yes, but also because it was believable. And that’s what makes me uncomfortable, even writing about it two weeks after finishing the book.

I read Lolita while at university and had a similar reaction to that story as I did to this. What unsettled me most about this, I think, was that Lolita was written in 1955. And yet this, written just prior to and published in the wake of #metoo, proves how deeply such a narrative still resonates in our society and how little progress we have made.

So, this isn’t a book I can rate. Proceed with caution, with what is an emotionally draining, but important read.

Books in Steel City x

On Non-fiction – truth and opinion in a modern world

Non-fiction books make up nearly 40% of the books I’ve read so far this year. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point over the last 10 years I’ve gone from a staunch fiction-only reader to a lover of non-fiction. I’ve enjoyed books that cross over too, such as Jackie Kay’s innovative and ambitious biography, Bessie Smith, which combines fiction and biography. As I’ve read more, I’ve developed a theory. I should at this stage caveat that there is, I don’t think, anything ground-breaking about this theory, nor is it based, I will admit, on extensive research but, with all that said, here it is.

Popular modern non-fiction is becoming increasingly dominated by the ‘my perspective on life’ essay to the detriment of traditional, heavily research-based non-fiction.

Looking across the Amazon bestsellers at the time of writing, there is a selection of ‘self-help’ books that are effectively all the same: ‘how I overcame a thing which might help you overcome a thing’. There are even books that go further, into ‘how I clean which might help you clean’, for example, or one particularly dubious looking title which appears to be an opinion piece against political correctness. This is in contrast to what feels to me a more formal type of non-fiction – history books, for example, biographies, books on science or which draw from research (I’d place books like Romanovs, Bessie Smith and Invisible Women in this category).

You don’t need research to write an opinion.

What interests me about this increase in self-help style books which are often extended, amalgamated versions of the writer’s social media pages/blog is the potential loss of accountability that brings. In a history book, or indeed in social commentary which uses data to support hypotheses, there is an expectation for assertions to backed up with data and, moreover, that those sources are cited so the reader can cross reference them if they want to understand the arguments further. Where that is missing, such as in Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, which I read earlier this year, the waters become murky. This particular book was embroiled in controversy about stolen ideas from a writer of colour, but I didn’t know that at the time of reading. What struck me though, was this was a book aimed at young women, making assertions that were unsupported by any kind of data or evidence. It was an opinion piece, written from the sole, narrow perspective of the author.

Why is this a problem? For me, it’s not in opinion pieces themselves. Opinion pieces allow us to challenge ourselves, seek different perspectives, hear different view points. Where they become problematic is when they are posed as truths, not opinions. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is written as a feminist manifesto with no acknowledgement of the long history that led to the author being able to even write that book. And opinion without context, for me, carries less value. By contrast, I also read Failosophy this year. The difference with this, although I still wasn’t a huge fan, was that it was presented from the first page as a set of the author’s experiences and those of people she’d met. It wasn’t presented as absolute truth, but a set of things that might help someone in a similar position.

I think it is important that we can read and enjoy these books without needing citations and research. Not everyone wants to sit down and read, for example, Ron Chernow’s mammoth biography of Alexander Hamilton. However, in the current climate of falsehoods and ‘fake news’ infiltrating social media on a massive scale, I think it is worth challenging where our ‘truths’ are coming from. Just because they are written by someone famous, doesn’t make them true. For inspiration, yes. But for anything beyond interest and inspiration, I do think we need to be careful. There is a moral expectation on publishers too here, because in the spirit of ‘free speech’, you can’t police an opinion. But opinions can be toxic, and we need to protect ourselves from that.

What do you think? Is non-fiction changing or has it always been this way?

Books in Steel City x

Book Review – The Plague Letters, V. L. Valentine (ARC)

Release Date: 1 April 2021 (received as advance read copy*)
Publisher: Viper Books
Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
This book in 3 words: mystery, death, intrigue

The plague is creeping across London but there’s something sinister lurking among the dead. Rector Symon Patrick can’t fathom who would murder the dying. Who would shave their hair, burn their skin, ink grids all over them… Surrounded by medical men with dubious motives, and aided by a mysterious young woman who recently entered his life, he needs to find the answer, in a race against the creeping death itself.

This is a delightfully vivid historical novel which balances history with plot and pace brilliantly. I found the different characters engaging and entertaining, especially those in the Prevention Society, the crackpot bunch of medical professionals hell-bent on either finding a cure or securing their best interests depending on whether you view them with cynicism or with empathy. There were moments of humour too, despite the dark subject matter. That’s one of the strengths of this novel, the ability to weave intrigue and mystery with the funnier elements, all with the pretty horrific backdrop of an epidemic. Note to self: I need to stop reading books about rapidly advancing deadly diseases…

On that subject, the maps with the ever advancing plague were a nice addition to the novel too. I wanted, though, for that sense of the walls closing in to come through more strongly, I wanted to feel the claustrophobia of being trapped by an ever advancing death knoll to beat through the text. Despite the fast pace of the novel, I don’t think the tension built in the way I’d have hoped.

My other wish for the book was for a clearer dΓ©nouement. I have to say I didn’t entirely follow the ending – it surprised me, which is no doubt a good thing, but I found myself trying to piece together the jigsaw to understand how we got there. Even having taken some time to mull it over, I don’t think I fully followed the journey for us to get there.

Nonetheless, if you like a fast paced mystery with a healthy dose of historical backdrop you’ll love this and I’d recommend picking it up.

Books in Steel City x

*Thanks NetGalley and Viper Books for allowing me free access to this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!