A(nother) Review: If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman

I would imagine that being Hannah Beckerman is hard.

That’s not meant as a personal slight at all, I’ve met her a couple of times and let me assure you she’s lovely.

She has a ridiculously enviable job – she’s a freelance journalist and gets paid to review books for papers. When you see things like “Astounding – The Times” that’s usually a quote from Hannah.

She’s been judges on book prizes and chairs lots of panel discussions – as well as one on one Author interviews.

On top of all this she gets to go to cocktail parties and hang around with the likes of me.

As well as all these amazing jobs, which seem to largely be composed of reading books and telling people whether she liked them or not, Hannah is an author, her second novel is published next year.

And that’s the rub.

We all have insecurities. We all believe any criticisms levelled at us 100% and disregard any compliments, anyway.

Now imagine getting nice things said about your book by an author whose book you’re about to review. Are they genuinely saying nice things because they’re true, or because they want a nice review.

And what if someone says nice things, but you hated their book?

Anyone who follows books on twitter will have seen a lot of love for Beckerman’s new novel If Only I Could Tell You and maybe you’re also wondering if it’s genuine praise or if there are ulterior motives.

Fortunately, I don’t have a book waiting to be reviewed or an author to be interviewed so you can trust me for an objective review.

The truth is, the reviews you’ve already seen are right, it really is as good as everyone says.

If Only I Could Tell You is about two sisters, estranged from each other for decades. We meet them when they both have teenage daughters of their own, while their Mum is secretly battling a terminal illness.

Audrey wants to reconcile her two daughters but an untold secret from the past is threatening to keep them apart.

Thanks to ALL her other jobs, Beckerman knows good characters, good plots and good storytelling and that is evident in this, her second novel.

The reader is kept in suspense throughout, never completely sure of what is the truth and what is the misconceptions of a young girl. And that’s what keeps you turning the page, all the way to the end.

You want these women to sort themselves out, you’re almost shouting at the book telling them to stop being stupid and just blooming well talk to each other. We all know people like that in real life so it really works.

In summary;

Hannah = lovely

If Only I Could Tell You = brilliant

Everyone = completely correct to heap praise on it

If Only I Could Tell You will be published by Orion on 21st February 2019

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A(nother) Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Two weeks ago, I moaned about the lack of diversity in commercial fiction, then a week ago I read The Madonna of Bolton– a funny, but emotional tale of growing up Northern. I mean, gay.

 

On the flip side of the diversity coin, this week I’m talking about Queenieby Candice Carty-Williams.

 

At the beginning of the novel we find our eponymous hero suffering from a miscarriage and a break-up – no, not a break-up, just a break.

 

Queenie is a black woman trying to find her way in life, trying to navigate her way through a quarter-life breakdown (my words). She faces all the challenges that Bridget Jones would face, but there are added complications because of her race.

 

Before I delve much further into the book itself, let’s talk about the commercial side of things. This book isn’t different because it features a black woman as the main character, there are lots of books out there like that, but the difference is this has the potential to become a commercial hit.

 

Like The Madonna of Bolton last week, this isn’t mold-breaking or genre-defining but there is here the possibility to have a commercial success of a book featuring a black woman in its lead, something a little bit different to the books that dominate the bestseller lists at the moment.

 

Some people will tell you that some of the sex is too graphic, that some of the Black Lives Matter stuff is too preachy, but I’ve read other books with white leads where the sex is just as graphic (though perhaps a bit more vanilla) and the characters much more militant about their ‘cause’.

 

Queenie’s thoughts on race don’t feel like a cause, they feel like the world-weary thoughts of someone who’s had to put up with these comments all her life.

 

I consider myself quite ‘woke’ – but there are things in this novel which made me realise that there are times when I might be saying the wrong things, even if they are good-intentioned.

 

Let’s forget race, commerciality, and what I learned – the question’s got to be… Is Queenie a good book?

 

Yes!

 

It’s funny, it has a plot, and a cast of characters all of whom are believable. There are times when Queenie’s mental health experiences hit home – consider this a trigger warning – but the book doesn’t go necessarily where you think it’s going to go.

 

Queenie the character is fascinating but actually somewhat unlikable, that doesn’t matter though, because Queenie the book is a great read and deserves to be a huge hit when it’s published next year.

 

Yeah, that’s right, I’ve been banging on about a book that’s not published for another seven months but that’s ok, it gives us all the chance to make sure that everyone is lining up ready to read it when it does come out.

 

Queenie is published on 21stMarch 2019 by Trapeze

A(nother) Review: The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

Last week, I got up on my little soapbox and had a rant about diversity in commercial fiction, so this week I decided to try and remedy the situation by picking up a VERY GAY book – one which struggled to get published, a victim of the type of behaviour I detailed at the end of the last blog post, people saying ‘It’s just not commercial enough.’

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain was published following a campaign through Unbound – a publisher where each book is crowdfunded. If enough people want to read it, the book will be published.

 

Any book that gets published through Unbound HAS to be commercial, because it starts off life by making money from people before the book is even available.

 

Cain’s novel was Unbound’s fasted crowdfunded novel ever – proving that an audience existed.

 

The Madonna of Bolton tells the life of Charlie Matthews, from young boy to adulthood. It’s a story about a gay boy from Bolton who struggles not really with his sexuality, but with other people’s acceptance of it. His family and schoolfriends, particularly.

 

Like most gay men, Charlie projects a lot of his insecurities onto those around him and sees slights and takes offence when there is none to be taken. He’s very real.

 

The book is quite white and doesn’t feature sexualities other than gay men. White gay men are perhaps a minority that have experienced the most progress over the last few years, the most representation in media, even if it is cliched at times. At least it’s there. It’s a step along a long path.

 

So, why am I celebrating this? What makes this any different to The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne or the upcoming Patrick Gale Take Nothing With You?

 

All three of those novels tell the story of young, white men and their struggles growing up gay. The difference between them and Cain’s is the tone.

 

I loved all three of those books (particularly Gale’s) – but they all take themselves quite seriously. There is humour in them, of course, but they tend to dwell on the more serious elements of their stories.

 

The Madonna of Bolton is funny. Throughout. Intentionally. I lost count of the amount of times I laughed while reading it. Cain certainly has a gift for slipping a gag into the story, a skill which more accomplished writers struggle with.

 

It helps his characters, both our lead Charlie and his surrounding friends seem more real. Look around at your friends, your colleagues. They’re not all wringing their hands constantly, worrying about the bad things that are happening  to them. Even at their lowest, they’re cracking jokes, enjoying themselves, even if it is just a façade they’re putting on.

 

That’s not to say Cain avoids the serious bits of life. The book builds to several dramatic moments and a few personal epiphanies from Charlie which may well bring a tear to your eye. He definitely evolves over the course of the book, and he takes the reader with him. We want him to succeed in life, we want him to have a happy ending.

 

If this was a story about a woman, written by a woman, there’d be no question of this of having ever ended up on Unbound. Traditional publishers would have snapped it up and it would be all over every retailer, in all the supermarkets.

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain, published by Unbound is available now.

A(nother) Rambling: Majority Report

I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.

 

For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.

 

My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers.  There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.

 

The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.

 

Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.

 

For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.

 

In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand.  The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.

 

The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.

 

ONE.

 

Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.

 

Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written.  It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.

 

If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.

 

Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.

 

Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?

 

Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.

 

With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?

 

Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?

 

As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.

 

Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.

 

Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.

 

We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.

 

From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.

 

It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.

 

I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…

A(nother) Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus

Here it is, the final book in the Thumping Good Read shortlist – One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus.

 

I already mentioned last week that this is one of my favourites, and as I sat down to write this post, I found myself grinning as I remembered it.

 

One of Us Is Lying is a novel about five students who all find themselves in detention. Some of them regulars in the detention room, some of them there for the first time, all of them denying having done any wrong-doing.

 

When one of the students suffers an allergic reaction and dies, it is seen to be a tragic accident. At least, at first. Simon runs – ran – an app detailing all the gossip at their school and soon the other four students from detention are all in the frame for his murder – with all of them keeping secrets that Simon was about to reveal.

 

There’s not a lot more I can say about the plot without giving too much away, but for me, this is the epitome of a book you can’t put down. I had to read on to find out what each of their secrets were and to try and work out ‘whodunnit’.

 

McManus makes it easy for us to read as well, the focus shifting between the four suspects, never lingering too long, so if there’s a character you don’t like as much as the others, there’ll be one that you do along any minute.

 

I love this kind of split narrative. Mostly because typically, I like all the characters but there’s one character, one story that I want to read more of.

 

A lot of people I know that have read this have likened it to The Breakfast Club – I’d love to agree, but I’ve never seen TBC so both you and I will have to take their word for it. But if that means anything to you, then it sounds like a good recommendation, doesn’t it?

 

For me it reminded me of other Young Adult novels by David Levithan and John Green. This was very much in that vein, so perfect for fans of both of those authors.

 

And there’s the thing. It’s branded and promoted as a Young Adult read.

 

Having handed this book out to a few different people, a couple of them have responded saying they hadn’t realised it was Young Adult – for them it was just a really good read (Thumping Good, perhaps).

 

I always worry that YA branding will put some people off of reading it, but I’ve come to realise I don’t care. It’s their loss, and actually if it helps young people who might not normally read find an accessible way into books, then that’s just fantastic.

 

But, if the only reason you’re not picking up this book is because you don’t read Young Adult, then take your hang-ups, pop them in a drawer and settle down with one of my favourite books of this year.

 

(Even though, it first came out last year…)

 

More importantly, other than being a really great read, I have a happy memory of it. Seeing the cover, thinking about writing this review has put a smile on my face. There are other books I have enjoyed that give me different feelings when I remember them (melancholy, tension, despair), but this is one of the few that makes me smile fondly.

 

One of Us Is Lying is available now from Penguin and is half price in all WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 18thJuly.

 

The winner of Thumping Good Read will be announced on Thursday 19thJuly

A(nother) Review: The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

We’re on our penultimate book of the Thumping Good Read Award shortlist and we’re onto one of my favourites (Yes, ok I’ve said that before, but to be fair, they wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t enjoy them!).

 

Before we get into The Other Woman – that didn’t come out quite the way I intended, but I’ll leave it there – I should let you know that there is only a day and a half left to vote for your favourite.

 

Head over to the WHSmith blog where you can find out more about the seven shortlisted titles – including the only one I’ve not featured yet One Of Us Is Lying (it’s another one of my favourites!). You have until the end of Friday 6thJuly to vote for your favourite and help decide who will win the £10,000 prize.

 

But back toThe Other Woman– what’s it about? It’s not about a mistress as you might initially think. Instead, it’s about a mother-in-law. Pammie.

 

Pammie.

 

You can just tell by that name that she’s going to be difficult, and boy does she cause trouble.

 

It’s been a couple of month since I read The Other Woman and I can still remember her name. I read a lot of books, all of them with a lot of characters and a lot of names. The plots stay with me – for better or for worse – but you can tell when a character is well-written, because they linger in your mind for ages.

 

The other way you can tell a character is well described is when you talk about the book with someone else, and you both say the character reminded you of the same person. In this instance @LucyHine and I both said Pammie was Bridget Jones’ mother.

 

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This might be all you need to know about her… but I’m going to tell you more. At least about the book.

 

Emily meets Adam and they instantly fall head over heels with each other. Things are going really well right up to the moment Adam takes her to meet his mother. This is where things start to take a turn.

 

Adam and Emily argue on the way to see Pammie, their first proper argument, but this is overshadowed by Pammie’s reaction to Emily. In public, she’s all smiles, but in private, she undermines Emily, starts playing games.

 

Emily starts to wonder if she’s imagining things, but it soon becomes clear that Pammie has taken a dislike to Emily, and is intent on doing anything to split her and Adam up. Not that Adam can see this.

 

The whole book is like a car crash, you can’t help but watch it, though you know how badly things are going to turn out.

 

The decline of Adam and Emily’s relationship is gradual, as an outsider, we can see it happening, in the same way that we sometimes look at our friends relationships and can see that it’s not working. But when you’re Emily, when you’re in the middle of the relationship, you just can’t see it.

 

The Other Woman is a compelling slice of relationship drama with an antagonist that is so vivid and ever-present that it’s hard to shake her months later. The only problem is that the character development of Pammie comes at the detriment to some of the other characters.

 

An example: Emily has a best friend whose sole function in this story is to be Emily’s friend, he has no life of his own, at least one that’s not explored – the few times we meet him, he’s a mouthpiece to Emily’s issues, we learn nothing about him – barring a few identifying clichés – and we skim over the conversation that’s not about Emily.

 

Generally, that’s ok, secondary characters are secondary for a reason, but the problem here is that because the story is told from Emily’s point of view, it colours her character and she comes across as self-centred and a little vacuous, which in turn hinders the amount of sympathy we’re being asked to direct to her.

 

But it’s a little gripe and is made up for entirely by a memorable villain and a brilliant, unexpected ending. This book ain’t going where you think it’s going.

 

The Other Woman is published by Pan and is available now as part of the Thumping Good Read award in WHSmith stores.

A(nother) Review: Here and Gone by Harlan Beck

For the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the Thumping Good Read award (pop over to the WHSmith blog for more details) and this week, we’re onto Book 5 – Here and Gone by Harlan Beck.

 

This was one of the first ones I read and one of my favourites of the whole bunch.

 

The story starts out with Audra driving across America with her two small children. It becomes clear that she is running from something, though we’re not exactly sure what. She is pulled over by a policeman on a deserted road, who writes her up for having her car too loaded up.

 

A routine investigation escalates and she soon finds herself jailed for possession with intent to supply, despite protesting that she didn’t know how the drugs got into her car. This is just the beginning of her nightmare, though.

 

Once jailed, she asks the police officer how her children are. He simply replies there were no children in the car when he pulled her over.

 

Audra flips.

 

As you would.

 

Soon, she’s accused of having done all sorts to her children and she must fight to prove her innocence. And her sanity.

 

From this moment, Here and Gone had me hooked. Audra found herself in this situation so simply, it could happen to any of us. What would we do if we found ourselves in this situation when we just KNEW we were right?

 

This seems like a good time to crack out a picture of Dr Beverly Crusher:

 

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Here and Gone is tense throughout, and leads to one of those endings where your fingers are turning the page faster than your eyes can read because you just need to know what happens.

 

A definite page-turner, I loved it. I think you will too.

 

Here and Gone is available now from Vintage and is half price in WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 4thJuly

A(nother) Review: Guess Who by Chris McGeorge

There are so many different reasons why we pick up books – word of mouth, an exciting jacket or intriguing title, even a special offer, but sometimes the marketing does its job and the slug on the front of the book, explaining the concept manages to sell it in just ten words.

 

That was the case with Guess Who by Chris McGeorge for me:

 

One room.

Five suspects.

Three hours to find a killer…

 

That said it all for me, I wanted to read this book and I wanted to love it.

 

If you need more than that to whet your appetite, there’s not much I can say without ruining the plot too much, but I’ll try. TV personality Morgan Sheppard (think Jeremy Kyle but a detective version) wakes up in a hotel room, chained to a bed and slowly comes to realise that there are other people in the room with him, all starting to wake up as well.

 

He is the only one locked up and when the TV turns on with a message for them all, it seems to be directed straight at him. Their captor challenges him to solve a mystery within three hours, or they will all die.

 

Does it live up to its premise? Did I love it?

 

Well… not quite. It’s still very good, and McGeorge is a great writer, but the narrative jumps out of the hotel room into Sheppard’s past quite regularly and so doesn’t quite maintain its feeling of mystery and claustrophobia.

 

But, that’s a big challenge anyway. It’s difficult to wring tension and drama out of that situation and the exposition was necessary for the pay-off… I just wish the author had found a way to keep all the action in the room.

 

I wondered as I reached the end, whether the concept would work better as a play. Tense silences, suspicious glances and a restrained location can work wonders on the stage, but are very hard to convey in writing. Hard, but not impossible.

 

It’s still definitely worth a read, and I’d highly recommend for a summer read, but it doesn’t quite live up to its marketing.

 

Guess Who is published by Orion and is available now as part of WHSmith’s Thumping Good Read Award. It is half price in High Street stores until next Wednesday.

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Silent Companions

Here we go.

 

After a couple of weeks of reading books that are away from my usual fare, we’re back firmly inside my comfort zone with The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

 

This one has been around for a while and one of those I’ve been meaning to read for ages, so I was really pleased when it made it on the longlist for Thumping Good Read.

 

Little secret: As part of the team that chose the shortlist, I’m not supposed to have favourites, but if I were to have one, this MIGHT be it.

 

If you don’t know – this is a story about Elsie, a widow who travels from London to her late husband’s country estate The Bridge. There she deals with her grief and her growing pregnancy, but there are some mysterious goings on – all centered around life-size paintings on wooden boards. Think a ye-olde-cardboard cut-out.

 

Nowadays, these things would be sold in hipster cafes that also sell vinyl, or in a motorway service station, but back in the nineteenth century, these things are extremely creepy – especially when they seem to move on their own accord.

 

It’s a brilliant, atmospheric gothic horror with a plot that constantly evolves and develops. As a reader, I wasn’t sure where it was going to end up – I, like Elise, assumed there had to be a practical explanation, but I just couldn’t think what it might be so I started to believe that maybe – in this world at least – ghosts were real.

 

As I alluded to before, this MIGHT be my favourite from the Thumping Good Read list – but my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s your job to vote for the favourite (by clicking on this link right here).

 

The Silent Companions is available now from Raven Books and is half price in WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 20th June

 

A(nother) Review: Sail Away by Celia Imrie

After last week’s heart-stopped, testosterone-filled spy thriller Capture or Kill, this week’s #ThumpingGoodRead2018 is a complete 180-degree-turn. And another book that I wouldn’t normally read (starting to realise how niche my reading list can be!).

 

It’s Celia Imrie’s Sail Away.

 

Everyone will know Imrie of course for her acting and has most famously appeared on TV alongside Victoria Wood in Acorn Antiquesand in films such as Calendar Girlsand – rather left-field – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

 

But Imrie, in latter years, has also dabbled in writing and Sail Away is her third novel. It follows two women who are in their – let’s say twilight years – Suzy Marshall and Amanda Herbert.

 

Through a series of misunderstandings, they both find themselves on a cruise across the Atlantic. They meet all sorts of strange people, including a few who can’t be trusted. Their lives are inter-connected in ways they don’t yet know, and they are thrown together in a way that might just solve all their problems.

 

Sail Away is NOT a love story.

 

It most books store it sits in a strange genre of books – that of general fiction, which is essentially the home for any book that isn’t a thriller, crime, sci-fi or old-lady-romance. With the soft pastel colours on the cover you might be forgiven for thinking it is a love story.

 

Most books are these days.

 

But this is a story about two women, friendship and farce.

 

I have a problem with ‘funny books’ – I often think humour is the hardest of all emotions to invoke in a reader. Particularly me. I *LOVE* slapstick and farce, I love watching people fall over and run in and out doors.

 

It’s the sort of humour that relies on fast-paced visual gags. Even if you can describe them perfectly, you probably won’t be able to do it at the pace that keeps it funny.

 

However Imrie manages to strike the right tone with Sail Awayand I really enjoyed it – especially as you can easily imagine the BBC turning it into a lottery-funded British film starring a list of people who all have Dame or Sir before their names.

 

Like I said, it’s not the sort of book that I would normally read – I love prolonged explorations of death and terrible things that make me cry – but this is the perfect book to give you a break from all the angst of those.

 

Next time I’m heading on holiday, I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Imrie to read around the pool.

 

Sail Awayis available now from Bloomsbury Publishing and will be half price in all WHSmith stores until Wednesday 13thJune.

 

You can find out more about Sail Away, the Thumping Good Read award and all the other  contenders by visiting the WHSmith blog.