City of Brass

In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.


City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.

The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.

I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.

On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.

City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?

Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.

Just saying.

Dominicana

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk up in Washington Heights.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with Juan’s brother, César at the Audobon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.


Joining Bookstagram (follow me!) meant that I was fortunate enough to see a huge amount of books by Latinx authors flood my timeline during Latinx Heritage Month. One of them was Dominicana by Angie Cruz and wow am I glad this book came into my life.

I have never read a story quite like this before. A complex, heartfelt and necessary exploration of an immigrant experience, Ana’s story will stay with me for a long time. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency to Cruz’s glorious writing – it lives entirely in the present tense – that grips you close, holding you deeply inside Ana’s experience in such a way I have rarely seen portrayed with quite such thrilling effectiveness. You’re blinkered by Ana’s experiences – but in a good way. As a reader you adopt her expectations, her understanding of the world and her context in such a way that every moment of her life and her move to the US and all of the alienation, fear and excitement that comes with it feels like your own. It’s incredibly tough at times – domestic violence is a regular feature of Ana’s world – but compelling to read such a closely written portrait of a life.

Part of the way Cruz has achieved this is her deft approach to the political moment of the New York Ana lands in. You understand her context only as she far as she does – which doesn’t include any knowledge of the country and its cultural landscape. So, when she and her new husband move in across the street from the Audobon Ballroom in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm X is assassinated there – and goes on to see from her window a small part of what his community mourning him looks like – you know this has happened and what it means, but Ana does not, so you the event and its after effects remain cloaked in painful mystery. She doesn’t speak any English and her husband won’t allow her to leave the house without him, and there’s no means for her to learn more – so the reader doesn’t either. I found it so refreshing the way Cruz doesn’t waste time spoon feeding context. She treats the political situation in the Dominican Republic in a similar way – you get enough of a sense of what is happening from the story and what it means for Ana and her family, but if you want to understand in more depth (which I would always recommend), you can do further research. The story doesn’t ask it of you, but it does give you a compelling reason to do so.

This is just one of the ways Cruz has crafted how utterly unknown New York is to Ana when she first arrives – the entire city is a question mark, and that fear of feeling lost the moment you step out the door alone was so present, especially in the early chapters of the book before Juan’s return to the Dominican Republic. The realness of that fear only increases the joy at its overcoming.

Dominicana is a unique immigrant narrative entwined with a powerful coming-of-age story – and as you’ll know I’ve you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love nothing more than reading about a woman stepping into her own. And let me tell you, Ana is a character you want to scream and applaud loudly from the side lines for. Ana has as much self doubt as any 15-year-old – and the sort of weight on her shoulders no one, but especially not one so young should have to carry – but she holds herself with this quiet strength that grows steadily throughout the narrative in a way that was utterly delicious to read. In the process of building her life in New York, Ana falls down a lot – whether that’s from trusting the wrong people, or because what she wants is incompatible with what she needs to do for her family – and there is a bracing authenticity in how she faces it all. Cruz has written a book uninterested in the happy, neat ending of a girl riding off into the sunset, but one that instead revels in the complexities of human relationships, and the never-ending push and pull of duty to family verses duty to self.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing about an experience too often sidelined. Cruz has crafted a novel that demands the spotlight.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.

It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.

I digress.

Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.

I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.

Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.

In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.

She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”

I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.

Janie’s story is one you need to read.

White Teeth

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.


Until recently I haven’t read a lot of British books, especially the really famous ones like White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I suppose because my serious reading addiction began with YA, which is such a US-dominated market, before stretching in more recent years to authors like Stephanie Danler, Catherine Lacey and Jia Tolentino – your basic Belletrist book club reading list – not to mention how America-centric a lot of the TV we’re watching is…

Basically what I’m saying is as a young-ish, internet dwelling person you sort of end up adopting the US as the norm, which is something I hadn’t even really realised I’d done until I discovered how intensely refreshing I found books like Queenie, Girl, Woman, Other and Everything I Know About Love – books that look at the deep problems and deep silliness that I see in my own days.

White Teeth was a particularly powerful example of this. A novel that spans two(ish) decades, it’s a multi generational story of multiculturalism, immigration and racism that came out in 2000, but still felt very much like a contemporary novel. In it, Zadie touches on micro aggressions, white fragility and white saviourism – conversations we’re having in such depth right now (at least, I should caveat, on my feeds, though if The Social Dilemma has taught us anything its that what’s true for us certainly isn’t for everybody!) – but at the time of the book’s publication, at least among its white readers, I imagine were somewhat more fringe. I couldn’t decide whether this felt like progress (we’re having these conversations now!) or its opposite (we’re still having these conversations?).

It’s a book that is deeply concerned with questions of identity, particularly immigrant identity and how that is formed in a country that is often either hostile, or ignores you altogether. The book comes from a multitude of perspectives and two different families, parent and child, which means you experience this from so many different angles. For Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who immigrated from Bangladesh, so much of that identity is bound up in loss. From the loss of their one-time home to watching their children grow up and reach, it seems, ever further and further away from their heritage with every passing year, there is a sense of grief that often expresses itself in ways destructive to their family.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”

Equally for their kids there is a sense of loss from growing up in a country that so often excludes them, stereotypes them, perpetuates violence against them.

I’ve written about this a lot lately, but here in the UK we quite like to pretend that we don’t have ‘a race problem’, that all that is – going back to my previous point – ‘an American thing’. In this novel Zadie dispenses with the myth completely, representing multiculturalism for what it really is – enriching, joyful and filled with opportunity, but also complex, fraught and rife with the problems of systemic racism we still refuse to tackle.

It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all that, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.”

It’s also an intensely funny novel, filled with unexpected dramatic irony in how it all unfolds. There are no words wasted. Every moment of this story leads to the dramatic – and utterly ridiculous – finale, highlighting how each decision we make ripples outwards in ways we cannot foresee. Much as it is a novel about loss, it is also a novel about the past, and its refusal to stay back where you left it. You carry every piece of your life with you, for better and for worse – and even though it’s often maddening and painful, there’s something hopeful in it too, I think.

I truly haven’t read anything quite like this before. I have since become completely obsessed with Zadie Smith, seeking out her podcasts, essays, interviews – there is something about her intellect that is simultaneously comforting and challenging.

I might be in love with her.

I’m okay with it. In this shittiest of years, she might be one of my best discoveries.

(I know it sounds sort of ridiculous to talk about ‘discovering’ Zadie Smith cause I know she’s really famous, but whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m late to the party! But I am here now. With bells on.)

It’s Black History Month, so I’m dropping in with an accountability check for my fellow white readers in particular. How diverse are your bookshelves? When did you last pick up a book written by a person of colour? If your answers to those are ‘not very’ and ‘um…’ then you need to do something about that. Not sure where to start? Hop over to Instagram and follow @bookishandblack, @theblackbookblog1 and @novelallure to get started building your reading list. Also pick up Zadie Smith. Seriously. I can’t believe I lived my life this long without her.

Clap When You Land

Note: trigger warning for sexual assault.

Camino lives for her father’s visits to the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people.

In New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two sisters are forced to face a new reality in which their lives are forever altered. Now Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with their grief, their new-found love for one another and what it will take to keep their dreams alive.


15 September – 15 October is Latinx Heritage Month, a 30-day celebration of the culture and contributions of Latinx, Hispanic and Latin-identifying people around the world. Here in the book community, we celebrate by reading, and seeing my WordPress and Instagram feeds fill with recommendations of authors familiar and new to me has been wonderful. That said, as has been noted by many Latinx bloggers and bookstagrammers (I really recommend this article in particular from @lupita.reads on Insta), a lot of the people currently reading and posting about these authors do not mention them at all the rest of the year. That is not okay. We should be reading and recommending a racially diverse selection of authors all year round. So this post is part screaming about a book I loved and part a call for accountability, from myself and everyone celebrating Latinx Heritage Month who is not part of the community (especially my fellow white folks) – this is a whole-life thing, not a everybody’s-doing-it-so-I-guess-I’ll-performatively-join-in thing.

Now for my review.

Clap When You Land is a heart-rending novel about grief, lies, family and forgiveness. Written in verse and divided between the perspectives of Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York, it tells the story of two sisters separated all their lives by the shame of their father learning of each others’ existence for the first time, while dealing with his sudden and devastating loss. He had two wives and two daughters in two countries, and neither of those daughters found out about it until he could no longer give them any answers.

How you deal with that is a question Elizabeth Acevedo answers with deep empathy – for everyone involved – complexity and breathtaking understanding of all of the big and small ways broken people navigate a world where their foundations have turned shakey.

There is so much in this book it’s hard to know where to start.

What is most immediately, unavoidably striking is the stark differences in Camino and Yahaira’s daily lives. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, and though she and her aunt Tía live in relative comfort because of the money Camino’s father sends from America, the rest of her neighbourhood is another story. Poverty is rife, and the healthcare system too expensive for most people to access. Tía is a healer and Camino is her assistant, so she witnesses first hand those in her community suffering – from the woman dying of cancer to her best friend Carline, young and pregnant with no pre-natal care available to her. Camino wants nothing more than to escape to America to go to university, but there are endless obstacles. When Camino tells her father she wants to be a doctor in America, he laughs at her.

Yahaira’s life in New York is much more familiar – at least to this reader – but no less deeply felt. Half closeted but utterly in love with her girlfriend, Dre, a chess champion (though she’s quit, now) and harbouring a secret about her father that is eating her up inside, Yahaira’s life has been as filled with struggles as anyone’s, but none of them are concerning survival like they are for Camino. Like I said though, you don’t have the sense that Yahaira’s problems are less-than as a result of that. Her pain – and she has been through some real trauma – is never compared to Camino’s. The girls just exist in their different worlds without the author passing any judgement and it’s that masterful writing that makes your own feelings so complicated once they finally meet. Because Yahaira gets it wrong a lot – as is inevitable when meeting someone whose life experiences are so far outside of your own, let alone when that person happens to be the sister you didn’t know existed. And even though you cringe for her, and at times even feel frustrated by her behaviour, you can never judge her for it, because by the time the sisters meet, Yahaira has utterly captivated your heart. This novel is such a nuanced look at privilege and how it can be used that was as heartfelt as it was challenging.

This complicated, dysfunctional family has no villains, and it’s a testament to Acevedo’s writing that even with the amount of wrong that had been done by them, particularly the parents, none of them ever felt like either Camino or Yahaira’s enemy – even their deceased father, who started all the problems in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you’re constantly angry at them, frustrated by them, even mystified by them, but the storytelling demands your empathy extend to them anyway.

Clap When You Land is a book about acceptance and forgiveness, acknowledging – finally – everything that is wrong and deciding to walk towards something better, together. It’s beautiful, and once you start reading I promise you won’t want to put it down until you’ve made it all the way to the end.

The Starless Sea

When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.

Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover – a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. The door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.

When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.


I’m kind of afraid to summarise my thoughts about The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. For one, this book is seriously beloved in the bookish community and, well, unfortunately that was not my experience. Also, my first thought on finishing (and throughout, tbh), was: what did I just read?

I was really disappointed, because I absolutely loved The Night Circus. The way the different threads of that novel wound themselves together into a tale spinning across decades totally took my breath away. Aside from Erin’s language choices, which are as gorgeous as everyone says, what I adored about The Night Circus was the feeling that nothing was wasted – every conversation, practically every sideways glance of that novel was building toward the finale. I never wanted to put that book down because through every chapter I had the unwavering belief that the author was building something.

I suppose it might have been to the detriment of my own reading experience that I carried that belief with me into The Starless Sea.

In terms of the pure building blocks of the almost 500-page narrative, it isn’t all that different from The Night Circus, I guess. Much as it was in her debut, time is very much up for manipulation. A story about stories, as it has been endlessly described, the book is largely divided between the narrative of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a college student in New York who is plunged into a magical world after checking out a book from the library he is stunned to discover himself a character in; and the chapters of that book, Sweet Sorrows, an ancient tome of myths about time, fate and love haunted by The Owl King who might be an owl king or might be a metaphor – to be honest I was never really sure.

This numbered one of my many frustrations.

Rather than that gradual stitching together I so loved during her debut, reading The Starless Sea, I felt I was forever grabbing for threads only to have them slip straight through my fingers. Zachary’s story had stakes – there is a group known as the Collector’s Club trying to destroy the Starless Sea forever – but the why of it all felt so hazy to me that even in its most dramatic moments I always felt apart from the action, like I was constantly playing catch up.

Ultimately I felt like The Starless Sea got so caught up in its own mythology it totally sacrificed plot. I think perhaps my confusion lay in the genre, which felt like it had one foot in the a literary world shrouded in metaphor, and the other very much grounded in that of plot-driven fantasy and the jumbled elements of both really wound up serving neither. I can read a beautiful book of metaphor with no plot and fall in love. I can ready an epic fantasy and be thrilled at every twist. Somehow though, this combination of both just didn’t work for me.

Despite my issues with the narrative, such as it was, the writing was as beautiful as ever – even if I couldn’t feel it in my bones like I wanted to. I felt throughout like I had a vague sense of what she was trying to say – that all stories are connected, that every ending is a new beginning and while that’s still sad, it’s hopeful, too – somehow none of it really meant anything to me.

The Starless Sea was one of those strange books I walked away from with a sense of failure. We’ve all had that, right? That perhaps there is this profound message somewhere in there that I just couldn’t uncover, that somehow, some way, I read it ‘wrong’.

Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t my type of book.

Perhaps I’ll let myself off the hook, and decide to believe in the latter.

Every ending is a new beginning after all. Now I’m finally through this book (it took me a while), I can go read something else.

Queenie

Meet Queenie.

Journalist. Catastrophist. Expressive. Aggressive. Loved. Lonely. Enough?

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family. Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way.


Fellow people in their twenties: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is required reading, okay? The story of Queenie, a young Black woman navigating a break up, a break down, a stalling career, friendship, sex, sexism, racism – basically, all the things – it’s one of those books that feels like relaxing into a bath. Maybe it’s a little bit too hot, if you’re totally honest with yourself, but the feeling of your muscles tensing and then unwinding as you sink down is totally worth it.

Queenie is contemporary in the most vivid sense – plumbing the depths of dating apps (“I know exactly how to handle a girl with a body like yours. I might not be black, but trust me, you wouldn’t know it from my dick”), the group chat (known as the Corgis. Cause, y’know, they’re Queenie’s friends), Black Lives Matter, workplace sexual misconduct, therapy on the NHS.

In Queenie’s story, Candice speaks boldly and insightfully to experiences uniquely Black, uniquely British and utterly relatable whether or not you claim either of those identities.

Candice Carty-Williams writes about issues young people go through in a way only someone who has faced them herself really can. In an interview I read in The Guardian, she said “What I needed to say in Queenie is that we are all living variations of the same life, but for some it is harder. How much money you have, the colour of your skin, your cultural capital can make it harder.”
That sentiment is absolutely perfect – as it would be, coming from a storyteller of her calibre. From Queenie’s experiences at work, a magazine that won’t let her write about Black Lives Matter, to the constant issues she experiences trying to find affordable housing in London after a break up means she is suddenly forced to find alternate accommodation while also suddenly losing the financial stability her ex-boyfriend offered felt so real. Seeing Queenie forced to choose between grim house share or grandma’s spare room (and I haven’t even talked about her family yet, but suffice to say, it’s a bit complicated) hit me in a cathartic way I didn’t even knew I needed as someone who lives in a house share with six other people and still pays more rent than I should.

In general, but particularly I think in the British book market we fall woefully short when it comes to Black narratives. Even now, I feel like a lot of the Black voices we turn to are American (part of our desire to pretend racism isn’t a thing here, I think) that to pick up a book so grounded in Black British experience felt completely refreshing. Though it was also really tough reading at times. The hyper sexualised way men communicate with Queenie on dating apps, the constant micro aggressions she goes through with her ex-boyfriend’s family – and his subsequent denials of her experience – are brutal and poignant examples of the normalised relentlessness of white supremacy.

I love the representation of Queenie’s family as well. Queenie’s grandparents are Jamaican and the elements of that culture dropped into the narrative – music, to food, to patois – added so much depth and seemed from the outside like such an authentic representation of a thriving part of the UK community that we don’t get to see enough.

Soon I’ll stop, but I can’t end a review of Queenie without making mention of Candice’s deft, empathetic and multi-faceted exploration of mental health. Queenie carries a lot of trauma from her childhood that has never really left her, but absolutely becomes front and centre following her breakup in a way that leads her to start experiencing some serious anxiety and panic. The manifestation of that, and how it is deeply grounded in Queenie’s physical body – which we all know anxiety is for so many of us expressed through the body – is something you really feel while you’re reading, as if the pressure in Queenie’s chest is your own. Her determination to seek therapy, despite the unique barriers to entry thrown up by the intersections of her race and gender felt like such a necessary story to tell, too. I haven’t read many narratives where we see both the decline and the turning point in someone’s mental health story, and there is something so deeply comforting in that. You don’t leave Queenie with the idea she’s fixed, but instead that she’s learning, and coping better every day – it’s so, so reassuring.

Yeah, so, this book might be my new best friend? Is that weird?

There’s a reason Queenie has won so many awards. It’s a story of contemporary female London life we have all needed for years.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.

This is Britain as it has never been told.

From the top of the country to the bottom, across more than a century of change and growth and struggle and life, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters on an entwined journey of discovery.

It is future, it is past. It is fiction, it is history.

It is a novel about who we are now.


It is fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The winner of the Booker prize last year and the subject of endless praise, it’s one of those books I fear I don’t have much to add to the conversation about. But, despite that, I’m writing today to confirm holy shit this is good.

Girl, Woman, Other is a subversive piece of writing comprised of 12 interconnected stories of mostly Black, mostly female characters and their experiences of Britishness over maybe a century. Queer people, married and unmarried, mothers and the child free, bohemians and traditionalists, female and non-binary, middle and working class; each character in the novel is complex, embodied and leaps from the page – however long you get to spend with them. It is so easy to fall into the narrative of this book, which consumed me from the first page, that you forget to step back for a moment and consider the revolutionary act of writing it. In a publishing world still falling woefully short in its diversity of representation, perhaps most especially here in the UK, to have a book filled with stories of fully realised Black women in all their complexity, different sexualities, politics and relationships – with themselves and others – is an act of total and complete triumph.

The form of this book is probably like nothing you’ve ever read before. Written in an utterly experimental style (which is something I am always up for – I know not everybody feels that way, but I would urge you not to be put off if you’re the type to get upset about missing punctuation. Maybe, just maybe, punctuation is overrated) Bernadine has referred to as ‘fusion-fiction’, it’s poetic, free and subversive. And the style totally serves the story that Bernadine has set out to tell.

There is a feeling of timelessness to Girl, Woman, Other – and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense – but instead that it’s as if time is the rabbit hole and you’re Alice falling through it, as the focus of the authorial gaze shifts fluidly from decade to decade. Once you’ve fallen for long enough, gravity stops existing and you realise that maybe there’s no such thing as up and down anyway. There’s nowhere left to look but around –to see the story in its entirety.

That’s what reading this felt like for me, anyway.

The lack of (rejection of?) punctuation and time’s resultant flow state builds this intense sense of connection between these women’s stories, strung together in a sprawling, endlessly diverse picture of Black British womanhood through the centuries and further on into the horizons we haven’t met yet. It’s a version of the UK we haven’t seen a lot of, to put it mildly.

Another aspect of the writing that I loved was that Evaristo somehow managed to balance nuance with a healthy dose of scepticism toward her characters. She didn’t shy away from elements of the ridiculous where they were present – whether that’s the maybe slightly too intense political expression of the young when they’re coming to it all for the first time (written as if I don’t 100% fall into this group), or the determined bohemian expression of the old even as they veer farther and farther into the mainstream. This was funny, but it also served to hook me in even faster I think. You can only send up a character well if you understand the heart of them through and through, and in Girl, Woman, Other I always felt like Bernadine did. There was not a single person in this book I did not believe in entirely.

I now have to read my way through her back catalogue, which thankfully/shamefully due to my complete ignorance of her work pre-Booker prize, there is lots of. I’ve heard her say she needs every book she writes to challenge her, and I’m excited to see how her books will challenge me too.

Creatures

On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding on the shore of Winter Island, a dead whale is trapped in the harbour, the groom may be lost at sea, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, the narrative flows back and forth through time as Evie reckons with her complicated upbringing in this lush, wild land off the coast of Southern California.

Evie grew up with her father, surviving off the money he made dealing the island’s world-famous strain of weed, Winter Wonderland. Although her father raised her with a deep respect for the elements, the sea, and the creatures living within in it, he also left her to parent herself. With wit, love, and bracing flashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief – and the ways in which our childhoods can threaten our ability to love if we are not brave enough to conquer the past. Lyrical, modern, darkly funny and ultimately cathartic, Creatures exerts a pull as strong as the tides.


With the exception of their release dates in the UK, which tend to come months after they are the chosen book of the month, Belletrist picks never let me down (when I can eventually get my hands on them, anyway). Creatures by Crissy Van Meter was no different.

He’ll tell you that, like his, your heart will sometimes ache as if it will explode, and that sometimes joy can kill you, too. Everything can kill you, is what he’s saying, but you won’t be listening. He’s telling you he hopes you’ll be wild enough to love things you cannot see. He will tell you to be careful. Accidentally, he will tell you to build walls without telling you to build them. Over the years, you will watch his heart ache and sing and burn out. And then do it again, and again.”

Creatures is the story of Evie, forced into the role of her own parent because her mother and father aren’t up to the task – her father is consumed by his drug addiction, and her mother of a tendency to up and leave for years at a time – as the years tick by on the run down Winter Island she calls home. Written in a series of vignettes, we meet Evie at four distinct points in her life: childhood, young adulthood, the night before her wedding and the tenth year of her marriage.

It’s a novel about the wounds we all carry; those we inherit from our parents, and those picked up along the way. It’s a quiet book, one where plot doesn’t hold the same importance as language. I love that. Van Meter’s writing is brutal and poetic, merciless and yet at the same time it holds you steady somehow as she reaches right into the heart of the matter and gives it a firm tug.

It’s a confronting read, in many ways. As Evie grows older, the narrative dispenses with the idea that love will set you free. It’s much more interested in the ways love will tear you apart, and the things to be discovered at the other end of that process. Not freedom – there might not be such a thing – but perhaps, the first steps in the direction of healing, of forgiveness.

The real reasons: I’m not sure he loves me like I love him. And I can’t bear the thought of loving him anymore. Each day, the burden of that brokenness feels bigger.
‘Don’t forget to take the dog to get his allergy shot,’ I say.
‘How long will you be gone?’ he asks.
But how can I know? I am still mending all my bleeding things.”

The chapters regarding Evie’s marriage were my favourite. These days I am much more interested in stories where the ‘I do’ isn’t the end point. The relationship is so often presented as the solution, when the truth of the matter is – yes, you fell in love, but you’re still the same person you were yesterday, baggage in hand. In Creatures, Van Meter isn’t afraid to explore imperfect love, sometimes toxic love, the kind of love you can see yourself in much more clearly than those stories you have to read through rose-tinted glasses.

If I haven’t made it clear enough, Creatures blew me away. Beautiful, succinct and written like a pure shot of vital feeling, it’s the perfect accessory for a lazy Sunday afternoon of introspection.

Little Fires Everywhere

In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights everything is meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.

Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants; all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on opposing sides. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.


I had been meaning to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng forever, obviously. Everyone said it was amazing, then the Amazon adaptation was coming starring none other than Olivia Pope herself, AKA Kerry Washington, who I would watch doing pretty much anything, to be honest – and somehow I still had not gotten around to it. So it was very fortuitous that back in the early days of lockdown when I was making my weekly 7am trip up to the Co-Op, one of my neighbours had kindly included it in the box of ‘free – please take’ books placed their gateway.

Don’t mind if I do.

I read the book and then watched the show (which I loved), so the two are a little intertwined in my head, but I will do my best to stick to the Ng-only version for the purposes of this review. (Though if you did watch the show, how good was Reese Witherspoon!? I never thought I could be revolted by Reese but she pulled it off).

Set in 1990s America but with a feel that is utterly contemporary, Little Fires Everywhere is, as the title suggests, a tinder box of a book. Dual tensions of race in so-called liberal white suburbia rub up against issues of class and bohemian verses traditional lifestyles to produce a novel that is simmering – with resentment, tension, sex and rage. Though they don’t speak of such things in a place like Shaker Heights, of course.

Celeste Ng captures so much in this novel, casting a merciless eye over the failings of the liberal middle class who consider ‘colour blindess’ a virtue. She examines the unacknowledged white privilege driving the Shaker Heights community with the heart-rending tale of Bebe Chow, a Chinese woman fighting for custody of her child, who was adopted by a local couple after Bebe abandoned her in a moment of poverty-driven despair. The custody battle splits the community down the middle, with Elena and Mia at the heart of the conflict. The case raises many questions the residents of Shaker are entirely unprepared to face: does motherhood lie in the love or in the blood? Does the race matter in adoption (why did her adoptive parents change her name from May Ling to Mirabelle?)? Are we setting up certain mothers – single mothers, mothers who aren’t white, aren’t American, aren’t wealthy, perhaps aren’t legal citizens – to fail? Ng leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

At the same time as all this, the complex entanglement of Elena and Mia’s families shows the sometimes destabilizing effect of confronting a lifestyle entirely different from one’s own. Shaker has always been Elena’s plan. The husband, the house, the brood of photogenic children was what she was working toward, but the sudden arrival of Mia, a nomad, an artist, the apparent embodiment of freedom from all those things women are socialised to strive for, throws it all off balance. How do you respond when faced with an individual living all of the decisions you chose not to pursue? Elena opts for rejection and suspicion – and Mia returns it in kind. For their children however, it’s an entirely different story. It’s funny how when you’re a kid it’s much easier to see a different lifestyle as a possibility rather than a threat – it’s a feeling we should all work harder to hold onto as we grow up, I think. Little Fires Everywhere evoked more than anything I’ve ever read that feeling from childhood of that one friend’s house that feels like stepping into another world – their family so fun, so pretty, so lacking in all of the complexities and frustrations that make your own so annoying. The family you want to join, at whose house sleepovers are elevated to exploratory missions, data gathering for previously unknown possibilities. Both Pearl, Mia’s daughter, and Elena’s kids feel this way about each other. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten, and revisiting it was a nostalgic joy.

Little Fires Everywhere is complex and utterly gripping. Read it. Then watch the show. They are both challenging, nuanced and truly excellent experiences.