ALL BOOK REVIEWS

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Be kind to yourself and pick up a copy of Lessons in Chemistry, it is a joy.  

Elizabeth Zott is a character to fall in love with – clever, direct and (often unwittingly) very funny.  A born scientist in a world that struggles with the very idea of a woman in the job, she is as surprised as anyone to find herself a single mother starring in a cookery show.  Not everyone is happy with her style – educating and empowering her female audience.  

Top tip, try not to read it too quickly, you will miss Elizabeth.

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

Aged four, Christabel meets the arrival of her stepmother with a sceptical expression and a mouthful of grubby snow, standing in front of her home, Chilcombe Manor.  Their relationship never really warms, but it is the love between siblings, Christabel, Flossie (aka ‘the veg’) and Digby that is at the heart of this glorious novel.

The children bring themselves up in an eccentric country house populated by oblivious, partying grown ups, finding education and entertainment in creating their Whalebone Theatre in a world soon to be broken apart by WWII.

Perfect for fans of William Boyd.

Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott

I have to confess I was at first put off starting this book by its length and seemingly bleak subject matter.  Luckily a mild dose of Covid gave me the time to dive in, and I’m so grateful I did.  Invisible Child is one of those eye-opening, life-changing books that you want to press into the hands of everyone you meet.

Journalist Andrea Elliott, has done a remarkable thing in telling the story of Dasani Coates and her family living in poverty in New York.  The eldest girl, she is, to a large extent, parenting her seven siblings before she even starts High School.

Over the course of almost ten years, Elliott bore witness to the family’s struggles with addiction, homelessness and poverty, always showing a clear-eyed honesty but no judgement.  At times, she uses the Coates extended family to explore the history of slavery, through to the great migration north to New York, and the process of gentrification in Brooklyn, but always brings the reader back to Dasani’s story.

Bright and fierce in equal measure, she wins a funded place at the Milton Hershey Boarding School in Pennsylvania.  There Dasani must submit to the school structure, but her love for her family in New York is never far away and a phone call home is often a trigger to derail her progress.

Heart-breaking, frustrating, and inspirational, this is a deeply personal journey into the realities of navigating a life in poverty, often dictated by the labyrinthine dysfunctional bureaucracy of social care in NYC.

If you loved Educated, please read Invisible Child, you won’t regret meeting Dasani or her family.

The Light in Everything by Katya Balen

This is a heartfelt story about making room for new friends, family and happiness in your life. The story that Balen tells  is so full of love but also shows the mixed emotions of children so brilliantly and their views of the big world that they do not always fully understand. 

We follow the lives of two children, Zofia and Tom, who could not be more different, as they try to have their families blend together, with a baby on the way. When their parents meet and their lives change forever, the two must try to understand each other while they are also trying to understand their own emotions at the same time. Tom loves his Mum very much and wants to see her happy, but he is scared that the past will repeat itself and is incredibly anxious that the past will also find him. He will not let this fear make way for positive changes. Meanwhile, Zofia does not want to share her dad with anyone else and her fear of having to share him and losing their bond shows itself in anger and frustration. 

Katya Balen does a phenomenal job of showing a child’s emotions and how, just like adults, sometimes they need help to understand them. The subtlety that Balen uses to highlight children’s mental health is wonderful and her writing pulls at the heartstrings. It is beautifully told with tenderness and care. This sensitive story about stitching a new family together is something to be read by both children and adults.

Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna

A spellbinding new series for magic lovers and would-be witches. This story follows young witch in training, Cassie, as she runs away from boarding school, goes on a quest to find her long-lost mother and starts to explore The Hedge – a perilous land of goblins and magical creatures – a place she is absolutely not allowed to go.

McKenna has created an authentic and heart-warming world you won’t want to leave.

The Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner (trans. Adriana Hunter)

‘Guild is like a snake … you don’t always know when it will lash out and paralyse you. My guilt is my twin.’ Camille Kouchner

This book caused a sensation when it was published in France in 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. Camille Koucher was in her forties before she felt able (or at liberty) to write her story of family abuse, suicide, shame and guilt. But stay with me, this is an extraordinary memoir, one to read in a single, transfixed sitting; it is hard hitting, although the most painful episodes are ‘off-camera’.

Only after her mother’s death in 2017, when she was buried without any of her five children in attendance, did Koucher feel able to tell the story of her familia grande. She describes a childhood that was full of glamorous, sun-drenched holidays at the family house, Sanary-sur-Mer, surrounded by cousins, and including much of France’s left wing intellectual elite, most particularly, her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel.

Written with such love and pain, La Familia Grande lays bare the last taboo of incest, sparking a national debate in France and the hashtag #metooincest. While the subject matter may be sensational, the writing is direct, elegant, and heartbreakingly honest. You have to keep looking up to remind yourself it’s not a novel, but very much reality.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

VIVIAN

Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ and love and compassion across the religious divide. Trespasses renders life in excpetional times through the everyday; school, work, family.

A compulsive and gorgeous piece of writing.

ROZ

It’s very hard to believe this novel is Louse Kennedy’s first,  she writes with an immediate precision, bringing the stark realities and choices of that time shockingly to life.

Cushla Lavery is a Catholic primary school teacher living in a garrison town where she also helps her brother, working nights at the family pub which is often frequented by British soldiers. The everyday reality of the Troubles is all around, from Cushla’s care for her vulnerable ‘mixed-marriage’ pupil, Davy, who is a frequent target for bullies, to the regular checkpoints endured on a night out in town. But Cushla’s burgeoning attraction to Michael Agnew, a married prominent barrister who has outspoken views on justice and civil rights, puts everything she knows in danger.

Louise Kennedy explores the inevitable grey areas within a polarised society, but she does so with direct, clear-eyed language, short, sharp sentences, often polished with sharp humour. There is a visceral tension to the story, which, when combined with the wonderful writing, achieves that rare thing, the literary thriller, and one where you truly know and care about the characters. Highly recommended.

Never Did The Fire by Diamela Eltit

Never Did The Fire gives an insight into an unnamed Latin American country’s violent past and the legacy that it left behind to this day. Eltit brings to light the sacrifices that people made, and still make, when they become revolutionaries against an oppressive political regime.

The novel, which is beautifully translated, shows a very un-English experience and a life still wholly entangled in the politics that existed years before. By telling the story of a woman questioning her sense of self and what she used to be before the mental and physical pain of the burden of being a revolutionary, Elitat evokes the sense of loss and trauma that is left behind for decades after the events in history have taken place.

The characters and their story show what it means to fight for survival, even after the fight is over.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

This novel was ADORED by all staff so instead of lenghty reviews from each, we have each decided on a short reason why we loved it. However, the one thing you should take away from these is you should read this book.

    Roz:  “Powerful, tender, beautiful.”

Vivian: “You thought Shuggie was good…

    Fran:  “Stays with you

Sarah:  “Utterly Phenomenal

    Nina: “Heartbreaing but beautiful

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Lovers from different cultures torn apart by war. So far so, sadly, familiar. But the setting is Cyprus, the lovers are Greek and Turkish and the story is narrated in part by an ancient fig tree.

Some of the most mesmerising and magical writing I have read in a while.

Blood to Poison by Mary Watson

This book, rooted in South African history, shows female anger as resistance to centuries of mistreatment against women and the ever present racism that exists in today’s world. Watson brings in such a wonderful fantastical element to parallel the real world and its history, creating a story that thrums with magic and excitement as the main character, the 17 year old Savannah, hunts for explanations and justice. 

This has everything a teen book should have, and more. It is a coming of age story that has all the hiccups that teens face in daily life and the self-discovery that comes with growing up. However, it also has witches, curses, and a lick of darkness to keep things interesting. 

A mesmerising, unputdownable and gripping novel that lets a young woman come to grips with who she is and lets her find her voice.

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

I’ve always been a fan of Lovecraftian-esque mythos, stories of something lurking deep in the sea, ancient and terrible gods beyond natural reason.

I started the Leviathan expecting a spooky story about a big old sea snake. Instead, Rosie Andrews places us explicitly “far from the sea” to introduce Thomas Treadwater, a farmer’s son from 17th century Norfolk, in a mystery concerning a murdered flock of sheep, accusations of witchcraft, and Thomas’ own ailing father.

I’m glad the story wasn’t what I expected because, having become so enthralled in the sleuthing, the first mention of a serpent around halfway through the novel made my stomach drop. Rosie Andrews commands a horror so slow-burning that sometimes simply turning the page feels like removing a layer of a safety net, falling deeper into something unrelentingly malevolent. The Leviathan is the first book to give me nightmares since reading the Half Blood Prince when I was 7.