FICTION BOOK REVIEWS

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.

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.

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.

The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans

Remember being drawn to families on the edge? The ones whose children seemed exotic, whose parents welcomed you in and treated you like an adult? The families whose homes had an air of mystery, different from your own? The Beloved Girls will re-engage you with that world.

A dark and compelling novel, perfect for sweltering summer evenings.

Reputation by Sarah Vaugh

Another excellent, completely gripping political thriller from the author of Anatomy of a Scandal. If anything, Reputation felt a more nuanced, interesting story.

Emma Webster is a respected, straight-talking MP who has sacrificed a great deal to get things done, not least, her marriage. She has put her head above the parapet on sensitive political issues and we witness the immediate, and entirely believable, social media fallout. Meanwhile the impact of her move, from teacher to MP, on her teenage daughter, is at the real heart of the story. The visceral bullying she experiences leads to a split second decision with terrible results.

If you like your thrillers all-consuming with plenty of twists and turns, this is a brilliantly satisfying read

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

When we think of environmental novels, or speculative fiction, it often conjures up the feeling of something distant, distinct from our time. Jessie Greengrass’s triumph is her ability to bring the threat of climate change right into our own all too familiar spaces.

The High House sits above a village by the sea, it has a tidal pool, a vegetable patch, and a barn full of supplies. Designed to be future-proofed by Caro’s stepmother (fierce environmental campaigner, Francesca), it is cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sal. When Caro and her much younger half-brother, Pauly arrive to live there, they must try and shape into a family of sorts.

The beauty of Greengrass’s language perfectly captures the stark reality of this waterlogged world. She quietly and relentlessly examines the notion of loss, family and the joy of a bringing up a child, all against the unavoidably bleak understanding of what has been lost and the chilling notion of the future. This is a book that you feel deep in your bones, it’s one we should all read.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is a beautiful exploration of friendship in a future world, where boundaries between humans and machines seem impossibly blurred. Ishiguro rasises important questions about being human – this one will stay with you for a while.

Hex by Jenni Fagan

Although this book is short, it packs a punch and will certainly leave a weight on your heart. Fagan shows the hysteria that society can turn to when they do not understand something in its entirety and how they will create an enemy out of the innocent to try to avoid the truth.   

 Hex tells the tale of Geilis Duncan, a 15 year old girl in 1591, who is hanged for being accused of being a witch. Geilis waits in her prison cell beneath Edinburgh High Street for the sun to rise on the day of her execution. As she waits for her time to come, a young girl visits her from the future. Fagan uses the long waiting night to allow Geillis to have her voice, and side of the story, heard.  Meanwhile, her visitor offers comfort and friendship in her final hours.

At times, this was not an easy read and you come away from this novella with a sadness that was not within you before. However, this does not mean you should not read it. It simply means it is one that you will not forget. Fagan brilliantly weaves past and present together, showing that the women of our time have more in common than we think with those from the past. Although 400 years on, some things have still yet to change and the injustices of today just shrouded in a different guise. This story shows the ripples of the past that are still felt today. Hex is a wonderfully written, absorbing novella that will stay with you for a long time.

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.