Book Review: A Very Nice Girl

I was disappointed in this book or, more accurately, disappointed by my reaction to it. I’d seen swathes of overwhelmingly positive reviews for this debut novel, which focuses on a 24-year-old opera student and her relationship with an older man, and I was really looking forward to reading it. London setting, coming-of-age, young woman going through a difficult time: all staples of my reading, and after the deliciously rendered first chapter, I was convinced that A Very Nice Girl was going to be a new favourite. Then, surely but slowly, my interest waned.

This book feels like a checklist of the Fleabag-esque disaster woman genre – bad relationship, fraught friendship, career going to shit, life going to shit, protagonist makes mistakes that initially seem irrevocable – and, contrary to lots of readers, I didn’t really feel like A Very Nice Girl was saying anything new or adding anything to the genre. I could tell exactly what was going to happen, and nothing felt unique – except, perhaps, the conservatoire setting, but I worked in a conservatoire for a year and hated it so the setting is actually very familiar to me.

I’ve also realised I don’t really like the disaster women genre. It was cool in 2019 but now it’s a bit boring; I’d rather read about women navigating the problems of real life than behaving like terrible people and everything consequently falling to shit.

Still, I gave this book four stars on Goodreads – because with the exception of its predictability, I can’t really fault A Very Nice Girl. Great writing, plausible character development, strong characterisation, and nothing that struck me as jarring or out-of-place. It’s a well-constructed book, I just didn’t have much of an emotional connection to it. But thanks to Bloomsbury for the gifted ebook, which provided a much-needed distraction on the train from Glasgow to London 🌟

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Book Review: Square One

Thanks to Transworld for letting me read Square One by Nell Frizzell in advance. I was excited to read Nell’s debut novel after thoroughly enjoying her debut book The Panic Years, a memoir-slash-exploration of women’s lives in their 20s and early 30s. But I was very sadly disappointed!

Square One

Square One is about Hanna: newly single, unemployed, just moved back to Oxford to live with her dad in his messy ex-council flat. Oh, and and he’s just joined Tinder. I have to admit the premise didn’t exactly pique my interest and was a bit more commercial than I was expecting but, you know, it’s good to try new things.

I suppose my main issue with this novel is that it felt very much like someone exploring fiction for the first time. There were loads of scenes I thought were unnecessary, there wasn’t much subtlety or nuance, and the topics that Nell explored so movingly and thoroughly in The Panic Years felt like they were delivered here with the ease of a sledgehammer. I’ve never really understood what people mean when they say they can tell something is a first novel, or that they’re impressed something is a debut; obviously writers improve but a lot of the debut writers I read (and, certainly, have read lately) feel just as talented and accomplished as writers mid-career. This didn’t feel the case with Square One, though, and it’s a shame because I’ve seen what Nell Frizzell can do. Still, I read it in a matter of hours – during a dreaded late autumn cold – and it was fun enough! I would recommend if you’re a fan of commercial fiction in the vein of early-30s-women-finding-their-feet, which I sadly am not. 3 stars.

Book Review: Book Lovers

Okay I think I’m officially crowning Emily Henry as my favourite rom-com writer? She writes books with personality, books where the romances feel real and the friendships aren’t an afterthought and people behave normally (an underappreciated, but crucial, point for a romance novelist).

Yes, her use of metaphors and her general descriptions veers between mediocre and pure cringe and yes, there are the usual eye-rolly moments where people have to overcome some slightly overwrought inner issue, but her books are so incredibly immersive and addictive, and the romances are always absolutely on point. The chemistry! The chat! The way the relationship builds slowly and surely! I love it. And it really doesn’t hinder my obsession that her books so far have catered entirely to my own hopes and dreams: being a writer (Beach Read), love of travel (You and Me on Vacation), working in publishing (Book Lovers – although I think editorial is the least interesting department so I would like other publishing rep pls and thank u).

This is not an actual review, more just a list of the vibes I enjoyed, but I don’t think I need to explain the plot of Book Lovers too much: it’s about Nora, cutthroat agent, and Charlie, hotshot editor, and what happens when they meet by chance in a small town in North Carolina. I’ve seen it described as enemies-to-lovers which I really think is stretching the brief: they have one meeting in New York where Nora thinks he’s a bit rude, but they’re entirely amicable (read: flirty) when they meet again in North Carolina, and it’s obvious they fancy each other from the beginning. Enemies-to-lovers? I don’t really think so. But anyway: their chemistry is amazing, their conversations are so quippy and fun, and I absolutely adored them as a couple. I also loved the affectionate skewering of small-town romances (as a city gal I am 100% on Nora’s side), the excellent dialogue, and the strong Nora Ephron vibes from the New York scenes (v v keen for Emily to write a full New York rom-com now). Plus, all the editorial back-and-forth made me desperate to have a published novel – even though the novel Nora and Charlie are editing sounds absolutely dire, just like January’s book in Beach Read.

Book Lovers was never going to have my full heart, firstly because You and Me on Vacation is unbeatable for me; secondly because the prose did feel a little weak; and thirdly, because no matter how self-aware a book is, it’s unlikely that a commercial novel set in a small town is ever going to be a favourite of mine. But I loved Nora and Charlie, I did not want to put this down, and I already know I’ll be rereading Book Lovers at some point.

Book Review: Brown Girls

Thanks to 4th Estate for my proof of Brown Girls ✨ the minute I heard this was a book about a group of girls growing up in Queens, I knew I had to read it! I was hoping for something akin to The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which I read a few years ago and loved, and I was intrigued too by the fact this was written in a chorus voice of ‘we’.

I was expecting a chorus of ‘we’ from a specific friendship group of brown girls growing up in Queens, but this isn’t that: the brown girls of the title are representative (I think) of all brown girls from ‘the dregs of Queens’. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what this means without reading the book, but essentially there’s no actual characters, just a rough sketch of what life might be like if you were a girl from an immigrant family growing up in Queens in the late 90s/early 2000s.

I have to say I would have much preferred the vision I had in my head: although Daphne Palasi Andreas can definitely write (and some of her scene-setting is fantastic), I often struggled to connect to the narrative in the absence of a group of characters to root for, and personally I felt like the generalised statements about identity or motherhood or racism (for example) were less impactful than if they’d been linked to the experiences of a specific character. I also had the sense that a lot of the observations about growing up ‘brown’ were fairly surface-level and the experiences in the latter half were too specific for the supposedly wide-ranging premise. This was a feeling that, as a white person, I wasn’t going to mention until I read a Goodreads review by an own voices reviewer who articulated this really well. Swipe to see a screenshot!

Saying that, though, I still enjoyed this one! The descriptions of Queens are particularly vivid and evocative, and the cumulative effect of this book is stronger than its component parts. Certain chapters and themes really stood out to me, like the differences between those who left Queens and those who stayed, and when the chorus wonders about their mothers’ experiences of arriving in the USA. I think this book does succeed on its own terms; it’s just a shame that it wasn’t the book I was hoping for.

Book Review: Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?

Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? is a classic commercial women’s novel: female protagonist in their early 30s, living in a big city (in this case, Peckham and Denmark Hill), dealing with issues surrounding love, friendship, family and work. Yinka is a black Christian British-Nigerian woman, and she’s faced with pressure from her traditionally minded family: to find a husband.

This was a pretty standard and formulaic commercial novel, which isn’t a bad thing – with these kinds of books, you know what you’re expecting, and you get it! The characters were all well-drawn, it had a lot of personality (reason #1 why British commercial fiction is superior to American), and I mostly enjoyed reading about Yinka’s life and the people in it. A few issues, though: the ending was rushed and tied up way too neatly; it did that expositional thing I hate where characters who have known each other for years explain things to each other that they clearly already know; and Yinka was incredibly judgemental at times in a way I found quite off-putting. I’m all for protagonists being unlikeable and making bad decisions, but at times her terrible choices and judgements were backed by her (seemingly sensible) friends in a way that I found infuriating. Do not let your friends behave that way! Please! 3.5 🌟

Book Review: Sovietistan

I requested this book from the library on a bit of a whim, but it was truly fascinating. Erika Fatland is a Norwegian author who travelled around the area of central Asia often collectively known as ‘the Stans’: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I knew absolutely nothing about the majority of these countries and, as Erika Fatland writes, this is a statement that is true of a lot of people around the world. I had no idea about the insanity of the dictatorship in Turkmenistan, the crippling poverty in Tajikistan, the custom of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan…

I could go on. It was so interesting reading about the history of these regions – which were, before the nineteenth-century Russian invasion, largely composed of nomadic tribes – and how they were impacted by the Soviet Union. I liked this book best when it was a straightforward linear travelogue – at times the author’s journeys were a bit piecemeal – and I was annoyed at the English translation. Sovietistan was published in Norway in 2014 and in the UK in 2019; this made skim over some of the content, as the book made it pretty clear that a lot of the political context was out-of-date, but without actually giving any effort to properly update the reader. (Mostly just the odd footnote.) I feel like, during the English translation, the author should have been given the opportunity to add a bit more detail where relevant. But otherwise, I would really recommend this book!

Book Review: None of This is Serious

Thanks so much to Canongate for inviting me to be on the social media tour for None of This is Serious✨ I was seduced by the gorgeous cover and the fact that it centred on recent graduates living in Dublin – I am here for all and any young millennial novels. Sophie, the protagonist, is an extremely online person who seems to have an existential crisis every day, and her anxiety about the future is not helped by complicated relationships with her overbearing best friend Grace, her fuckboy friend Finn, her bullying twin sister Hannah, and friend-of-a-friend Rory, who may or may not fancy her. Throw in an inexplicable world event, and it sounds like there’s definitely a lot going on.

Yet this is one of the most plotless books I’ve ever read. I was reminded a lot of two Irish female novelists that Catherine Prasifka will inevitably be comped to: Sally Rooney, with the exploration of human relationships in the context of impending world doom, and Naoise Dolan, in the author’s depiction of an overanalytical protagonist who lives very much in her own head. To be honest, being in Sophie’s head was so claustrophobic that it gave me second-hand anxiety and irritation. She’s such an overthinker that her own dialogue isn’t even included on the page, an interesting stylistic choice I haven’t seen before! Although I think this unreliable, exhausting first-person narration was exactly what Catherine Prasifka intended, it did make somewhat wearying reading at times; there’s only so many times I can read about incessant social media scrolling/hangover vomiting/existential apathy before I crave a bit of variety and a bit less repetition. I also found myself wishing for more of a deep dive into Finn’s psychology (what is that boy on?), more background and context regarding the characters’ friendships – I finished the book feeling like I hadn’t gained any sense about what college was actually like for Sophie, which seems like a weird oversight considering she’s just graduated – and the ending was a bit too simplistic for my tastes.

But there was enough in there to keep me interested. The incisive observations on the power dynamics between men and women; the authentic representation of up-themselves, very political recent graduates; how the author completely and successfully inhabits the head of a naΓ―ve and obsessive 22-year-old who has absolutely no idea how to navigate the relationships in her life. The setting is firmly on brand for me, and parts of this book were so readable, as smooth as silk but personally, I needed more action. I will definitely read whatever Catherine Prasifka writes next, I just think that this book – with its particular combination of being too online and its repetitiveness – wasn’t quite for me. I would rate it probably 3.5 stars, with bonus love for the bog body chat and the regular references to Glasgow (the author did her Masters at Glasgow so what is the pasta restaurant Hannah always goes to? I want to know!!)

Book Review: The House with the Golden Door

Bookstagram tour time! ✨ Thank you so much to Head of Zeus for inviting me to take part. The kind of historical fiction publishing today often feels quite one-note – there’s a mystery, it’s a bit gothic, a bit witchy – and when I read The Wolf Den last year, it felt so refreshing to return to my fave kind of historical fiction, the kind that showcases a slice of life from a bygone period.

This book continues with Amara’s story and although I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much as The Wolf Den, I still really liked it! It’s less atmospheric than the first book, with less scene-setting and fewer insights into Pompeii life, but what this book lacks in scenery, it more than makes up for in readability: I could not put The House with the Golden Door down. Ok, it’s a bit melodramatic at points and there’s a few subplots that – as much as I liked them – felt like they came out of nowhere (I ❀️ Philos but where was the set-up from the first book?). None of that matters, though, because I was immersed and invested, and I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re interested in slice-of-life historical fiction/the ancient Roman empire/anything old. I’m absolutely dying to visit Pompeii now and I can’t wait for the last book in the trilogy. Elodie Harper does a fantastic job of describing slaves’ and ex-slaves’ lives, and the precarity and brutality of existence in the ancient world. I strongly hope it’s all going to work out for Amara and Philos and Britannica, but judging by the year the book ends, I am not too confident about that point lol. In summary: I recommend, and get me to Italy asap.

Book Review: Love Me, Love Me Not

*Disclaimer: I work for Orion but I did not work on this book! I actually got this from NetGalley so thank you Orion! *

Kirsty Capes’s Careless was one of 2021’s highlights for me: it’s a book that has really stayed with me, a book that made me gasp and cry and feel completely moved. So obviously I was anticipating Love Me, Love Me Not and whilst I don’t think this was quite as good as her debut, I really enjoyed it!

Lucy is a prickly, highly-strung character who is determined to be in complete control of her life and shake off her council estate upbringing. Aged twenty-six, she lives in London, she loves her shiny job and she thinks she has plenty of friends. All is going well until she finds out she’s adopted β€” after which her life starts to very gently unravel.

This has got low reviews on Goodreads because the character is too passive and I have to say I think they’re completely missing the point. I thought Kirsty Capes did a brilliant job of creating a character who is so convinced by her own falsely constructed narrative that she has trouble seeing outside of it, and the way she explores dealing with trauma of all different kinds is so delicately and believably done. For some reason I just really like the simple but eloquent way that Kirsty writes, and I think I’m always going to be a fan of her work. It’s quite rare to see adoption and care-experienced narratives, and I love the way that Kirsty is bringing these stories into the light.

I also loved the depiction of the mid-twenties millennial London lifestyle in this – I lived in London for less than a year but it felt completely impeccably done to me, one of the best I’ve ever seen – and I really liked Lucy’s two flatmates, Ash and Cam and the way their friendships are both complicated and genuine. Also a truly minor point but at one point it’s mentioned that Lucy’s friend AnaΓ―s is 5’2 and honestly brownie points to the author for not constantly throwing in references to how ‘tiny’ the character is! I’m 5’1 and I find it really incredibly annoying to read about lol, I’m not a doll so stop treating me like one.

Anyway, I didn’t like this as much as Careless because I felt it was missing both an emotional heart and narrative momentum; I feel like the action should have got going a bit sooner. I also could not suspend my disbelief that she would ever actually go out with Tom when he’s so irredeemably awful and, personally, I would have liked a bit more self-awareness and self-interrogation on Lucy’s part. This, coupled with the fact that it was a wee bit tropey/sentimental at times, makes Love Me, Love Me Not a like rather than a love book for me – but I know that Kirsty Capes is an author I will undoubtedly keep returning to!

Book Review: One Night With You

Thanks so much to Avon for letting me read One Night With You by Laura Jane Williams! As ever, this was a book I read in one day, keen to gobble up the story of Ruby and Nic, a couple who meet just as Nic’s moving to London and Ruby is moving to Manchester – and have the best one-night stand of their lives.

With the usual disclaimers for commercial fiction – not especially well-written, not exactly subtle – I thought this was a really strong opening for a rom-com, and I very much enjoyed being introduced to the shy Nic and the flirtatious Ruby. Unfortunately for me, the rest of the book didn’t live up to the great start! The story was nothing special, I found the plot twists a bit random, and it was all a bit too earnest and sentimental for my taste (even by the standards of rom-coms). Still, I do really appreciate the low stakes elements of Laura Jane Williams’s rom-coms – there’s no grand, stupid miscommunications, it’s all just about people living their lives, and I wish more rom-coms were like that! 3 🌟