Book Reviews

Selected Poems by Kamala Das

Kamala Das is one of my favourite poets of all time. Her writing dives deep into themes of female sexuality and pain, into the haunting Indian landscape, and her identity as an Indian woman. Born in Kerala in 1934, Das was a trailblazer and one of the first Indian women to write with such boldness and honesty about sex.

Her poems on love and sex slide back and forth between the hazy line separating love and lust. They are sensual and evocative but pulse at the core with pain. Her vivid descriptions of India invite the reader to sip from the glass of Calcutta’s April sun and stand under Bombay’s yellow moon.

Reading a Kamala Das poem evokes more than empathy; she makes you climb through each searing word she writes and truly absorb her emotion and experience. Her style is brazen, clear, and uncluttered. If the emotional weight of each poem hadn’t forced me to sit back and allow the intensity to bleed out before I moved on to the next, I would have inhaled the lot in a sitting.

The introduction by Devindra Kohli takes up a good third of the book, and is a fascinating exploration of Kamala Das’ life. I especially recommend the poems Glass, In Love, and Summer in Calcutta.

Book Reviews

A Perfect Paris Christmas by Mandy Baggot

A Perfect Paris Christmas was the second book I won in @tangentsbb and @ariafiction‘s giveaway! What better setting for an atmospheric Christmas than the streets of Paris?

Keeley has received an offer that most people would kill for: the opportunity to spend two weeks in Paris, all expenses paid. The only thing is, it comes from the mother of the woman who donated her kidney so that Keeley could live. Still grieving from the loss of her sister, Keeley has a choice: to hide from her fears, or face them. When she meets Ethan, a handsome French hotel owner, maybe she’ll discover that facing them isn’t as scary as she anticipated…

Another brilliant Christmas romance from Mandy Baggot, and I enjoyed it just as much as the last one. At a point in time where travel feels like a distant memory, living vicariously through Keeley wandering through all the beautiful areas of Paris was exactly what I needed. Mandy Baggot describes settings so evocatively. I really felt like I was right there rummaging for gorgeous vintage finds at Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen or walking over the cobbles of Rue des Barres. With this book you get a wonderful guide to Paris as well as an enchanting story!

I loved reading from the perspectives of both Keeley and Ethan and delving into their thoughts, feelings, and pasts. Baggot is sensitive and insightful in her exploration of grief, loss and healing.

I really enjoyed this moving and original novel, and would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for their perfect Christmas read.

Book Reviews

One Christmas Star by Mandy Baggot

I was so excited to win this book (and A Perfect Paris Christmas) in @tangentsbb and @ariafiction‘s giveaway! It’s been a rough year for everyone, and this book provides the heartwarming, festive, and very timely escapism we all need.

Set in London, the novel’s heroine is schoolteacher Emily, who’s having a Christmas nightmare. Her flatmate’s moved out and she’s been charged with writing the school Christmas musical despite being no virtuoso. Meeting disgraced superstar Ray in an unlikely encounter could be the answer to all her problems with the show – and with her own heartbreak.

I loved Emily, a protagonist who is quirky, interesting, and easy to root for. It’s wonderful to see how much she cares for her pupils, who are all written with individuality and nuance. I especially enjoyed Emily’s vintage obsession (as a fellow vintage fanatic)!

Mandy Baggot also explores serious issues such as grief, loss, abuse, and alcoholism. These themes sit perfectly at the heart of the novel, giving it gravity while not displacing its lighthearted atmosphere.

The end result is a book with a perfect blend of warmth, humour, and depth.

Book Reviews

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The cover of this book is so stunning that despite the novel winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wondered if the content could live up to the exterior. Naturally, this turned out to be a completely unfounded fear. The novel is based on the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, but focuses on the playwright’s wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway). Shakespeare himself is unnamed throughout the book. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story of grief, loss, and mourning.

The world O’Farrell constructs is uniquely bewitching, entwining the earthiness of 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon with Agnes’ ethereality. The author’s immersive language recalls the era the book is set in, but avoids being dull or stodgy. Instead, it has a poetic clarity, skilfully binding the plot together and inviting the reader to follow. The plot itself is not fast-paced; the focus is on the emotions of Hamnet’s mother, his twin Judith, and even – before his death – his own.

The book jumps between two points in time. One is Agnes and Shakespeare’s meeting and marriage. The other is Hamnet’s death and its aftermath. The hope of the earlier story contrasted against the anguish of the latter is almost unbearable to read. Agnes is the antithesis to her bookish husband, her world rooted in plants, herbs, and animals. She possesses unusual insight and intuition. But Death throws red herrings in her path, evades her sixth sense, and steals her son away.

I didn’t anticipate how thoroughly this book would rip my heart out. O’Farrell dives into the pain of loss and pulls the reader under the surface with her. I would recommend Hamnet to absolutely everyone, but be warned: it is not light reading.

Book Reviews

Medici ~ Supremacy: 2 (Masters of Florence)

It’s 1469, 13 years since the end of Ascendancy (Book 1), and Lorenzo, Piero de Medici’s son, rules over Florence. At his side – for the time being – he has his lover Lucrezia and his friend Leonardo da Vinci. 

Although Lorenzo is the focus of the book, for me Leonardo da Vinci is the highlight. Despite the weapons he creates, Leonardo is a pacifist and insists that Lorenzo only use his designs for defence. Modern scholars actually believe he put flaws into his designs on purpose to prevent them being used for violence! I love his commitment to his principles, his refusal to be blinded by money or glory, and his drive to constantly innovate and go where no one has been before.

Lorenzo, on the other hand, is confined by his own destiny. His duty drains him of any idealism he once possessed, and his arranged marriage to the Roman Clarice Orsini spreads more unhappiness, leaving her lonely and neglected. The sack of Volterra is an utterly heartbreaking chapter, and shows how power can corrupt even the best of intentions. 

Laura Ricci from the previous book reprises her antagonistic role. Although Strukul sparked sympathy for her in Ascendancy, any compassion I once felt for her completely dissipates once she sexually abuses her son. 
As before, Strukul brings each character and scene to life with floods of colour and excitement. I had to keep Googling certain scenes to check if they had really happened – and they had! It’s such a wonderfully rich and fascinating time in history that I am now determined to pick up some non-fiction on it. 

I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Medici ~ Legacy, the third book of the series, which will be out in August 2021 (see my list of Top 10 Books I Can’t Wait For in 2021!) It will concentrate on Catherine de Medici – the most intriguing character of all – and promises to be an exciting dive into her life.

Book Lists

Top 10 Books I Can’t Wait For in 2021

1. Wolf Den by Elodie Harper – out 13/05/2021 Set in the Lupanar (brothel) of Pompeii, this book follows the lives of Amara and the other young women working there. It ends with the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. The media have nothing but praise for it, describing the book as ‘chilling’ and ‘unsettling.’ I imagine it will be a harrowing but intensely wonderful read. My degree was in Classics, and I wrote my dissertation on Pompeian art, so I truly can’t wait for this book! The cover is also fantastically beautiful, perfect for displaying on your bookshelves. It’s published by Head of Zeus (a fittingly Classical name for a Classics-themed novel), who have come out with some other great historical fiction titles.

2. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – out 01/06/2021 Published by Bloomsbury, The Other Black Girl is a thriller set in vibrant New York. It follows the stories of two Black women working in publishing. Attica Locke has called it ‘vividly original’ and ‘fearless.’ As a mixed race (although not Black) woman and publishing hopeful, I am DYING to read this book, and I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be. I have no doubt that it’ll be another book I finish in one sitting because I just can’t stop reading.

3. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – out 29/04/2021. Another Classics-themed historical fiction novel with a stunning cover! Published by Headline, the book is a reimagining of the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur. Apparently it’s perfect for fans of Circe and The Song of Achilles (so it’s perfect for everyone, including those who are fans but just don’t know it yet). I saw a painting of Ariadne in The House of the Vettii in Pompeii and was struck at how powerless she seemed: naked, vulnerable, abandoned – a victim of the male gaze. This novel promises to give her a voice and tell her story. I can’t wait to hear it.

4. You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes – out 01/04/2021 Series 3 of You on Netflix may be highly anticipated, but so is the third installment in Caroline Kepnes You series, published by Simon & Schuster. Joe’s done with Love, but he isn’t done with obsession. His new one is Mary Kay DiMarco, a librarian. The first two books You and Hidden Bodies were seat-grippingly brilliant, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Joe and his specific brand of crazy do next.

5. Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans – out 11/03/2021 Black Girl, Call Home is a poetry collection ‘about race, feminism, and queer identity.’ The poems, published by Penguin, explore the experiences of a queer Black American woman. It sounds absolutely fantastic and I am so looking forward to reading and reviewing it. Jericho Brown has said of it, ‘You are carrying in your hands a Black woman’s heart.’ If that isn’t a stunning recommendation, I don’t know what is.

6. Medici ~ Legacy (Masters of Florence Book 3) by Matteo Strukul – out 05/08/2021. The third and book of Matteo Strukul’s I Medici series will be out in August, published again by Head of Zeus, and I can’t wait (see my review for Book 1: Ascendancy and Book 2: Supremacy). This one is set in 1536, and revolves around the infamous Catherine de Medici. The royal court believe she has poisoned the recently deceased dauphin of France and her husband Henry is now poised to take the French throne – with Catherine alongside him. Catherine de Medici is such a fascinating character and I adored C.W. Gortner’s The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. If Matteo Strukul’s past books are anything to go by, I know the writing will be just as exciting as the subject.

7. Wild Women and The Blues by Denny S. Bryce – out 30/03/2021. Split between 1925 and 2015, this novel published by Kensington Publishing tells the story of Honoree Dalcour. Now a 110-year-old in 2015, in 1925 she was a young woman working at the Dreamland Cafe in Chicago, the jazz capital of the world. Sawyer Hayes is at her bedside. She’s the only living link to Oscar Micheaux. With her help, he’s trying to piece together the holes in his thesis. And with his help, she will be seen and her story will be told.

8. People Person by Candice Carty-Williams – out 02/09/2021 Candice Carty-Williams absolutely smashed it with her 2019 debut novel Queenie (click here to see my review) and I know that anything she writes next is going to be more than worth reading. There have been no hints about the plot at all yet – Orion are certainly keeping us on tenterhooks!

9. Millennial Love by Olivia Petter – out 08/07/2021 What does love mean in the millennial age? Journalist and Millennial Love podcast host Olivia Petter explores this in her novel, looking at the #MeToo movement, at the phenomenon of ghosting, and stalking your ex on social media. She looks at what is at the base of these issues, and explores what all of our 21st-century hyper-connected madness means for the future of love. Published by HarperCollins, this book isn’t out until July 2021, but I’m sure it’ll be pounced on by floods of people once it’s out.

10. Flowers of Darkness by Tatiana De Rosnay – out 23/02/2021 Set in Paris, Flowers of Darkness is about a writer who’s recently been betrayed by her husband. She’s working on (and struggling with) her next book. She feels like she’s being watched. Is she just paranoid or is there something to it? With her granddaughter’s help, she finds out. This book is published by St. Martin’s Press and sports a rather haunting cover. I can tell the story will be similarly haunting – exactly what I’ll need to liven up a dull February!

Book Reviews

The Other You by J.S. Monroe

I read this book in one sitting. That’s how good it was. A true thriller, it kept me reading on and on, desperate to discover what happened next. The book is about Kate, an artist and super-recogniser for the police. Six months ago, she had a car accident that took away her ability to recognise faces. While recovering from the crash at the hospital, she met Rob, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who was organising a charity art exhibition at the hospital. A few short months later, things have gotten serious and she’s already convalescing at his house in Cornwall. One day, he confides his greatest fear to her: his doppelgänger. He’s already met him once. The day he sees him again, says Rob, will be his last.

The next morning, something about Rob seems different. Are Kate’s super-recogniser powers coming back? Could Rob have indeed been replaced by his double? Or is she sinking into a vortex of paranoia? And was her car accident really an accident?

We aren’t just limited to Kate’s perspective and also get to hear from Jake, Kate’s writer ex, and Silas, her ex-boss policeman. Also prominent in the book is Bex, Kate’s ebullient Northern best friend.

This book takes you on a dizzying journey of tightly constructed plot twists, and delves deeply into the question of how well we really know anyone we love. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a read they will be completely unable to put down.

Book Reviews

Medici ~ Ascendancy: 1 (Masters of Florence)

You would be hard-pressed to find a more exciting time in history than the many years the Medici were in power. Matteo Strukul’s fast-paced novel matches the urgency of the times, keeping the reader feverishly page-turning. I actually missed my stop at the train station reading it!

The book opens with the death of Giovanni de Medici in 1429. His sons Cosimo and Lorenzo must now step up and carry the Medici through the violence, plotting, and desperate struggle for power the family endures, set against the stunning city of Florence.

Florence is a major character in the book, its presence threaded beautifully through the pages by Strukul. I was lucky enough to spend a month there two years ago, and the city made an impression on me like no other. Enhanced by Strukul’s atmospheric descriptions, vivid in my mind were images of Brunelleschi’s Dome rising like the moon from cobbled streets, and the imposing Palazzo della Signoria. It was wonderful to read about the seemingly impossible construction of the Dome, and indeed to encounter the tunnel-visioned Brunelleschi himself.

I enjoyed the variety of perspectives the book brings us. Although it’s focused on Cosimo, we also get to see inside into the thoughts of Laura Ricci, Reinhardt Schwartz, and Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo. Laura was a character who especially touched me. Although she is an enemy of the Medici, her villainy is nuanced. With a heartbreaking backstory, Laura hardens her heart and turns the few advantages she’s been given in life to her favour. Strukul injects such pathos into her and Schwartz’s story that we are compelled to sympathise with them.

Perhaps the most heartwarming bond between characters is the one between Cosimo and Lorenzo. Utterly and unquestionably loyal, they stick together through everything; and everything, they endure together.

I absolutely loved this book. It is translated by Richard McKenna, and reads wonderfully. I hope that one day when my Italian skills have progressed far enough, I may read it in its original language.

Book Reviews

New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker

I picked this compact book up right after seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate in October, and read it on the train home. It was a perfect digestif following the exhibition, adding even more colour and context to what I’d just seen. I’ve never been to New York and I wasn’t alive in the 1970s, but reading this somehow made me nostalgic for both the city and the decade.

Acker’s prose is both dreamlike and visceral, interlaced with black-and-white photographs scattered through the book. I felt like I was peering into 1979 New York City through a slightly smudged camera lens. The first page opens with: ‘SEXUAL DESIRE IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD’. It’s an attention-grabbing start, followed by a wonderfully candid first chapter ‘The Whores In Jail At Night.’ The chapter is dialogue alone, eavesdropping on the sex workers’ incredibly blunt conversation. Later on there is a detailed description of an old woman’s vagina: ‘Old women just cause they’re old and no man’ll fuck them don’t stop wanting sex.’

More than simply a passive gaze at New York’s underground, the book is political too. New York City is a pithole, says Acker. The United States government rains down anti-rent control laws and refuses the city Federal funds. A far cry from today, it describes an NYC abandoned by the rich and inhabited by those with a lower income. The only constant is the artists, who were there then and are there now.

I enjoyed this book massively. I’ve seen some criticism of its short length, and disappointment that it isn’t a meatier dive into 1979 NYC. Although I would have happily read many pages more, I think the length is perfect considering its style. The book is a snapshot, full of frozen in time dialogue and streams of consciousness. It gives you an unvarnished glimpse of the city and entices you to find out more.

Book Reviews

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other spans over a hundred years, following the stories of twelve interlinked Black British women. For most people, this would be an impossible feat ending in a collapsed and hopelessly messy structure, but Bernardine Evaristo isn’t most people. She spins each story from the finest threads and deftly weaves them together.

A Booker Prize winner (2019), this book has deservedly had a lot of hype. There are countless reviews of it out there, but I absolutely had to add my own because this book: wow.

With its fragmented sentence structure and lack of capital letters and full stops, the book is almost like poetry. Adopting such a writing style along with the complex plot is a risky choice, but Evaristo more than pulls it off. My thought pattern quickly started to echo the style of the book, and that’s when you know a book’s got under your skin.

I was captured by the glimpses into each character’s story. Every time a character’s section ended and we moved onto the next one, I’d wish their particular story could have carried on for the rest of the book. That is, until I’d swiftly become grasped by the next character and their life.

Evaristo covers an impressive range of themes. Race, gender, friendships, and relationships are at the forefront, set against a background of today’s Britain seen from twelve very different perspectives. While we may only visit each character for a short time, each theme is explored in great depth and with such variety that you could almost imagine each character was written by a different author.

This book is important. It is a total must-read and I’m jealous of anyone who still has yet to read it for the first time!

Book Reviews

Scottish Fairy Tales retold by Philip Wilson

Rediscovering books I loved as a child is such a wonderful feeling. Fairy tales are a staple of everyone’s childhood. There are always beautiful princesses, jealous stepmothers and a heady dose of magic, but every culture gives such a unique twist to them.

This book of Scottish Fairy Tales doesn’t shy away from darkness, including a fair share of poisoning and murder. But the stories are heartwarming too, particularly the ones where siblings defy being pitted against each other and are instead supportive and loving.

Every single tale is enchanting. The illustrations are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and drape the words in a bewitchingly magical atmosphere. I enjoyed it now as much as I did when I was a child – this has definitely inspired me to pick up some more forgotten childhood books!

Book Reviews

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

I’m so excited to review this book because I love love loved it!

The book follows Queenie, a 25-year-old journalist, around her life in London where she struggles with mental health, racial, sexual, romantic, and friendship issues. Sound like a lot? It is, but one of the best things about this book is that it’s not afraid to explore very real problems that many people go through.

Some people have criticised Queenie’s decisions and found the book hard to get on with because of that. Certainly, it can be difficult watching a character you’ve become attached to act self-destructively, but don’t we all sometimes? Having made many a self-destructive choice in my life, I enjoyed going through Queenie’s journey and emerging on the other side with her. A book where a character acts perfectly holds far less interest than one where they are flawed, but trying.

I found Queenie’s experience with therapy especially moving. Therapy can be a very harrowing thing to go through, and Carty-Williams articulates it so eloquently. This book manages to expertly explore so many different themes, one of the most significant being what it’s like to be a Black British woman living in London. There’s a scene that many POC will find all too familiar: Queenie’s boyfriend’s family member says a racial slur, and everyone acts like Queenie is unreasonable for being offended. Carty-Williams is excellent at subtly yet powerfully putting to paper Queenie’s experience as a Black woman.

In a time where a record number of young people struggle with mental health issues and POC are only starting to really be heard, this book is essential. It tells us that we are not alone and we’re not the only ones going through it all.

I’m now joining about a billion other people (including the British Book Awards) in saying: if you haven’t read this book already, READ IT!

Also – especial shout-out to Kyazike, best character in the book!

Book Reviews

Cat Poems by Various Writers

Cats and poetry, the perfect combination!

I love poetry books because you can pick them up anytime and have a whole reading experience compacted into a minute. I like having them scattered around the house so I can pick up a poem while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, or the microwave to beep, or any excuse whatsoever!

This book has the cutest cover, and is a lovely little collection of poems about cats by a bunch of incredible poets. Personal highlights include The Cat and the Moon by W.B Yeats, Frail Manuscripts by Ryszard Kyrnicki, Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, The Cat as Cat by Denise Levertov, and – of course – The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear.

This would make a great Christmas gift for any cat lovers in your life!

Book Reviews

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

You’d think a biography would pale in comparison to a flesh-and-blood diary with first-hand descriptions of The Great Fire of 1666 and The Great Plague of 1665. Not in this case! Far from being a dry mirror to the diaries, Claire Tomalin’s biography reads almost like a novel, her prose as lively and absorbing as Pepys’ own.

Samuel Pepys is searingly honest and self-aware in his diaries. He impressively avoids the temptation of presenting himself in a favourable light, instead preferring to state events how they happened – even if he ends up coming across badly.

The chapters in this biography are split thematically rather than chronologically, allowing Tomalin to dive deep into Pepys’ mind and experiences without disruption. This structure ensures depth, but doesn’t stop the book from feeling exciting and fast-paced. Tomalin’s analysis seeps into the gaps of Pepys’ diaries and fleshes them out beyond their limited time frame.

Reading this biography was so transporting it often made me feel like a rather voyeuristic fly on Pepys’ wall – although I wasn’t sorry to return to the 21st century after reading of the anaesthetic-less surgery he endured to remove a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball!

I didn’t know much about Pepys before reading this book, and assumed it might be a slow read. Instead, I raced through it like a beach read – it’s utterly gripping and you won’t regret adding it to your bookshelf one bit.

Book Reviews

The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

I am deeply obsessed with Tudor history. Historical fiction, non-fiction, art – absolutely anything Tudor-related. I first read Wolf Hall after it won the Booker Prize in 2009. Even at a young age, I was immediately drawn into Hilary Mantel’s skilful portrayal of Cromwell and the Tudor court. I continued to be enthralled by it throughout her followings books, Bring Up the Bodies, and (finally!) The Mirror and the Light.

This series truly has everything. Compelling characters, sharp, witty prose, and a gripping, high-stakes setting. The Tudor period has undeniably been done to death in all forms of historical fiction, but Hilary Mantel breathed new life into it with her unique take on the previously much-maligned Cromwell.

Once I’d managed to extricate myself from the whirlpool of ‘he saids,’ and ascertain that ‘he’ ALWAYS refers to Cromwell, I couldn’t get enough of Hilary Mantel’s sharp, dialogue-dominant prose. She avoids being laden down by old-style phrasing, resulting in a reading experience that is as urgent and exciting as Cromwell’s own life.

Mantel transforms Cromwell from a figure once seen as unglamorously unpleasant to one who is not only human, but dryly humorous and intelligent. This is a huge asset as we navigate the Tudor court through Cromwell’s observant and somewhat sardonic eyes. Like him, we enter it as outsiders, but by the end of the book – like him – it is impossible for us not to have become thoroughly embroiled in it.

Cromwell’s ending may be common knowledge, but Mantel still managed to maintain both her readers’ and the critics’ enthusiasm for his story over a period of 11 years. I actually got chills when I saw the billboard in Leicester Square with the Tudor Rose and the words ‘So now get up.’ I was so excited to get my hands on The Mirror and the Light after 8 years of waiting!

I was lucky enough to see the Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies stage adaptation by the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre in London. It would be wonderful if they released recordings, or even did another for The Mirror and the Light post-pandemic.

The BBC series with Mark Rylance and Claire Foy was also brilliant. To those who haven’t seen it yet, this is a great time to do it – especially if you’re looking for another excellent historical series to binge after Bridgerton or The Crown.

I couldn’t recommend this trilogy enough to those who haven’t yet picked it up, but if the first two books taking the Booker Prize isn’t convincing enough, I’m not sure what is!