The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

London, 1922. The city is trying to rebuild itself after the war – not just in terms of the buildings but also its people: those who have been to war and returned injured and scarred – physically and mentally; those who made decisions that otherwise would have been considered rash; those who now find themselves in financial difficulties.

Frances Wray, 26, and her mother live in Champion Hill. Following the death of Frances’ father and her brother during the war, they fall into the latter of the categories listed above. In order to try and prevent them losing their family home, they decide to take some lodgers. As the novel begins, they are waiting for Mr and Mrs Barber to arrive. When they do, Frances helps with unloading the van:

Over his shoulder Frances caught a glimpse of what was inside it: a mess of bursting suitcases, a tangle of chair and table legs, bundle after bundle of bedding and rugs, a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marble stand…The thought that all these items were about to be brought into her home – and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders.

The couple are part of the ‘clerk class’, he works for an insurance company, she, of course, stays at home and decorates their rooms with exotic ornaments and paraphernalia.

At first, Frances seems to see Mr Barber more often – when he is smoking in the back garden, or on his way to or from it. She fears he is teasing her when he speaks to her and quite often his words seem to contain an innuendo. For his part, he seems to have Frances pigeonholed as a stereotypical spinster.

Frances, however, we learn by increments, is a passionate woman – I use the word in both its senses. She was part of the suffrage movement, which was how she met her friend Christina, whom she visits regularly throughout the novel, and also how she came to be arrested. She’s also passionate about the upkeep of her and her mother’s house, which she has taken on since the servants had to be dismissed when they could no longer afford them. She has no qualms about cleaning, even though her mother despairs, and rejects her mother’s call to get Mr Barber when a mouse is found, catching and disposing of it herself.

Eventually, helped by a visit from Mrs Barber’s mother, sisters and nieces and nephews, Frances and Mrs Barber – Lillian – begin a friendship. It is a friendship that will transform both of them in unexpected ways.

‘…”Forgive me, Mrs Barber. I don’t mean to be mysterious. I don’t mean to be maudlin, either. All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that this life, the life I have now, it isn’t – “ It isn’t the life I was meant to have. It isn’t the life I want! “It isn’t the life I thought I would have,’ she finished.

The Paying Guests considers ideas of class, money, passion, marriage, the aftermath of war, morality and justice. Many of these themes are, of course, significant today and Waters’ treatment of morality and justice, in particular, is challenging and thought-provoking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I suspect partly because I knew so little about it and I’ve tried to avoid saying too much about the plot here for that reason. It also contains some of Waters’ trademark twists – and they’re delicious!

Waters’ writing is clear and concise. Her style is fluent and so easy to read; I think sometimes the work that goes into creating something so consistently readable is underestimated. Here the writing allows you to become absorbed in Frances’ world, in London in 1922 and not once are you jolted out of it.

The Paying Guests is vintage Waters and spending a few hours in her carefully crafted world will not disappoint.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Helen have also reviewed this. Click on their names for their thoughts.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The year before this blog was created, Kerry Hudson’s debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was one of my favourite novels of the year. Not only does it have one of the greatest (and very sweary) opening lines ever, it’s also a book about working class lives written by someone who really understands them, who can convey the brutality that some people face on a daily basis. So much so, that I recall having a conversation with David from Follow the Thread about how I found it ‘unrelentingly grim’. That wasn’t a criticism, it was recognition that Hudson had reflected back at me the lives of many students I’d taught without glossing over the relentless drudgery – and sometimes horror – of being poor and, particularly in this case, female. The only writers I’d seen do what Hudson can are Roddy Doyle and James Kelman (the latter being on my list of my favourite/best contemporary writers).

Although I included Thirst on my list of Ones to Read in 2014 without having had sight of the book at that stage, it would be fair to say I approached it with trepidation. What if it wasn’t as good as Tony Hogan?

Thirst is the story of Dave and Alena. They meet when she attempts to steal shoes from the Bond Street shop at which he is a security guard. As they sit in the stockroom and he tries to question her, as she devours the corned beef sandwich he’d been looking forward to, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be quite so straight forward:

The rise and fall of her accent put him in mind of seagulls swooping for scraps. His stomach knotted up. Just his luck to get indigestion from the sandwich she had eaten.        
‘I am apologising to you. Please. I say I feel sorry. I make mistake. I am new and it is easy to be confusing.

A few days later, Alena appears on the street outside the shop and asks him to have a drink with her. After a visit to the National Gallery and tea and cake, she asks him if he knows a good hotel room. Through a combination of being attracted to her and wanting to protect her, Dave offers her the bed in his one-bed, Hackney based, flat while he takes the sofa. After telling her she can stay as long as she likes and her checking that there is ‘no trading’, it starts to become apparent that Alena has been having a bad time:

She changed into her nightie, and imagined his belt buckle falling to the floor, him turning his bulk on the old brown sofa, unable to sleep for thinking about her in the next room. After some time had passed and she knew he wouldn’t come, she stretched out, pushed her head into the soft lump of the pillow that smelt a little of him. The sheets were a little grainy, but not enough to spoil the fact that she was in an actual bed, a double too. She stretched her legs wide, arched her back, let the mattress mould to her body and slipped into a thick, black sleep that lay itself down upon her and pressed her flat.

The story of Dave and Alena’s relationship – for that is what it becomes – is interwoven with the stories of their respective pasts.

Dave grew up on a south London estate with his mum. We’re taken back to when he was twenty-two, working at the local Co-op, running because it made him feel good, and plotting and saving to get away – to see the world. In one of my favourite pieces in the book, Hudson describes Dave running around the Roehampton Estate. It’s her eye for detail and swift glances into others’ lives that make this such an effective set piece:

He ran down from his block towards the bus stop, past the Co-op where he’d do his shift later that night, the Greggs with the fatty smell of hot sausage rolls pulling at his belly, towards the burnt-out GTI and the group of kids with rocks in their hands, stomach flab hanging over the waists of their trackie bottoms. They were eleven maybe, should have been in that well-meaning, always empty ‘Connections’ centre playing on new computers and drinking free fizzy drinks, if it wasn’t so uncool to be seen there. He’s known them since they were toddlers, all filthy faces and bare arses. They could have been him and his mates ten years ago, a pack of estate kids who’d end up fighting each other if no one else came along.

Alena’s story is also one of poverty, of leaving Siberia for London on the promise of work from her mother’s friend, a woman with a Chanel handbag, bright lipstick, a diamond ring and a gold bracelet. A friend who disappeared the moment Alena was on the plane, ready to be collected by another sex-worker.

Both of their individual stories are brutal and yes, unrelentingly grim, but Hudson offers them – and the reader – hope through the relationship that they form. However, this isn’t an easy coupling and there were moments where they were physically near to each other but emotionally so far away that I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, so desperate was I for the two of them to find their way to each other and some form of safety.

Thirst is a triumph. Hudson writes about poverty, about sexual abuse, about death, about alcoholism, about toxic relationships in prose that both reflects reality and – when appropriate – soars. It is a novel that will leave you broken and bruised but with a little kernel of hope.

Thirst will make my Books of 2014 list and Kerry Hudson’s earned herself a place alongside James Kelman as one of my favourite writers and one of our most important voices.


Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

A Song for Issy Bradley is the story of a family’s grief following the death of their youngest member. The family consists of mum Claire, dad Ian, teenagers Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob and four-year-old Issy.

It’s Jacob’s birthday. As Claire makes him pancakes, the ‘phone rings and Ian is summoned to help Sister Anderson, a request that he feels unable to refuse being bishop of the local Mormon church. This leaves Claire to deal with organising Jacob’s birthday party, a party she’d said could only take place if Ian helped. She calls upon Zippy to get Issy ready while she shops and then Alma to check on her while the party takes place. However it is clear from the first time we met Issy that she is very unwell:

Issy wakes up with achy arms. When she opens her eyes, they are full of lightning icicles. She tries to get out of bed and discovers that there isn’t much breath in her tummy. She wonders if part of her has popped in the night, like a balloon.

By the time Claire realises just how ill Issy is (she has meningitis), she knows she’s going to die.

Each member of the family reacts differently to Issy’s death. Claire’s feelings are introduced before the key event of the book takes place with the prologue ‘Footprints in the Sand’. In it, Claire dreams about walking on the beach with the Lord:

They walk until He stops and presses a gentle hand to her arm.
‘Please come back. I love you.’

Immediately we are aware that Claire is questioning her faith – the title of the prologue refers to the well known poem about there being one set of footprints in the sand because the Lord carried the believer when times were most trying – she does not feel that she has been supported when she needed it most.

The Lord here could be a metaphor for Claire’s husband, Ian. Ian was born into a Mormon family; Claire, however, converted when her relationship with Ian became serious and it’s clear that she sometimes struggles with the teachings of the church, both in terms of the way Ian deals with Issy’s death and with regards to their eldest daughter, Zippy. It is Al, though, that sums Ian up perfectly (if a little harshly):

He’s one of the only people Al knows who is the same in real life as he is at church. It’s as if Dad lives in the overlapping bit of one of those Venn diagrams, straddling both worlds. Other people adapt, they step from circle A to circle B, they act normal in real life and accessorise their Sunday clothes with holy words and best manners, but Dad is unchanging. He exists in a perfect egg of divine assurance.

Zippy’s character serves to illustrate one of the problems with this – the way woman are expected to behave in the eyes of the church. Zippy is of the age where she is being instructed on becoming a wife and mother. She’s expected to wear clothes that don’t show any unnecessary flesh in order for her never to be what Sister Campbell calls:

walking pornography. I’m sure none of you want to be responsible for putting bad thoughts into men’s heads. Please think about the men.

Zippy’s thinking about the men, alright. At home she often has her head in a Jane Austen novel and at church and school, her eyes are on Adam Carmichael, son of President Carmichael. This allows Bray to highlight the differences in the expectations placed on the boys without loudly signposting her intentions and taking the reader away from the story. (Although in one wonderful scene, Claire demonstrates the hypocrisy of their teachings with a piece of chewing gum. It’s worth buying the book for those few pages alone.)

The other children are also given their own storylines and distinctive personalities. Alma constantly questions his father’s teachings in that typical cheeky teenage boy fashion. He’s angry at Ian for stopping him playing football once he began to consider it as a career option. Jacob just wants his sister back and, following the teachings about miracles, attempts to bring about one of his own.

Bray gives each character their own voice within a third person subjective narrative. It is clear from the vocabulary and sentence structures whose point of view we’re seeing things from and it’s Bray’s choices here that really bring these people to life. The children, in particular, are so well rendered; Zippy and Alma could be children I’ve taught and Jacob’s so adorable I spent the entire novel wanting to pick him up and hug him.

The book’s cleverly structured to move – seemingly effortlessly – between the characters; the decision to place Issy’s short paragraphs at the end of each of the first few chapters is a brilliant way to show us that she’s an afterthought, literally hanging on for dear life. It’s testament to Bray’s talent that I found myself sobbing when Issy died, although she’s only present in the narrative for such short periods of time.

But my favourite thing about the book is how Bray uses humour in a way that lifts what could’ve been such a bleak book without trivialising Issy’s death. There’s a fantastic scene – both heartbreaking and hilarious – that involves a bird, which I shall leave you to discover yourself but I’ll give you a taste with this from Issy’s funeral:

[Jacob] wanted to say he was fine, he wanted to tell her to go away, but his bottom lip began to wobble and it wouldn’t stop, even when he bit it quite hard. Sister Anderson helped him to his feet. She folded her arms around him and pulled him into her squashy tummy. Her dress was dark and velvety. His tears soaked into its softness as she patted his head gently and said, ‘It’s such a shame.’

When he had finished crying he stepped away from her and a rope of snot stretched from his nose to the front of her dress, like a bridge.

I had the privilege of first reading A Song for Issy Bradley back in October. I tell you this not to sound like an arse but so I can justify my use of a reviewer’s cliché, the one about characters staying with you; right up until very recently I’ve been discussing this book with people, talking about events and even lines that I could recall, without effort, months after reading. Cary’s Bray is a very talented writer indeed and A Song for Issy Bradley deserves to be an enormous success.


I’ve been desperate to get my friends to read this book for months, now they can and one of you lucky people can too. The lovely publicity team at Hutchinson books sent me a hardback copy of A Song for Issy Bradley that you can win by leaving a comment below. As always, I’m happy to accept worldwide entries. Competition closes at 12pm UK time, Sunday 22nd June. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

Edit: Thanks for all your entries into the giveaway. As usual, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – outonthefringes
2 – Jacqui
3 – Rebecca Foster
4 – Sam
5 – My Book Strings
6 – Claire Fuller
7 – Claire Stokes
8 – Rhonda
9 – JJT
10 – Anne Coates
11 – Ann Bradley
12 – Cath Martin
13 – Ametista
14 – Peter Raynard
15 – Claire ‘Word by Word’
16 – Samantha Bates
17 – Debra Brown
18 – Julie Williams
19 – theabhishekkr

And the random generator says:

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 12.19.05

Congratulations Anne, there’s an email on its way to you. Hope you enjoy the book.

Thanks to everyone for entering.

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review and giveaway copies. 

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Animals is the story of Laura and Tyler. Laura’s 32, works in a call centre, is an aspiring writer and is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. Tyler, 29, works in a coffee shop. Both of them like…well, read the opening of the novel and you’ll get the picture:

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

We’d been out. Holy fuck, had we been out. A montage of images spooled through the brainfug. Fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools…

They like a good time and their good times involve booze, drugs and often (although more on Tyler’s part than Laura’s) sex. Much of the novel is based around Laura and Tyler’s escapades, which are absolutely hilarious; I could quote more, there’s a funny line or incident on practically every page and I cried laughing twice, but part of the joy of reading the novel is coming to those lines fresh.

However, Laura and Tyler’s nights out become something of a problem with Jim who’s given up drinking. Physically absent for large periods of the book because he’s on tour, there are numerous occasions when Laura’s supposed to meet Jim – most often at his place but once in Stockholm – where she promises herself she’ll leave early/not take any drugs/only have a few. Yeah, right. And it’s this tension between the three of them that drives the narrative forward.

But to suggest that’s all the book’s about would be to leave the core of it unacknowledged, a core that considers and makes astute comments about friendship, relationships and those choices that plague women in particular (ugh, society) in their late 20s/early 30s.

Laura and Jim are supposed to be planning their wedding but this creates tension with Tyler who feels that Laura’s deserting their friendship:

‘I’m not ruining your life! There’s more to life than me! And I’m marrying Jim because I love him, I do, and this feels like…’ I couldn’t say ‘adventure’. ‘…progress.’

She smacked her forehead with her hand. ‘Progress?’ What about our hard-earned system? Have you forgotten about that? Isn’t marriage just another example of everything we’ve always fought against, as in the shit people do because they think they should rather than because they want to?’

And then there’s Tyler’s opinion on her younger, wilder than all of them, sister having a baby:

‘You know what the “Baby Club” is? The Baby Club is one of those godawful discos in Leicester Square: starkly lit, tacky and full of tourists. The décor is dated and you can’t get a decent drink, and every time someone walks through the door everyone who’s in there smiles manically with this huge relief because they’re just so glad someone else walked into their shitty club after they paid twenty quid and can’t leave.’

And then there’s Laura’s take on the love we feel for our friends and lovers (repeated several times throughout the book with regards to different people):

I loved her. I did. Sometimes.

The writing in Animals fizzes; it’s fiery, sharp and perceptive. When I wasn’t laughing raucously, I was nodding in agreement. It’s the bastard lovechild of Withnail and I, Bridesmaids and Girls; it’s the novel that covers all the things I was thinking and feeling in my early 30s; it’s the novel that should firmly establish Emma Jane Unsworth as a shining star of British contemporary literature.


Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

Fallout – Sadie Jones

Fallout tells the story of a group of characters involved in the London theatre scene in the 1970s. It centres around two people, Luke Kanowski and Nina Hollings.

Luke is from a working-class immigrant background. He lives with his father, Tomasz. His mother has been in the insane asylum in his home town of Seston, Nottinghamshire for most of Luke’s life. While his sixth-form classmates go into town, Luke visits her.

The headmaster had said, Some of you boys will be invited to stay on for the Oxbridge term…

Luke knew that he was one of them. That despite his poverty, his questionable background, foreign parentage and suspected Judaism; despite his excess energy and chaotic attention, his faculty had been greedily noted.

But no one visits Luke’s mother bar him and when the choice has to be made, he finds he can’t leave. He goes to work at the paper mill instead. However, a chance meeting with Leigh Radley and Paul Driscoll, who introduces himself as a theatre producer makes Luke evaluate his life:

The silent town lay stagnant around him and Luke Kanowski realised that his life was harming him.

Luke leaves for London with dreams of becoming a playwright.

Nina’s brought up by her aunt, while her mother attempts to make it as an actress. Early in the novel, Marianne decides to claim Nina again and lures her from her aunt’s with talk of Paris. Paris doesn’t happen. Marianne gets a part in a play in London and mother and daughter stay living in Marianne’s dingy London flat. Nina attends LAMDA and begins to make her way as an actress. However, she soon learns that it’s often more about whom you’re sleeping with than how talented you are.

Initially, the story moves between Luke’s story and circle of friends and Nina’s life, which is more isolated than Luke’s whilst appearing to be wonderful and glamorous. Eventually the two tales become intertwined on personal and professional levels.

The narrative drive of Fallout comes from three areas of tension: class – can the likes of Luke make it in Nina’s world? Work – are any of them built to survive in the theatrical world? Relationships – can friendships survive love affairs?

The novel’s an engaging piece of work. Although there are themes Jones has explored in her previous novels – class, relationships, mental illness, women – the novel’s larger in scope and setting and this results in the characters feeling like more fully rounded human beings.

I think Fallout will divide people; I suspect there are fans of The Outcast and Small Wars, in particular, who will find this sprawling and less concentrated in terms of themes and settings. Personally, I think this is a mature, thoughtful novel and Jones’ best work yet.


Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brøvig

In three years, she would finish school. She would not have to stay in this town forever.

In the mid-1970s, Else Dybdahl is a teenager in a small Norwegian costal town. It’s the sort of town that could be found in many countries, one where everyone knows everyone’s business and the local pastor rules over the town preaching fire and brimstone:

He cleared his throat. ‘Picture yourself dead,’ he said, ‘while the family who mourns you knows that you are damned to hell. Picture your husband or wife, your children, your parents, each weeping by your coffin for your forsaken soul. Some of you know that the path you have chosen is bound to lead you here at the end of your days. Others will look to your neighbours and deem yourselves absolved. But we are all of us sinners.’

The book is set just prior to the oil boom that made Norway rich. Else’s family are poor – her father is a fisherman too keen on homebrew – but this doesn’t prevent her from sneaking out of the house to meet Lars Reierson, son of the richest man in the town.

Lars lifted his hands to her shoulders and pulled her close. While greasy mists from the mobile kitchen settled over them like clingfilm, Else blinked at his grin. His lips gathered in a pucker before gluing shut her mouth. Hard, soft. Wet, rough. Her stomach seethed; bubbles danced along her throat. Between her ears. She was all fizz. It felt like laughing.


Two significant events happen in the book to change things for Else.  The first is the arrival of Circus Leona, an event which seems to disturb the whole town; some are thrilled and excited, others disbelieving that one of their number could rent their land to such an organisation. However, when the circus arrives, it seems to be one man who makes the biggest (forgive the pun) impression:

Valentin Popov’s gaze swept the crowd and a rising chant from the stalls brought a smile to his lips.

He turned to the animal. Laying his palms on its underbelly, he jacked his thighs. A cry tore from his throat. He closed his eyes and a vein snaked down his forehead. As he lifted the horse towards the ceiling of the Big Top, a network of blood vessels sprang to the surface of his skin.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said Lars under his breath. The strong man’s arms were swollen with mottled lumps of muscles when he opened his eyes and beamed at his supporters. They howled and clapped and stamped their feet while, above him, the horse tossed its mane in the air.

The second event occurs thirty years later and is Lars’ return to the town along with his wife and children. In a narrative strand which runs alongside the events of the 1970s, we see Else’s life now, one in which she runs her own massage therapy business, while taking care of her thirty-year-old daughter, Marianne and her eleven-year-old granddaughter, Liv. The arrival of Lars forces Else to confront the events of the earlier time, attempting to prevent the exposure of long kept secrets.

The Last Boat Home is a novel about relationships, those between mothers and daughters, between lovers, between townspeople, between residents and incomers. In crisp prose which conjures the haunting atmosphere of a insular town on a cold coast, Brøvig explores what it’s like to have to survive – mentally and physically – in a place you wish to escape. It feels inappropriate to say I loved this novel because parts of it are so brutal but it stands up to re-reading and I think that’s due to the sense of place it evokes and the vividness of its key events. I look forward to reading Dea Brøvig’s next work.


Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed – me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen years since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known.

Our narrator, Rosemary Cooke begins her story in the middle, when she is a 22-year-old student at the University of California. She’s changed from a child who talked all the time to someone who’s quiet, observant and thoughtful.

Before we’re told much about her family though, we’re shown Rosemary’s first meeting with Harlow Fielding, ‘psycho bitch’ and drama student. They meet in the university canteen where Harlow is having a – most probably staged (on her part at least) – argument with her boyfriend, Reg, involving a fair bit of swearing and plate smashing. All Harlow’s. When a campus policeman arrives to deal with the situation, he mistakes Rosemary for the culprit which antagonises her. Once she’s also dropped a plate and smashed a glass, she finds herself in the back of a police car and then a jail cell with Harlow.

The incident with Harlow serves two purposes; firstly, a telephone call from the police to her parents sends Rosemary back to them for Thanksgiving. It shows us the fractious relationship she has with them and also allows her mother to offer Rosemary the journals she kept when she and her brother and sister were young. Secondly, Harlow becomes a friend – of sorts – to Rosemary and, as with any new friendship, hopes, ideas and stories are shared.

So I told Harlow about a summer when I was little, the summer we moved from the farmhouse. It’s a story I’ve often told, my go-to story when I’m being asked about my family. It’s meant to look intimate, meant to look like me opening up and digging deep…

It starts in the middle, with me being shipped off to my Grandpa Joe and Grandma Fredericka’s. There was no warning of this and I couldn’t now remember what my parents had told me as to why – whatever it was, I wasn’t buying. I knew the winds of doom when they blew. I believed I’d done something so bad, I’d been given away.

The time spent at her grandparent’s house is the crux of Rosemary’s story. It’s an idea that Fowler repeatedly returns to as Rosemary tells us about her sister’s disappearance.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at the way families, and particularly siblings, interact. It considers what it means to be human, the way we act on ‘beliefs in conflict with reality’ and how we ignore the misery in the world unless we’re forced to look at it. It’s a difficult book to review because the less you know about the main storyline before you begin reading, the deeper the impact of the tale Fowler tells and the more enjoyable the reading experience.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a book that tells a deeply affecting story through sentences which are both beautifully constructed and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it so much that when I sat down to write this review, I re-read the first few pages and wanted to continue on and read the whole book again. It is one to savour and discuss – and oh, will you want to discuss it. I look forward to hearing what you all think about it.

The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

‘…families are different shapes now, right? It doesn’t have to be two point four anymore.’

Jessica Thomas is a cleaner and a barmaid. She’s good at practical things – grouting, picture-hanging – and budgeting, because she has to be. She’s got two kids, Tanzie who’s gifted at maths and Nicky, her eyeliner-wearing, sullen, continually being beaten by nasty intolerant kids stepson. Marty, their father upped and left over a year ago, telling Jess he needed time to sort himself out. This is the thing that upsets Jess the most:

There were lots of awful things about the father of your children leaving: the money issues, the suppressed anger on behalf of your children, the way most of your coupled-up friends now treated you as if you were some kind of potential husband-stealer. But worse than that, worse than the endless, relentless, bloody exhausting financial and energy sapping struggle, was that being a parent on your own when you were totally out of your depth was actually the loneliest place on earth.

At the beginning of the novel, Jess receives a phone call about Tanzie; the local private school has tested her and wants to interview her for a subsidised place. Tanzie’s successful and desperate to attend the school, where students can walk around reading without getting beaten up, but Jess needs to find two thousand pounds to pay for the first year. Marty refuses to help.  In what could have been an oh-so-predictable plot twist, Tanzie’s maths teacher telephones Jess to tell her about a Maths Olympiad that Tanzie is eligible for. The prizes are £500, £1000 and £5000. However, it’s in Scotland. Despite the resources it will take them to get to there, Jess starts putting a plan together.

But The One Plus One isn’t just Jess’ story. It’s also Ed Nicholls’. Ed’s story begins with him being suspended from his own company, by his partner Ronan, while the Financial Services Authority search his office. After his actress wife, Lara, left him, Ed had hooked up with Deanna Lewis, a woman both Ed and Ronan had fancied at college. However, she turned out to be exactly not what Ed needed six months after his wife left him and in a bid to get rid of her – she’d love to travel but can’t afford it – he tells her to buy some shares in his company as they’ve got something new about to be released. Deanna tells her brother, they make some money and Ed gets himself arrested. There is one thing Ed doesn’t need to worry about though:

He told [Deanna] of the day they’d gone public, when he had sat on the edge of his bath watching the share price go up and up…
‘You’re that wealthy?’
‘I do okay.’
‘Define okay.’
He was aware that he was this close to sounding like a dick. ‘Well…I was doing better until I got divorced, obviously…I do okay. You know, I’m not really interested in the money.’

Spoken just like someone who doesn’t need to think about it.

It’s not difficult to work out that somehow Moyes is going to bring Jess and Ed together – they’re exactly what each other needs, right? In the hands of a less experienced writer, this could have been forced and difficult to believe but Moyes allows the story to unravel in its own time. It’s helped by Jess’ absolute determination that she will look after her kids and do everything she can to get Tanzie to Scotland and Ed’s sister, Gemma, who seems to be almost constantly berating him for being a useless brother and son. Despite everything, Ed doesn’t want people to think he’s an arsehole, cue a road trip from Southampton to Scotland featuring Ed, Jess, Nicky, Tanzie and Norman, their enormous, slobbering dog.

The One Plus One is a mature piece of work. It looks at the current state of the UK – the poor get poorer with little hope of escape while the rich get richer without curtailment – and wonders what if? What if someone from either side of the fence was allowed to look at each other’s life, what would they see? What would they think? How would they behave? And what’s really great about Moyes’ characterisation is Jess and Ed aren’t stereotypes; she allows neither of them to be entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nor does she judge either of them for their choices.

I thoroughly enjoyed The One Plus One and I think it’s Moyes’ best book yet.


Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

The Dead Wife’s Handbook – Hannah Beckerman + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

I didn’t mean to die so young. I don’t suppose anyone does. I don’t suppose many people would willingly fail to reach their thirty-seventh birthday or their eighth wedding anniversary or see out their daughter’s seventh year on the planet. I suspect there aren’t that many people who would voluntarily relinquish all that, given the choice.

Rachel has been dead a year. At the end of an evening out with her husband, Max, she collapsed and died of heart failure, a pre-existing condition they were unaware of. Now Rachel’s stuck somewhere, a void; a place in which is completely alone; a place she describes as ‘Just whiteness spreading out into the infinite beyond…’. Her only respite is when the whiteness clears and she’s allowed a front-row seat to watch the lives of her loved ones.

Max, unsurprisingly, is struggling to cope but when, at the beginning of the novel, he meets up with Harriet, Rachel’s best friend, she declares, ‘You’re like the poster boy for single fatherhood’. Before their catch-up is over, Harriet’s suggesting Max sign-up to a dating website and start meeting some new friends.

‘You’d only have to tick the friendship box for now.’

For now? What’s Harriet playing at? Isn’t she supposed to be my best friend? Why she’s encouraging my husband to think about a time when he might be ticking anything other than the friendship box? If this is her idea of providing emotional support, I think both Max and I can survive without it.

But, of course, Rachel can only watch as Harriet makes a suggestion that, for all his protesting, eventually Max will act on.

DWH cover 1.12.13

And that’s not all Rachel has to watch, there’s also Ella, aged seven, unable to comprehend her mother’s death.

‘Why did my mummy die and other mummies don’t die?…Georgia at school says mummies don’t die if you’re good because God only punishes bad people. Did Mummy die ‘cos I did something bad?’

Teary yet?

The novel follows the structure of the seven stages of grief, stages that Max and Ella have to go through on earth but also stages that Rachel mirrors as she watches them, Harriet, her mother and parents-in-law come to terms with her death and then structure lives in which she is a presence as opposed to present. There are some excellent set pieces that show the tensions between various family members; watch out particularly for Ella’s birthday party, it’s excruciating to picture it as it plays out.

I enjoyed the perspective Beckerman chose to take for The Dead Wife’s Handbook. It was interesting to see it narrated from the dead person’s point of view and made the book all the more heartbreaking, watching a wife and mother unable to comfort her husband and daughter. However, the framing device which controlled when and where Rachel could see Max and Ella sometimes drew attention to the mechanics of the tale. On occasion, Rachel’s comments about when the mist had reappeared highlighted just how convenient a moment it was and although this didn’t spoil the book for me, it did take me out of the story for a moment and led me to think about the writer at work.

The Dead Wife’s Handbook is an emotional read from an unusual perspective. Make sure you have a box of tissues to hand.

Thanks to Penguin and the lovely Hannah Beckerman, I have a signed copy of The Dead Wife’s Handbook to giveaway. To win, simply leave a comment below before 12pm, Sunday 16th February. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time. International entries welcome.

Edit: Giveaway winner

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Pooja Shah
2 – Cath Martin
3 – Jennifer Wallace
4 – Annecdotist
5 – outonthefringes
6 – Claire Thinking
7 – Suzy
8 – Rebecca Foster
9 – Nick
10 – theabhishekkr
11 – Martha
12 – bookboodle
13 – cleopatralovesbooks
14 – Sheila
15 – Ann
16 – Danielle Forrest
17 – Kiri Mills
18 – Katy T

And the random number generator says:

Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 12.12.19


Congratulations, cleopatralovesbooks, there’s an email on its way to you. Thank you to everyone who entered.

How would you like to be remembered?

On Thursday, one of my Ones to Read in 2014 is published – Hannah Beckerman’s The Dead Wife’s Handbook. To celebrate it’s publication, Hannah asked people who’d already read the book to get involved in a little project. Here’s the result:

‘Today is my death anniversary. A year ago today I was still alive.’

Rachel, Max and their daughter Ellie had the perfect life – until the night Rachel’s heart stopped beating.

Now Max and Ellie are doing their best to adapt to life without Rachel, and just as her family can’t forget her, Rachel can’t quite let go of them either. Caught in a place between worlds, Rachel watches helplessly as she begins to fade from their lives. And when Max is persuaded by family and friends to start dating again, Rachel starts to understand that dying was just the beginning of her problems.

As Rachel grieves for the life she’s lost and the life she’ll never lead, she learns that sometimes the thing that breaks your heart might be the very thing you hope for.

DWH cover 1.12.13

Come back on Thursday for a full review and the chance to win a signed copy of the book. (If you click on the cover, it’ll take you to the website that shall not be named, if you want to pre-order and guarantee it’ll be your weekend read. I’m not on commission, honest, I just think it’s a good book.)

In the mean time, you can find out more on Hannah’s website:, where she has an excellent blog. Or follow her on Twitter: @hannahbeckerman (she’s very chatty, you’ll like her!)