Book Lists for All Humans #3


Today’s list comes in reaction to this list on Publishers Weekly: The 10 Funniest Books, only two of which are written but women and none by writers of colour. Note to us all: only  white men are funny.

Or not. I’m struggling a little with this one as funny isn’t my go-to so please add your suggestions, especially books by women of colour from beyond the UK and USA.

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth
friends, booze, debauchery

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day – Pearl Cleage
HIV, religion, love

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe
nannying, working class nanny meets the literati

Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? – Mindy Kaling

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans
war, evacuees, survival

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
homosexuality, London, family, Caribbean

The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips
quests, feminism, sexuality

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – Yi Shun Lai
dating, mothers, following your dreams

Yes, Please – Amy Poehler
memoir, feminism

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
hijabs, dating, writing

Links are to my reviews

Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2)

As promised yesterday when I posted my Books of the Year (Part One) – those published pre-2014, here’s part two with those published this year.

There are two things I dislike about doing this sort of post; the first is I’m very aware of the books that people I trust rate highly and I haven’t got to yet – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation; Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; Ali Smith’s How to be both, and Suri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World are all high on my TBR. And then there are the books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut because I want to highlight those books that didn’t garner as much attention as I think they should have. Honourable mentions therefore to The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh; The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here they are then, the books published this year that entertained me the most, made me laugh (to the point of tears sometimes), cry, gasp and look on in wonder and admiration at the writer’s skill. The books I want to thrust into your hands and say ‘Read this!’. (Click on the titles for the original reviews.)


House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

A coup d’état on a island that might be Trinidad and Tobago. A bookish man named Ashes who gets caught up in the idea of revolution; a teenager called Breeze who thinks it will lead to a better life for him, and Aspasia Garland, Minster for the Environment and a hostage. A powerful book about power, poverty and leadership. My book of the year.



The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

An unnamed prisoner on death row; an attorney investigating whether a prisoner can be saved on appeal; the fallen priest; the prison warden; a guard; a white haired boy. Abuse, control, freedom. Who’s good and who’s bad. Breathtaking prose. I have no idea why this book isn’t being raved about everywhere.



H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

A book that is being raved about everywhere and deservedly so. Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk, Mabel, following her father’s sudden death, using her own experience to reflect upon that of T. H. White. Beautiful prose and an absorbing story.


The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in Wang Jun’s taxi. Letters that say they’re from a soulmate he’s had for over a thousand years, a soulmate who will take us on a journey through China’s history and lead Wang Jun to question his family and his friendship. A bizarre omission from the Booker Prize list, I have high hopes of this being on the Bailey’s Prize list.



In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

Interesting voice, interesting structure, interesting themes, heartbreaking story. How Jacob Little goes in search of Solace (a woman he lived with and loved at university but he’s also searching for inner peace). It’s clever and thoughtful but also a good story. Longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize but I’ve seen very little about it elsewhere, another one I’m hoping to see on the Bailey’s Prize list.



Academy Street – Mary Costello

The story of Tess, from being a young girl in a big house in Ireland when her mother dies, through the rest of her life in New York as a nurse. A small life, quietly told in beautiful, considered prose. Heartbreaking.





Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Laura and Tyler are best friends, flatmates and drinking buddies, but Laura’s getting married to Jim who’s just gone teetotal and Tyler’s not happy about the changes afoot. There’s always time for one last bender though, isn’t there? Absolutely hilarious but with many thought-provoking moments about what it’s like to be a woman in your late 20’s/early 30s railing against society’s expectations.



Thirst – Kerry Hudson

An unlikely love story between Dave, a Bond Street shop security guard and Alena, a Siberian woman, trafficked to the UK and caught stealing shoes. Dave and Alena’s stories are heartbreaking enough but their attempts to forge a relationship through the walls they’ve built up and the cultural differences has moments I found completely devastating.



After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

John Cole, lost in a heatwave, arrives at a house in which the inhabitants are expecting him. He soon realises he’s not their John Cole but stays anyway. There he begins to discover what both he and those around him are capable of. Eerie, disconcerting and unusual.



A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

The story of the Bradley family, a family of Mormons, coming to terms with the death of their youngest member, Issy, from meningitis. We move between the family members – two teenagers, Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob, and parents Ian and Claire as they question their faith and work out how life can go on. Unexpectedly full of humour with great characters.



The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney’s back in Ireland trying to write a follow-up to the best-selling novel that saw her move to New York. Her yoga loving son who hates her is in tow; her artist ex-husband, Ryan, is giving everything he owns away in the name of art, and whose phone calls is she avoiding? Funny, smart and a cracking love interest.



Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

When Mattie starts forgetting things and then disappears, her godson, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans and Vee Sedge. Vee and her son, Donald, are both taking advantage of the outbreak of war in their own ways. Noel ends up drawn into both. A novel about survival with crooked characters you can’t help but fall for. Funny, acutely observed and heartwarming.



Wake – Anna Hope

The return of the unknown soldier to Westminster. The story of three women whose lives have been affected by the war. Hettie, a dancer whose brother, Fred, has PTSD. Evelyn, who lost a fiancé and a finger in the war. She’s also losing her brother who’s returned a different person. Ada, whose son Michael died but who she continues to see on the street. Their stories are connected although they’ll never meet. Devastating.



We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of her family, quite an unusual family and the events that took place when she was sent to stay at her grandparents. Did it happen as she remembers or is she fooling herself? An unusual take on what it means to be a family.




Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The one that converted me to Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a prequel to Gilead and tells the story of his second wife prior to and including their meeting and marrying. It’s about loneliness, not being able to see yourself clearly and fighting the urge to run away. The prose is beautiful and the story is heartbreaking.



2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia. Nine-year-old Madeline’s mother is dead from cancer and her father can’t get out of bed. She’s desperate to sing – at school initially but, better still, at a jazz club. Madeline’s teacher, Sarina, has dinner with her ex-boyfriend to contend with after school ends and Jack Lorca, owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, jazz club, has a relationship with his son which is in need of repair and a police fine that he can’t pay. The day that awaits all three of them is skilfully interwoven in a story that’s equal amounts grit and heartwarming.


Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

‘Hobbies are for people who don’t read books,’ said Noel; it was one of Mattie’s sayings.

Crooked Heart begins with a lengthy prologue in which we are introduced to ten-year-old Noel and his godmother, Mattie.

She was losing words. At first it was quite funny. ‘The box of things,’ Mattie would say, waving her mauve-veined hands vaguely around the kitchen.

‘The box of things for making flames. It’s a song, Noel!

‘The box of things for making flames
I can’t recall their bloody names.’

…After a while, it stopped being funny…Some words would resurface after a few days; others would sink for ever. Noel started writing labels: ‘SHAWL’, ‘WIRELESS’, ‘GAS MASK’, ‘CUTLERY DRAWER’.

Mattie’s Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery come to visit and Geoffrey makes sure the house meets the blackout regulations, him being an air-raid warden. When he asks where Noel might be off to as an evacuee, Mattie says she hasn’t registered him for evacuation:

‘And since when have I ever taken any notice of what the government says?’ asked Mattie.
There was no possible reply to this. She had been gaoled five times as a suffragette; she still had the scars of handcuffs on her wrists.

I could easily quote most of Mattie’s lines here. She’s a wonderful creation who challenges authority and clearly adores her godson. But then her health deteriorates and when she walks out of the house in her dressing gown and galoshes, holding a torch, Noel struggles to find her.

The main part of the book takes us forward in time to Noel being evacuated along with his classmates from Rhyll Street Junior School. On the train journey, out of London, he spends his time writing in a notebook.

‘What’s in the notebook?’
‘Nothing,’ said Noel, again. Roy snatched it and squinted at the rows of symbols.
‘It’s gobbledegook,’ he said.
Noel took it back, quietly satisfied. It was a very simple code called ‘Pigpen’ and he had just written Roy Pursey is the most ignorant and unpleasant boy in Rhyll Street Junior School.

When they arrive in St. Albans, Noel’s left waiting for someone to choose to look after him as we’re introduced to Vee Sedge.

Vee lives above a scrap metal yard, which her 19-year-old son, Donald, is supposed to patrol regularly throughout the night. He lives with her above the yard having been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a leaky valve, at his call-up medical. For the last few months, Donald’s been going on regular day trips. Because he sometime slips her some money the following day, Vee suspects he’s going to the races. Vee’s mother also lives in the flat, she spends her time writing letters to relatives and the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and President Roosevelt.

Vee struggles to make ends meet so when she sees there’s only two evacuees left and one of them’s ‘…the limping creature with the ears’, she remembers that you get paid for taking an evacuee – more if they have a medical condition – and soon Noel is living in the flat too – while Donald patrols, Noel sleeps and while Noel’s at school, Donald sleeps.

Vee is mostly irritated by Noel to begin with but after an incident which ends with her smacking him across the face, her guilt leads her to invite him on her afternoon trip the following day and Noel discovers how she’s really making the rent.

Crooked Heart has three key plot elements: What’s going to happen to Noel? What’s Vee up to? And where’s Donald going? There are numerous twist and turns and more characters to meet along the way but the stories of these three characters are the centre of the book.

Evans is a great writer; the novel appears effortless by which I mean that you barely notice the writing even though it’s clear that the characters are drawn through small details, actions and some wonderful dialogue.

‘That man on the motorcycle,’ she said, crossing the ditch, and waiting for him to follow, ‘is a rates collector, which means he goes round frightening people, nagging at them, saying they’ll go to prison and so on, if they don’t pay money that they don’t have, and it’s a scandal, and he gets paid a good wage by the council for doing it, too, and if you ask me, it’s pure wickedness.’
‘My uncle works for the rates,’ said Noel.
‘Does he? Well…’ she groped around for a mollifying statement. ‘There’s good and bad all over,’ she said lamely. ‘I expect your uncle’s kind to you,’
‘No,’ said Noel. ‘I hate him.’

Crooked Heart is about the lengths people will go to survive, particularly in a war. It’s about love and honour, but not in the ways you might expect. And it’s about family and finding yours where you least expect it. It manages to be heart-warming and funny while tackling dark subjects. I loved it.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow judges Eric and Helen have also reviewed the book. Click on their names for their reviews.

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.