Book review: Small Pleasures

Image of Small Pleasures - a book by Clare Chambers
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – such a beautiful cover!

This book has been on my radar for some time, but when I listened to the author speaking on Francesca Steele’s podcast, I bumped it to the top of the TBR pile.

Small Pleasures is the story of Joan Swinney, a journalist investigating a claim of immaculate conception in 1950s London.

Joan’s existence consists of ‘small pleasures’ – she cares for her mother, tends her garden and writes tips for the local paper.

All that changes when she meets Gretchen Tilbury, who contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth.

As Jean investigates, she becomes entangled with the Tilbury family – Gretchen, her husband, Howard, and Margaret, the child at the centre of the controversy.

Small Pleasures is a slow burn – it’s beautifully written, tender and understated, with plenty of period detail and shrewd observations. It isn’t difficult to see why it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

I was drawn to Jean’s character – she’s a pragmatic, down-to-earth type who perhaps finds it difficult to consider her own needs. The relationships in the novel are well drawn and moving, and whilst I saw the ending coming, it still packed a substantial emotional punch.

Lastly, I noticed that this book was featured amongst the “Most read of LGBT” on Goodreads. I’d struggle to describe it as a sapphic book – there are sapphic characters, but it’s not a big part of the plot.

Overall, a great read if you like a slow burn that examines the complexities of relationships and the possibility of a second chance at happiness.

Book review: In at the Deep End

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

Julia has been celibate for three years and when the dry spell breaks, it isn’t anything to write home about, to put it mildly. And it isn’t just her sex life that’s lacking. No longer able to pursue her dream of dancing professionally, she’s stuck in a dead-end job. When she meets Sam, Julia is in at the deep end as a new lesbian – introduced to a world of gay bars, BDSM and polyamory.

I read somewhere that Kate Davies set out to write a version of ‘Girls’ for lesbians, and I think she’s realised her goal. Julia’s voice is unique, warm, hilarious and utterly relatable. Whilst the sex, drugs and parties are all plentiful and no holds barred, the voyage of self-discovery in this novel goes far beyond sex and sexuality. It’s a nuanced and at times heart-rending exploration of the intensity of first loves, coercion, guilt and jealousy.

The changes in Julia’s life touch every corner of it – from her relationships with her family to her job, her past and her ambitions for the future. We see a woman not only getting to grips with a new understanding of her sexuality, but settling into a life which is altogether changing shape to meet the person she is becoming.

This book is as frank, filthy and funny as billed and I read it in a couple of days flat. An abundance of laugh-out-loud moments, a rounded cast of characters and a tangled central relationship is a winning combination that kept me coming back for more.

Book review: That Green Eyed Girl

Book cover: That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan
That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan

It’s 1955 in New York and school teachers, Dovie and Gillian, live together in a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Out of necessity, their private life has always been a closely-guarded secret… until now.

Twenty years on, young Ava Winters lives in the same apartment, struggling to cope with her mother’s deteriorating mental health, without much help from her absent father.

One morning, Ava’s mother disappears and Ava receives a parcel. It contains, amongst other things, a photo of a woman with the word ‘LIAR’ scribbled across her face.

In a bid to escape from her own difficulties, Ava tries to track down the apartment’s former occupants in a bid to discover what happened.

This book was beautifully written, gripping and immersive – I think I devoured it in two or three sittings, which is no mean feat when you have small children.

I loved spending time in Gillian and Dovie’s world. The characters were immensely relatable across time and geography and the historical setting was well realised, from smoky jazz clubs of 50s New York to a quiet Parisian apartment.

At risk of spoilers, I feel obliged to point out that this book couldn’t be categorised as a romance. It had a Hardy-esque inevitability of tragedy, with a happier outcome close enough to touch, but constantly slipping from reach. The two women’s happiness at the beginning feels like a vignette with something heavy already creeping around the edges, and the book is taut with tension throughout.

It’s really exciting to see a f/f book in the mainstream, and as a major title for Michael Joseph this year. Long may this trend continue!

Book review: Tell Me Everything

Book: Tell Me Everything by Laura Kay

I’m a big fan of Laura Kay’s writing. I really enjoyed her first book, ‘The Split’ and liked this latest one even more.

 ‘Tell Me Everything’ is a sapphic story set in Brighton. I hesitate to call it a rom-com, because it treats so much more than the romance.

Natasha is a therapist – but despite how it may appear to her clients, she doesn’t have her life together. She’s still living with her ex, Georgia, and it’s beginning to get messy. Then she meets the free-spirited, capricious Margot, who makes her question where she’s going in life and what she’s looking for.

She is surrounded by family (her twin sister, Natalie and friend, Charlie are great cameos) but troubled by issues from her past that she’s never fully addressed. When Natasha’s friends take her on holiday to the States, she has the chance to heal old wounds and discover what’s important to her.

What I loved most about this book? First, I didn’t know who was going to end up winning Natasha’s heart, and really enjoyed that unpredictability. And second, Natasha is an adorable character who doesn’t realise how lovable she is. Conveying that whilst maintaining a single viewpoint (Natasha’s) is no mean feat, and from a writerly perspective, I was taking notes!

This novel has Kay’s trademark blend of comedy, lump-in-throat moments and plenty of tension. There’s so much warmth in the writing. Kay is gifted at creating characters you just want to spend time with, and in writing f/f fiction that’s upbeat but not fluffy, moving but never maudlin. Bring on the next book!*

My thanks to Laura, Quercus and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

*Ooh… Wild Things by Laura Kay is out next year and you can preorder here.

Book review: So Happy For You

When I started this book, I thought we were in romance territory and that I knew exactly where it was heading. Wrong on both counts!

The exciting thing about So Happy For You is that it’s lesfic that gets to be something else – part thriller, part dystopia, perhaps. I’ve seen some apt comparisons to Black Mirror.

The book is set in a misogynistic near future in the US, where the government incentivises marriage and severely limits abortion. (So far, so real.) Women are ‘leftovers’ in their late 20s and ‘rotten’ by their 30s. Then there are the ‘wedding charms’, the weird hazing-esque rituals that brides undertake to ensure the success of their wedding, and future fertility.

Robin, the main character, doesn’t buy into any of this – in fact, she roundly rejects the institution of marriage and is happy with her partner, Aimee. But Ellie, Robin’s best friend since childhood, is getting married, and she wants Robin to be her maid of honour. Robin is torn between her principles and her loyalty to Ellie.

As the wedding approaches, Ellie’s behaviour becomes bizarre, to say the least. The book gets dark quickly, and the second half is a weird, wild rollercoaster that kept me hooked. I honestly didn’t know what was coming next.

I really liked Robin, though she’s probably a ‘Marmite’ character. She’s witty, with a dry sense of humour, and a vulnerability which manifests as cynicism. Her ‘coming out’ story is addressed in the novel, but it’s not central to the plot. I really warmed to her and found myself rooting for her throughout.

This was a rip-roaring book that manages to do humour, satire, gut-wrench and edge-of-the-seat thriller… sometimes all in the space of a few pages. It’s refreshing to see lesbian fiction that’s permitted to be outside-the-box and genre-bending. I’m definitely off in search of more Celia Laskey.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC in return for an honest review.

Book review: She Gets The Girl

An uplifting, slow-burn YA f/f romance perfect for summer.

She Gets The Girl paperback against a wooden backdrop surrounded by pink and white flowers.
She Gets The Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

I don’t usually read rom-com or YA, but I’d heard Rachael Lippincott’s name a few times and decided to check this one out. Lippincott wrote this one with her wife, Alyson Derrick. I’m always intrigued by the process of two writers working together, and especially a wife-and-wife team!

She Gets The Girl features two girls meeting in their first year of college.

Alex is an independent, confident and flirty girl who wants to show her on-again-off-again girlfriend, Natalie, that she’s capable of commitment. But she has some stuff to figure out first, and some distance from Natalie – literal and figurative – might be exactly what she needs to do that.

Molly is painfully introverted and socially awkward. She is close to her family – her mom is her best friend – and can’t pluck up the courage to speak to her high school crush, Cora.

When the girls end up on the same college campus and Alex learns of Molly’s infatuation, she decides to help Molly get her girl, in an attempt to show Natalie that she can form meaningful connections without a vested interest. Alex convinces Molly to follow her five-step plan. Only problem is, she’s making it up as she goes along.

The natural relationship that evolves between the two main characters enables each to face and fight their demons in a story that is by turns hilarious, angsty and heartbreaking. The dialogue is full of banter, dry humour and plenty that’s left unsaid.

Whilst the book does feature darker topics – alcoholism and racism, to name but a few – the characters’ backstories are woven into the story in a way that was impactful without being heavy-handed.

The slow-burn, hate-to-love romance was well-paced, and the dual narrative worked beautifully. Each character has a distinct voice and seeing the same situation from their very different perspectives is a great source of humour in the book.

The outcome isn’t a surprise (the clue’s in the title) but this is a book you read for the journey, rather than the destination.

This is a light, uplifting book – the perfect addition to your sun lounger this summer.

Book review: Yours Cheerfully

This moving yet laugh-out-loud wartime sequel to Dear Mrs Bird is the tonic we need this year.

Having devoured Dear Mrs Bird in a single sitting, I was over the moon to be given the opportunity to review the sequel, Yours Cheerfully, and even more delighted that it proved such a worthy successor.

It’s 1941 and Emmeline “Emmy” Lake, a journalist at Woman’s Friend has moved on from the agony aunt pages to tackle wartime advice. With her boyfriend, Charles, fighting on the front line and her best friend, Bunty, injured and having lost her fiancé in the Blitz, Emmy is determined to do her bit.

When the Ministry of Information asks for help from women’s magazines to recruit women workers to the war effort, Emmy sees a chance to make a real difference and further her career in the process. But the truth is more complex than she first imagines and Emmy soon finds herself embroiled in a much larger political issue that touches the lives of her friends and leads her to some difficult decisions.

AJ Pearce delivers in every respect. The writing has that same quality that has you laughing out loud one moment and then all but moved to tears the next. It was wonderful to be back in Emmy’s world and to see the development in her relationships at work and at home. As before, Pearce brings the period to life, with research that is clearly thorough but never heavygoing, and a narrative that is warm and uplifting, but not twee or sugar-coated.

Comparisons to Call the Midwife are apt, because, like the series, the book manages to be an absolute tonic, whilst covering the hard-hitting issues of the day. In this case, the issues are still our issues now – namely the struggle for many women in balancing work and childcare (where there are no workplace provisions for the latter) and the inbuilt discrimination against women at work to which many are wilfully blind.

I loved this book and will definitely be shouting about it to anyone who’ll listen!

Thank you to AJ Pearce, Pan Macmillan, and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Watching from the Dark

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Readers of the Richard & Judy book club pick, ‘She Lies in Wait’, have come to expect a fast pace, intricate, meticulous plotting and nuanced, compelling characters from Gytha Lodge. The second in the DCI Jonah Sheens series, ‘Watching from the Dark’ certainly does not disappoint.

Aidan Poole logs on to Skype to chat to his girlfriend, Zoe Swardadine. But he doesn’t expect to see a stranger enter her flat. To hear a desperate struggle and then a dreadful silence. Aidan is desperate to find out what has become of Zoe, so why is he hesitant to contact the police?

The book switches deftly between the present-day investigation and the run-up to Zoe’s murder, as well as furthering the stories of Jonah’s likeable team – not least the magnetic Lightman and the vulnerable but smart Hanson.

It’s ideal for the hardened thriller reader, with twists and tangles aplenty to keep you guessing and a complex cast of characters, each with their own secrets to hide.

With thanks to Gytha Lodge and publishers, Michael Joseph, for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: All in Her Head

All in her head

At first glance, Alison has a simple life. She works in a library and returns to her tranquil flat. But something is very wrong. Alison believes that her husband, Jack, is stalking her, leaving messages in her flat and tracking her down at the library. What did he do and why did he leave? And who is the woman who keeps talking to Alison in the cafeteria? Where does Alison remember her from, and how is she involved with Jack?

I have followed Nikki’s journey to publication with interest, and have heard a lot about this book, but happily not enough to have anticipated the ending.

It’s everything you want from a psychological thriller: it’s cleverly plotted, engaging and creates tension and an atmosphere of foreboding right from the outset. What’s more, it has an incredible twist that pulls the rug from under your feet and sends the story hurtling in a new direction, towards a satisfying and heart-warming conclusion. Like all the best twists, the clues are there on reflection, but the answer is well-hidden until the big reveal. I’m willing to bet not many readers will see it coming.

Nikki demonstrates her mastery of both characterisation and plotting in her debut. She weaves the story together from Jack’s perspective as well as Alison’s, and both characters are well-rounded and sympathetic but also compelling and complex.

It’s difficult to maintain so much mystery whilst giving the reader enough to keep track of what’s going on, but Nikki’s handling of the narrative makes it look easy and keeps the pages turning.

Don’t miss this incredible book – and keep an eye out for Nikki Smith in future!

With thanks to Nikki Smith, publishers Orion and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Missing Pieces

Missing Pieces-Laura Pearson.jpg

What if the one thing that kept you together was breaking you apart?

Exploring family and love, grief and guilt, Missing Pieces follows two generations of the Sadler family, who are torn apart by the tragic death of a child. Grieving for her daughter, Linda becomes distanced from her husband, Tom, elder daughter, Esme, and even from her unborn baby. The second half of the book, set twenty-five years later, follows that baby, Bea, as she navigates not only the challenges of her family’s past, but also difficult questions about her own future.

So, it’s a book of two halves. In the first, everything slides off the rails and nothing is airbrushed. The repercussions of Phoebe’s death – and Linda’s anger at the injustice of it – is palpable from her clandestine drinking, to the breakdown of her relationships with the rest of her family. In the second, those old scars are very much present, but the unravelling of the past brings some kind of healing.

Missing Pieces is not a noisy, showy book. The tone suits the subject matter – it’s eloquent and raw, unassuming and unflinching. There is no schmaltz or melodrama – the author remains true to the characters and the threads of their relationships are woven realistically and sensitively throughout the story.

The characters’ attempts to scrabble together the ‘Missing Pieces’ are realistic and human – there is no tying everything neatly with a bow, no attempt to paper over the cracks. This is what makes the book beautiful – melancholy and thoughtful, without being bleak. Devastating and yet hopeful. Intense without being overwhelming. And compelling reading.

I follow Laura Pearson on Twitter and was inspired by her personal story and the challenges she overcame to write her debut, Missing Pieces. I certainly look forward to reading more from Laura.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read Missing Pieces in exchange for an honest review. You can purchase your copy here.

Image reproduced with permission. Design by Heike Schuessler: @heikeschuessler